5 for Friday: Top 5 Most Frequent Causes of Death for Jazz Musicians Who Died Prematurely

So here’s a morbid topic to start the weekend. I’ve always been fascinated by musicians who died well before their time, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker, or Hank Williams. And jazz has definitely had its share of lives tragically cut short.

In researching the lives of jazz musicians, I compiled a list of 64 well-known jazz musicians who died at the arbitrarily selected age of 51 or younger (selected so I could include Bill Evans and Tony Williams), thinking I’d find many heroin overdoses. (Click here for the complete list.) I was surprised to discover that I was wrong. While heroin use probably played a role in many of these early deaths, actual overdoses seem to be less common than one might expect. Perhaps this is because families sought to hide their loved ones’ substance dependence from the public. Or perhaps, as anecdotal evidence suggests, the purity of heroin was substantially lower in the past. Thus, while users were not immune to addiction, maybe the risk of accidental overdose was lower. But this is just a hypothesis and requires further research.

Of the 64 musicians presently being examined, they ranged in age from 23 to 51, with the average age at the time of their deaths being 39. (I did not calculate months.) So how did so many folks die so young? Following are the top five causes of early deaths, according to information culled from obituaries, various jazz reference volumes, and Wikipedia.

For those keeping score, tuberculosis and car accidents were the cause for 80% of those who died in their 20s. And Bix Beiderbecke (lobar pneumonia) is the only 20-something not on this list. For each cause, I’ve included the names of the musicians, their ages when they died, and their instrument(s).

1. Cancer (8; specific type listed when known)

Serge Chaloff, 33, baritone sax; spine
John Coltrane, 40, tenor/soprano sax; liver
Jimmy Garrison, 42, bass; lung
Ike Quebec, 44, tenor sax; lung
Nat King Cole, 45, piano/vocals; lung
Tadd Dameron, 48, piano/composer
Blue Mitchell, 49, trumpet
Billy Strayhorn, 51, piano/composer/arranger; esophageal

T2. Heart attack (6)

Emily Remler, 32, guitar
Grant Green, 43, guitar
Oliver Nelson, 43, sax/clarinet/composer/arranger
Wes Montgomery, 45, guitar
Vince Guaraldi, 47, piano
Tony Williams, 51, drums

T2. Tuberculosis (6)

Jimmy Blanton, 23, bass
Charlie Christian, 25, guitar
Fats Navarro, 26, trumpet
Bubber Miley, 29, trumpet
Paul Chambers, 33, bass
Bud Powell, 41 piano; malnutrition and alcoholism also named as factors

T2. Kidney disease/failure (6)

Booker Little, 23, trumpet
Ervin Booker, 39, tenor sax
Tina Brooks, 42, tenor sax
Woody Shaw, 44, trumpet; after earlier train accident
Art Tatum, 47, piano
Kenny Dorham, 48, trumpet

5. Car accident (5)

Richie Powell, 24, piano; riding in same car with Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown, 25, trumpet
Scott LaFaro, 25, bass
Doug Watkins, 27, bass
Bob Berg, 51, tenor sax

And a bonus cause…

6. Murdered (4)

Lee Morgan, 33, trumpet; shot to death at Slug’s Saloon by his common-law wife, Helen, whose relationship with the trumpeter is the subject of the outstanding documentary I Called Him Morgan

Jaco Pastorius, 35, electric bass; severely beaten outside a nightclub and fell into a coma; taken off life support 10 days after the beating

Ray Draper, 42, tuba; robbed then shot to death after exiting a bank

Lenny Breau, 43, guitar; strangled to death; case remains unsolved


Can you add any major artists to this list? Catch any mistakes in my research? Let’s hear it in the comments…

3 thoughts on “5 for Friday: Top 5 Most Frequent Causes of Death for Jazz Musicians Who Died Prematurely

  1. There are differing versions of it, but it is likely that he was untreated for diabetes. It’s unclear whether he even knew he had it. I suspect not, because he was doing some sort of weird diet of mostly honey around the time he died! Apparently, he fell into what was later called a diabetic coma, and the doctors in Germany put two and two together: African-American jazz musician…probably just another junkie. And so he didn’t get the treatment/medication he needed to treat his condition. Absolutely a tragic and very possibly a preventable death.


  2. Interesting anailure, AND he was run over by a train not long before that!d important topic, because it reflects the life on the edge lived by jazz musicians. From what I’ve read, the great trumpeter Joe Gordon died in a house fire. Yikes.

    Liked by 1 person

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