Health Talk


Kandace Power Graves discusses the new book Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats (University of Mississippi Press, $35) with author Dr. Frederick J. Spencer, professor and associate dean emeritus of the School of Medicine at the Medical College of Virginia.

Q: In this book you say you are setting records straight about the specific causes of death for jazz musicians and indicate many of the reports over the decades have been wrong. Why exactly did you write Jazz and Death?

Dr. Frederick J. Spencer: A lot has been written on the classical musicians and composers, but very little or anything about the corresponding greats in jazz. A lot of the errors have been perpetuated because they are wrong in reference books.

Q: Who is your target audience?

A: Mainly academic jazz personnel. There are a lot of jazz programs in colleges and universities now. It also is of interest to jazz musicians, fans and the general public, because they are interested in the music.

Q: What made you start investigating the accuracy of reported causes of death for jazz personalities?

A: The differences in accounts that I came across. In different reports, there were completely different accounts of the diseases themselves and the cause of death.

Q: What are some of the reasons for the inaccuracies?

A: Reporting in the popular press. If you read someone died of a stroke, for instance, (that's not the whole story). There are different types of lesions and different types of stroke and different causes for them. (One reason for the inaccuracies is the absence of) death certificates. They're not released usually ... and some states prohibit their release unless you get permission from the family or have a legal reason for getting it. A lot (of the problem behind the inaccuracies) was people trying to keep their reputation intact, especially with substance abuse or syphilis.

Q: A common thread through most of the stories is that their lifestyles killed them, notably alcohol. Is this still the case in the jazz world?

A: I don't think so. Certainly the consumption of alcohol diminished after WWII and narcotics became more popular. Several people died from cirrhosis (of the liver) ... but they didn't succumb to diseases directly associated with alcohol. Prior to WWII, the alcohol-related diseases, particularly cirrhosis of the liver, didn't kill a lot of jazz musicians. The heroin, and people contracting hepatitis from contaminated needles, has caused cirrhosis of the liver.

Q: Untreated infections, dental problems, diabetes and, of course, drug abuse all took their toll on jazz musicians. What were the biggest killers?

A: The majority of jazz musicians died from the main causes of death [in the general population]: heart disease, cancer, stroke. But again the use of alcohol did not contribute to their ability to withstand these diseases, but was not the direct cause. But the heroine-related deaths -- John Coltrane's, for instance -- were directly related to the narcotic habit.

Q: Are a lot of the inaccuracies due to the medical and forensic knowledge available at the time or a lack of adequate medical attention for the poor and black? Have things changed much?

A: That's difficult to say. That just reflects the general attitudes of society to taking care of the general public, depending on their ability to pay, which goes along to some extent with racial distribution.

Q: Who is your favorite jazz musician of all time?

A: Jimmy Archey. He was a trombonist. I saw him play in New York City in 1949-50, and he's known as a musician's musician. He was a fascinating man with a staccato-type style.

Q: If you could only get out one message to the jazz community as a doctor, what would it be?

A: Stay away from the things that are bad for you, certainly moderation in alcohol, and no drugs if you can stay away from them. There are a few who did (avoid the bad habits). Dizzy Gillespie is one. He says his wife had a big part in that. Lots of jazz musicians say they reformed when they met their wives. And when it comes to writers, in any future biographies, authors should try to do their best and obtain a death certificate; it will dispel any doubt about what caused the death.


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