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Music

Take Five x Jazz Cabbage: Songs About Cannabis, from Dizzy, Ella, Fats and more

Dizzy Gillespie
William P. Gottlieb
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For this year's 4/20, we've got a Take Five takeover — by Jazz Cabbage, a forthcoming limited-run podcast exploring the cultural intersection of jazz and cannabis. The show will be hosted by WBGO's own Nicole Sweeney and cannabis historian David Bienenstock, who also co-curated and annotated the musical selections below.

Jazz Cabbage is coming soon from WBGO Studios. To ensure that you don't miss an episode, subscribe now.

Fats Waller, "If You're a Viper"

In 1943, stride piano legend Fats Waller volunteered to cut a few tracks for V-Disc — a project spearheaded by the U.S. Army Special Services to provide new, patriotic music to soldiers serving overseas. During World War II, the Army shipped more than 3 million V-discs in waterproof boxes to U.S. service members, who spun them on hand-cranked record players. Waller chose to include among his contributions a cover of this Stuff Smith composition, with an opening line ("Dreamed about a reefer five feet long..") that leaves no doubt that the song's a loving ode to the viper subculture of jazz musicians who revere the cannabis plant. It was also a not-so-subtle dig at Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry Anslinger, who just weeks earlier had publicly vowed to wage all-out war on marijuana smoking jazz musicians. (David Bienenstock)

Machito & His Orchestra, "Tanga"

Cuban-born trumpeter and arranger Mario Bauzá got his start in the orchestra of Cab Calloway, before striking out on his own, as leader of a big band called the Machito Afro-Cubans. Composed in 1943, the group's signature song, "Tanga," is considered the first original American jazz piece arranged en clave, making it in essence the first ever Latin Jazz song. Tanga is a Bantú Congolese word meaning "energy," that's also slang for cannabis. According to legend, during an early rehearsal of the song, a visitor who'd recently visited Africa remarked that the song's seminal blend of jazz arrangements and latin rhythms was like getting high on good weed. And the name stuck. (Bienenstock)

Cab Calloway, "Reefer Man"

In 1933, Paramount Pictures released the WC Fields film International House, a mad-cap comedy that featured popular stage performers of the day squeezed into an absurdist after-thought of a plot full of risqué jokes. The film's clear highlight comes when Cab Calloway and his orchestra perform a rousing rendition of his hit song "Reeferman." A musical interlude that would have been impossible just a year later, when the Motion Picture Association of America began enforcing its notoriously censorious production code. While the song is clearly a loving nod to cannabis culture, it's a pretty impractical guide to finding a weed dealer: "If he said he walks the ocean, any time he takes the notion, then you know you're talkin' to that reefer man / If he trades you dimes for nickels, and calls watermelon's pickles, then you know you're talkin' to that reefer man." (Bienenstock)

Dizzy Gillespie, "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee"

Rumor has it that this song is a nod to cannabis. Written by pianist Mary Lou Williams and arranger Milton Orient in 1949 — and performed here by the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, with vocalist Joe Carroll — it's about a man who meets a princess and her three "ugly" sisters, and when the man makes plans to marry the princess, he finds she has been swapped out for one of the "ugly" sisters. This all happens "in the land of Oo-Bla-Dee" — which, it has been whispered, is actually the "happy place" or good feeling you get after you've consumed cannabis. It's where the man falls in love, gets engaged and heads to the altar but its also where he gets a "bad feeling" and realizes his bride- to-be has been swapped out. He escapes and thankfully find his bride (who is rumored to represent a marijuana joint) and they go off and live happily ever after. (Nicole Sweeney)

Ella Fitzgerald "When I Get Low, I Get High"

Written in 1936 by drummer and bandleader Chick Webb (who was also Ella's legal guardian), this swinging song doesn't mince words. Ella sings about having to sell her fur coat, losing her man and being all alone — and well when those things happen, she turns her frown upside down. Between the rich sound of Webb's Orchestra and the one-of-a-kind pitch and melodic flow of Ella, you almost don't catch the "pun" intended. But this one is a "for sure" nod to cannabis. (Sweeney)