Cover image for Jazz and death : medical profiles of jazz greats
Jazz and death : medical profiles of jazz greats
Spencer, Frederick J.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, [2002]

Physical Description:
xx, 311 pages : illustrations ; cm.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ML385 .S63 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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When a jazz hero dies, rumors, speculation, gossip, and legend can muddle the real cause of death.

In this book, Frederick J. Spencer conducts an inquest on how jazz greats lived and died pursuing their art. Forensics, medical histories, death certificates, and biographies divulge the way many musical virtuosos really died.

An essential reference source, Jazz and Death strives to correct misinformation and set the story straight. Reviewing the medical records of such jazz icons as Scott Joplin, James Reese Europe, Bennie Moten, Tommy Dorsey, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Wardell Gray, and Ronnie Scott, the book spans decades, styles, and causes of death.

Divided into disease categories, it covers such illnesses as ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), which killed Charlie Mingus, and tuberculosis, which caused the deaths of Chick Webb, Charlie Christian, Bubber Miley, Jimmy Blanton, and Fats Navarro. It notes the significance of dental disease in affecting a musician's embouchure and livelihood, as happened with Joe "King" Oliver. A discussion of Art Tatum's visual impairment leads to discoveries in the pathology of what blinded Lennie Tristano.

Heavy drinking, even during Prohibition, was the norm in the clubs of New Orleans and Kansas City and in the ballrooms of Chicago and New York. Too often, the musical scene demanded that those who play jazz be "jazzed."

After World War II, as heroin addiction became the hallmark of revolution, talented bebop artists suffered long absences from the bandstand. Many did jail time, and others succumbed to the ravages of "horse."

With Jazz and Death , the causes behind the great jazz funerals may no longer be misconstrued. Its clinical and morbidly entertaining approach creates an invaluable compendium for jazz fans and scholars alike.

Frederick J. Spencer is a professor and associate dean emeritus of the School of Medicine (Medical College of Virginia) at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine , Journal of the American Medical Association , American Journal of Public Health , and Modern Medicine , among other publications.

Author Notes

Frederick J. Spencer is a professor and associate dean emeritus of the School of Medicine (Medical College of Virginia) at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, American Journal of Public Health, and Modern Medicine, among other publications

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the longest chapters in Spencer's catalogue of the deaths of jazz notables are those headed «Substance Abuse: Drugs,» «Trauma» (including highway and air accidents, and fire), and «Substance Abuse: Alcohol.» Perhaps surprisingly, more pages are concerned with «Eye Disease» than «Homicide.» Eric Dolphy, apparently unaware of the diabetes that an autopsy disclosed, «passed out on stage, went into a coma and died,» age 36. He and John Coltrane (41 at his demise) «were on [a] health food pills and honey» diet that they thought «made them much stronger when they played.» Tommy Dorsey prefigured Jimi Hendrix's exit by suffocating on his vomit when «sleeping pills inhibited the cough reflex that would have cleared his windpipe.» Although «Gerry Mulligan's wife said that he died 'from complications due to a knee infection,'» the real cause was «hepatic (liver) failure, perhaps a result of substance abuse.» And so it goes in this wonderful if morbid resource that innocently confirms Frank Zappa's sardonic jest that jazz isn't dead, it just smells funny. Mike Tribby.

Library Journal Review

In examining figures in the history of jazz from a medical perspective, Spencer (emeritus, Sch. of Medicine, Virginia Commonwealth Univ.) has engaged in a fascinating endeavor. What jazz fan can resist reading more about the heartbreaking complexities of Art Pepper or the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Wardell Gray, for instance? Divided into categories by conditions such as "tuberculosis," "mental illness," and "eye disease," the book goes a long way toward making sense of the ailments, misfortunes, and deaths of jazz musicians. Unfortunately, Spencer moves abruptly between the anecdotal and the clinical, and while he is able to provide an expert opinion regarding actual causes of death and a careful analysis of conflicting reports, the final result is often an informed speculation that still leaves a degree of ambiguity. Also, as with any record of this sort, there are some curious omissions, although many lesser-known figures and incidents are covered throughout. Despite its failings, however, the book is unique and has drawn together much new information that will serve scholars and jazz fans for years to come. Recommended for collections with a demonstrated interest in jazz and jazz studies. Mark Woodhouse, Elmira Coll. Lib., NY Poetry (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Not all jazz musicians die sensational deaths at young ages because of substance abuse or syphilis. Tommy Dorsey died of food poisoning and Fats Waller of influenza. Spencer sets the record straight about the actual causes of death of many famous figures in the jazz pantheon. Divided into categories by disease, his book provides an essential source uses forensics, medical histories, and biographies to expose myths and encourage scholarly study of neglected aspects of jazz history. The musicians Spencer includes represent a broad spectrum of personalities--from internationally known to lesser but still influential. Spencer's research is thorough and his writing style accessible to scholars and curious jazz fans without sacrificing the medical and technical purpose of the work. His reporting is factual, evenhanded, nonjudgmental, and journalistic, successfully avoiding fan magazine infatuation. A comprehensive bibliography cites titles those interested in both the musical and medical aspects of this work will find most beneficial. For libraries supporting jazz studies. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Academic and large public libraries. B. Biggs California State University, San Marcos

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xv
Introduction: Jazz and Medicinep. xvii
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosisp. 3
Cancerp. 4
Cardiovascular Diseasep. 16
Cholerap. 26
Dental Diseasep. 27
Diabetesp. 34
Ear Diseasep. 37
Eye Diseasep. 42
Food Poisoningp. 60
Homicidep. 63
Influenzap. 78
Mental Illnessp. 81
Mumpsp. 93
Physical Handicaps Due to Diseasep. 94
Peritonitisp. 96
Substance Abuse: Alcoholp. 97
Substance Abuse: Drugsp. 122
Suicidep. 158
Syphilisp. 165
Tonsillitisp. 185
Traumap. 198
Tuberculosisp. 226
Viral Diseasep. 242
Afterwordp. 247
Notesp. 257
Bibliographyp. 289
Indexp. 303