Everyone’s heard the term “jazz cigarette” before. It’s a ubiquitous little phrase that, in today’s era, is more comical than anything else. It’s a slang term uttered with a smirk that veils its actual meaning: a joint. The term, coined in the 1920s in jazz clubs and brothels where jazz musicians played, was appropriate in its original use. Jazz artists would use cannabis to bolster their improvisational imaginations and, unlike whiskey or beer, weed allowed them to play long into the night without slowing down.
That’s the simple history of the term. But the more difficult, in-depth history of the jazz cigarette, which is inseparable from jazz music, marijuana, race and the American legal system, is much murkier and harder to swallow. Around the turn of the twentieth century, New Orleans was one of the most popular, festive and debauched U.S. cities. With ports, sailors, tradesmen and music, the city—which had its own profitable red light district—was a favorite among travelers and cavorters. And “jazz cigarettes” were right in the middle of it all.
But with New Orleans’ gallivanting reality came naysayers, of course. Jazz musicians—especially the great ones of the 1920s—were predominantly black. And these black musicians often used marijuana, just as their white counterparts in the clubs and brothels did. Various organizations, caught up in false claims of drug addiction, menacing behavior and outright madness, convinced Americans and those at the top of the government food chain, that marijuana—particularly in the hands of popular, prolific black musicians—was a danger to society.
As a result, swift laws were passed, harsher penalties were cast down, and those who loved jazz cigarettes were in deep danger. But by the mid-1920s, the issue crept outside Louisiana and into the black districts of New York City, specifically Harlem. And as time passed, popularity in jazz cigarettes—and all things marijuana—only increased in nationwide popularity, despite the handful of groups trying to quell its allure. By the 1930s, “reefer songs” and places to smoke called “tea pads” were all the rage among the hip. Weed was beginning to trickle into Europe. Yet all the while, the music culture surrounding cannabis remained under fire.
Nevertheless, jazz, its players and the jazz cigarettes they smoked wouldn’t fold. Instead, more marijuana-related music came out, like Cab Calloway’s “Reefer Man” and Benny Goodman’s “Texas Tea Party.” And, in the end, it’s because of these efforts that the term “jazz cigarette” remains popular to this very day, on the tips of the tongues of happy marijuana users and music listeners alike.