All Things Saxophone

Last modified 11/10/08


Questions or comments?  Send us an email

Alcohol, Drugs, and Saxophone

Legendary SaxophoneMen like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims represent a diverse sample of the artistic interpretation of jazz, but even with their differences they all did have one thing in common — each of them struggled with alcohol and/or drugs; dying before their time because of it.

I’ve had many conversations on this subject over the years with musicians that were my teachers, classmates, mentors, working peers, and students.  Many times in those conversations the question of the impact substance abuse had on the musicianship of the greats — positive, negative, or both, has come up.  This article will address that controversial question.

There is a school of thought among some in the jazz community that these masters achieved what they did in part because of their use of drugs and alcohol.                   talks about that in his Effortless Mastery newsletters.  Although Kenny is himself a world class master of the piano and has many great things to say about the path to excellence in artistry, I do not agree with the idea that alcohol or drugs can be a catalyst to artistic achievement.  After thirty years on the bandstand, I’m quite certain the opposite is true.

Many times when I have made that statement someone would immediately say “These cats were the best and they even said they played better when they were “high” — how do you explain that?”

The definitive example I can give you comes from an experience myself and many of my peers have had — and likely some of you reading this have too.  Here’s the scenario — you’re on a gig or a jam session that’s really casual so you indulge in substances prior to or during the gig.  You play some choruses and it feels like you’ve never played better in your life!  The evening ends in a foggy bliss — then sometime later you listen to a recording that somebody made (unknown to you) of that event.  You listen to it now with a clear mind and it’s embarrassingly awful!  How can this be when you were so convinced that you were playing so well?  That’s the lure and the LIE of drugs and alcohol — you were only THINKING you played better.  Here’s two rules that come out of an experience like that:

1. NO ONE plays better under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

2. If you think you are playing better using drugs or alcohol, see rule 1.

So, the greats only thought they played better.  When I think of that my heart aches for what they could’ve accomplished if they had experienced freedom from their struggle with substance abuse.  That however was not to be, and it is not my place (nor anyone else’s on this planet) to question the destiny of others.

A word of wisdom for those of you reading this that have never had the experience discussed above — particularly you young people.  DON’T FALL INTO THE TRAP!  You have a purpose in this world and substance abuse will just keep you from fulfilling it.  As my friend                      says, “Each of us is given only so many drink tickets!” — don’t use them up too soon!  My late friend Don Lanphere used to speak fondly of Serge Chaloff saying what a great Bari player he was (and he was!) but that he died young of “everything imaginable”.  What a tragedy!  If you’re struggling or you’re just full of questions, here’s a place where you can find answers.

Life is a gift, a journey, and very much worth living.  Live to the fulfillment that is intended for you.  Laugh, cry, work, play, and most of all, love.  See you on the bandstand.


Kenny Werner

Ernie Watts