"Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool" Connects Jim Crow Oppression to Davis' Heroin Addiction

By Jonita Davis 04/17/19

Miles Davis’ heroin addiction and alcoholism are all well known and well documented. However, Nelson frames this period as resulting from Davis’ return to a reality in which he was not wanted but his music was.

Miles Davis in Birth of the Cool. Depression, racism, and heroin addiction
Davis describes his depression as something that sprouted the moment he returned to the racist United States.

The documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool opened up the world of one of the most innovative musicians in American history. In the film, Director Stanley Nelson laid bare all the details of the music man’s life, including the darkness and despair of Davis’s struggle with alcoholism and heroin addiction. It is during this piece of the film, which should have been the low and slow point, that the pieces Nelson offered began to connect. Davis’s heroin addiction was a direct result of the treatment he received as a black man living under Jim Crow laws in 1949.

In the documentary, Nelson offers audiences the French tour where Miles Davis discovered love and existence without the restriction and oppression of Jim Crow America post-WWII. Davis went to France in 1949, touring with the Tadd Dameron group for quite some time. By all accounts—even those outside of Nelson’s documentary—the man became enamored with the country that embraced him for his talent without placing restrictions on him due to his skin color. Here he experienced life without the heavy hand of racism weighing him down.

The freedom of living abroad was buoyed by a romance with a French singer named Juliette Gréco. The couple, despite their racial differences, was able to maintain a public relationship just like other couples in France and much of Europe. The oppressive, dangerously restrictive Jim Crow laws in the U.S. would have made their relationship illegal. American laws and policies in 1949 were enacted to maintain the belief that black people were inferior to their white countrymen.

In Birth of the Cool, the narrator discusses how Davis became “disillusioned” by American racism after spending quite some time away in France. The weight of Jim Crow was enough to send the musician into a depression that he could not recover from. This was compounded by the lull in his musical career because of the waning popularity of bebop and the lack of a fresh new sound from Davis. He was also mulling the loss of the relationship that he would remember well into his later years. Davis told an interviewer that he never married Gréco because he loved her and wanted her to be happy. Their marriage could not exist in the U.S.

The next part of the documentary was a slow plunge into the darkest parts of the musician’s life. Davis’s heroin addiction and alcohol abuse are all well known and well documented. However, Nelson frames this period as resulting from Davis’s return to a reality in which he was not wanted but his music was. Although Nelson never explicitly says so, the racism Davis experienced led to his depression, which sent him into the heroin addiction and alcoholism rabbit hole. Even in the documentary, Davis describes his depression as something that sprouted the moment he returned to the racist United States and followed him through the period of his life where he struggled with addiction.

Studies like “Exploring the Link between Racial Discrimination and Substance Use: What Mediates? What Buffers?” from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology show that not only is there a relationship between racism and mental health issues as a whole, but the link also exists specifically between racism and addiction. The authors write, “Psychologists have known for some time about the pernicious effects that perceived racial discrimination can have on mental health.” The study goes on to dig into the research gathered from this link. They found that “[n]umerous correlational studies have documented relations between self-reports of discriminatory experiences and reports of distress, including anxiety and depression, as well as anger.” All of these elements were likely in place as Davis returned to the U.S. The weight of segregation, sundown laws, lynchings, and other trappings of Jim Crow laws was more than enough to anger and depress any black person at the time.

Substance use promises an escape from pain and Davis needed a way to cope with all these feelings. According to the aforementioned study, “[T]he increased substance use we found was evidence of a coping style that includes use as a means of handling the stress of discrimination.” Davis probably became more angered and frustrated with the racist behavior (especially after returning home to the predominantly white St. Louis suburb his parents lived in). The documentary also described how his musical popularity waned and his personal life was disrupted from the breakup with Gréco. At the time, the musician’s life had all the elements in place to breed the raging heroin addiction that followed.

Fortunately, Davis recovered from his addiction to opioids and alcohol, but it was a lifelong struggle. Nelson depicts as much in the documentary. In fact, racism and substance abuse become a very strong subplot to the documentary that works to educate viewers as much as entertain them. Between the scenes depicting the origins of the famous everchanging Miles Davis sound, Nelson buried important nuggets that should force us to redefine how we view and treat racism and addiction.

Birth of the Cool essentially describes the environment from which Miles Davis’s addiction was created. There are other factors that also affected his addiction, but racism and depression were the primary and most powerful drivers that pushed him toward problematic substance use. Nelson thus lends one more voice to the chorus of stories that illustrate how racism and the oppression of white supremacy is an impetus to substance misuse and addiction. Acknowledging this can help with not only treating addiction in the black community, but also with understanding why racism should be considered a public health concern worthy of more serious attention.

More info on Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool here.

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Jonita Davis is a writer, avid reader, and writing instructor based on the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Her work has appeared in Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction, Redbook, and Romper. Follow her on Twitter at @SurviTeensNtots or check out her website www.jonitadavis.com.