Is Jazz Good for Your Health?

Booze, cigarettes, and drugs are an enduring part of jazz’s mythology, but a new generation of musicians is embracing wellness in an effort to advance the artform

Dee Dee Bridgewater (support dog not pictured). Photo: Mark Higashino

“When I started my career,” Dee Dee Bridgewater says, “thinking about wellness was not a thing.” Don’t get the award-winning vocalist wrong; she has long understood the importance of sleeping properly, drinking plenty of water, eating well, and not smoking for good health. But the concept of health and wellness and its ties to mental and emotional health didn’t become a conscious part of her life until fairly recently—and when it did, there was a dog involved.

In 2001, Bridgewater’s stepfather died. She became so depressed that she struggled to get out of bed; it was a condition that could have derailed her professional life. Bridgewater’s mother was also depressed, having lost her husband of 33 years, and she went to a doctor, who prescribed her antidepressants. She recommended that her daughter consult a doctor too. Bridgewater recalls never having deep conversations about depression before that episode. She soon began taking antidepressants as well.

“Once I was able to define what my problem was, I knew that I needed to do something in order to continue working and have a livelihood,” Bridgewater says. “I was able to function better. I wasn’t necessarily the clearest while being on antidepressants, but I was able to do my music.”

Bridgewater took antidepressants for 15 years. While they allowed her to work consistently, one of the downsides, she says, was that they turned her into a “yes person” who struggled to define her boundaries. “That was the period of my life in which I worked like a crazy woman, because I didn’t know how to say no,’’ she recalls. “I felt that I had to accept all the gigs that were offered to me. So I lived on the road. And consequently, it was to the detriment of the relationship with my son. I wasn’t as physically present in his life as I wish I’d been.”

Today, the singer is still trying to make amends with her son. She has, however, stopped taking antidepressants. It took her about a year to wean herself off of them. In lieu of medication, her doctor recommended that she get an emotional support dog. She’s had two in the past decade. “My physician at that time told me that he could not put any more bandages in the form of medication on my depression,” Bridgewater says. “He thought that if I traveled with a dog, it would give me an incentive to get up and get out. It would make me socialize, which is exactly what happened.”

Life in Six Dimensions

Studies have shown that being around dogs can teach us mindfulness and that petting dogs can make us more present, almost like a form of meditation. These two things—mindfulness and meditation—are also keystones of health and wellness. But what exactly is wellness? Its definitions are often fluid and highly personal, depending on the individual. The National Wellness Institute defines it, in part, as “multidimensional and holistic, encompassing lifestyle, mental and spiritual well-being, and the environment.” The institute cites six dimensions of wellness: emotional, occupational, physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual. The more mindful we are of how those dimensions intertwine, the better equipped we are to balance them and achieve a more fulfilled life.

“If I’m practicing music on a regular basis, I am actively involved with wellness,” says drummer and composer Allison Miller, exemplifying the occupational dimension. “A perfect day of wellness for me would be waking up, eating a delicious breakfast, working out, practicing music, reading a book, then writing some music—just delving into my creative spirit because that’s where I completely lose myself. I’m not thinking about any of the worries in my life.”

Miller says that health and wellness plays an important role in her career, though she didn’t come to embrace it until her late twenties; before that, she exercised regularly but struggled with substance abuse. It was a period in which she felt that she wasn’t living up to her full potential. “Since I’ve dealt with the substance abuse and continue to deal with it, I’m an exponentially more fulfilled and joyous person,” she says. “I’m able to have commitments and to follow through on having a band for 10 years and substantial friendships and relationships in and outside of my music career.”

More and more, we hear people talking about the need for better wellness practices in our lives. For sure, wellness has blossomed into a global industry: a $4.2 trillion market, according to the 2018 Global Wellness Economy Monitor. And within that market is a plethora of enterprises that include boutique hotels, spas, real estate, and fitness and nutrition.

But access to a lot of this stuff can be costly, sometimes unaffordable, especially if you’re working in the gig economy like many jazz musicians, who may also have to buy their own health insurance. And then there’s the challenge of simply making time for self-care amid a busy schedule of practicing, composing, recording, performing, marketing, and sometimes teaching—a constant juggling act that becomes even tougher to maintain on the road. For jazz musicians, the onus of getting well and staying that way is firmly on them.

John Murph

John Murph is a Washington, D.C.-based music journalist and DJ. He’s written for numerous outlets that include JazzTimes, DownBeat, NPR Jazz, JazzWise, The Root, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic Monthly. He hosts a weekly radio program at Eaton Hotel DC.