Louis Armstrong: Music Heals

“Throughout history,” Dr. Jacek Mostwin of Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions notes, “music has played an important role in healing. The ancient Greeks often played music to restore health to a person whose mental and physical harmony were out of tune.” Louis Armstrong knew and cared a lot about the restorative powers of music. He once sent a wide range of recordings—not only jazz—to the obstetrics division of a New Orleans Hospital to help ease the rhythms of birth. Later, when Louis was a patient at New York’s Beth Israel hospital, he was very impressed with the medical staff and became interested in setting up a program of music therapy for children.

His generosity of spirit was not limited to his music: “I want to start a foundation to give back to people some of the goodness I’ve had from them all of these years,” the trumpeter once said. And so, as part of Armstrong’s living legacy, the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation—powered by Phoebe Jacobs, a longtime friend of Louis and Lucille Armstrong-—established the Louis and Lucille Armstrong Music Therapy Program at Beth Israel Hospital 11 years ago.

The scope of the program—and the continuing research by its staff, headed by Dr. Joanne Loewy, one of the most determined healers I’ve ever known—has influenced hospitals in this country and abroad. Reaching infants, children and families at Beth Israel, as well as outpatients and patients with HIV, Louis’ program has also encompassed the hospital’s renowned Department of Pain Medicine.

Now, Louis’ faith in the healing power of music has expanded with the September opening of the Music & Health Clinic for Musicians and Performing Artists. As far as I know, it is the first such clinic in the world designed particularly for musicians. The announcement of its opening came with a CD of Louis at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival that included “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” That New Orleans saint has never stopped.

In a release on the opening of the clinic there was this mission statement: “Musicians and performing artists have specific medical and health needs related to the unique physical, mental and emotional demands of their profession. Performance can be stifled by overuse injuries; scar tissue from surgical procedures; anxiety; chronic fatigue; focusing difficulties; and various side effects from medication, such as tendon inflammation.”

More specifically with regard to particular instruments, Dr. Loewy points out that wind and brass players have difficulties with facial muscles, hands, wrists and arms that can be treated with music therapy. Also, she adds, “Women musicians are at significant greater risk for playing-related injury, as are players of string instruments. Typically, people don’t think of musicians as subject to injuries, clearly making this an under-recognized health problem.”

Indicating how music therapy works elsewhere in the Louis Armstrong program at Beth Israel, Dr. Loewy points out that “asthma is the leading admitting diagnosis for children in hospitals. So we’re studying the effects of wind playing—on a flute or a horn—in terms of lung volume capacity and quality of life in children and teenagers.” As for musicians, the new clinic, combining traditional medicine with complementary mind-body approaches, has a staff trained—as noted in the clinic’s explanatory literature—“in tonal intervallic synthesis, vibration, stretching and relaxing muscles and joints, and clinical music improvisation.”

Other interventions “such as music-assisted relaxation, guided visualization and stress management deal with the physical symptoms of overuse injuries to alleviate pain, as well as methods that involve conscious and effective control of use.”

Throughout Beth Israel, staff members use music therapy on themselves. The June 5, 2006 issue of U.S. News, Best Health, tells of how doctors and nurses manage their own stress and avoid burnout. The center offers music meditation for oncology nurses—group sessions where nurses sing and listen to live music… “And, every other week, groups of medical residents convene in the center’s music studios to play the drums, progressing from simple to more complex beats and working out their tension along the way.”

Last November, during a music therapy ceremony at Beth Israel, Phoebe Jacobs of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation said: “Music is more important now that we have all these troubles in the world, and here in this country. You don’t have to be in a hospital to benefit from music therapy.” But I expect that those patients—including musicians—who benefit from the remarkable Beth Israel staff agree with what Phoebe Jacobs also said that day: “You may think Louis Armstrong is dead—he’s not. His spirit keeps on infecting us all.”

Readers of JazzTimes, of course, already knew that.

At that ceremony last year, all conversation stopped when suddenly Louis’ spirit resounded from a balcony high up near the ceiling. There stood Jon Faddis, gloriously playing “West End Blues” as if he was channeling Louis. Sitting next to Faddis, as we all looked up in exhilarating wonder, was Clark Terry, who serenaded us and Louis with “What a Wonderful World.”

Louis himself said he wanted to “give back to people some of the goodness I’ve had from them all of these years.” But he’s still giving us a “goodness” beyond measure—adding now the healing power of the music that was his continually reverberating life. (For further information, contact Dr. Joanne Loewy at 212-420-3484 or Jloewy@bethisraelny.org)

Originally published in December 2006

Add a Comment

You need to log in to comment on this article. No account? No problem!