Bop Apocalypse Jazz, Race, the Beats, and Drugs

Review :

Winding through the jazz clubs and teahouses of postwar Manhattan, with side trips to New Orleans, Chicago, and California, Martin Torgoff magnificently ties together the jazz and beat scenes through their shared vices, particularly marijuana. It's an incredibly evocative portrait of two distinct milieus with a great deal of crossover, one inspiring the other both personally and artistically, that also lucidly situates this particular time and place within a greater national, historical context.

Torgoff structures Bop Apocalypse like an epic jazz performance, successively introducing the likes of Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs and then bouncing back and forth among them like soloists trading verses; sometimes their narratives overlap in harmony, other times they simply play similar melodies with their own unique variations, but the cumulative effect is that of a rich tapestry of artists living and working outside the law and pushing themselves -- their bodies and their creation -- to the very edge. As harder drugs, particular heroin, infiltrated the scene, some tipped over, while others, like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, were able to extricate themselves from the grip of addiction.

One of the most affecting stories in Bop Apocalypse , however, is that of Ruby Rosano, an Italian American prostitute who frequented the same straight houses as Holiday and Parker and who had a knack for ending up on the wrong side of town, the law, the mafia, and the needle. That there must be hundreds of untold stories just like hers makes Rosano's that much more poignant.

Torgoff also spends some time unpacking the career of Harry Anslinger, exposing the history of marijuana prohibition and demonstrating the race-based ideology that helped to fuel it. By targeting predominantly black jazz musicians for their perceived licentious, drug-induced moral turpitude, Anslinger set in motion a pattern of draconian drug laws and racial profiling that continues to this day and which does more harm than good, especially to people of color.

Entertaining as well as informative, Bop Apocalypse is one of the best works of nonfiction I've read in a while, combining sociology, biography, pharmacology, and literary criticism into a vivid and enthralling portrait of a scene of midcentury life that coalesced in the New York underground, but which reverberated powerfully across the nation and the globe.


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