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

Jacques Schwarz-Bart gets in some lifting. (courtesy: Jacques Schwarz-Bart)

Singer/songwriter Lizz Wright keeps herself focused on balancing all of these health concerns. “I’m mindful of what I engage in before I perform,” she explains. “I’m mindful of my intake of social media, which is a very interesting place to lose a lot. It’s like being under some kind of influence. You can be on social media and suddenly realize that you’ve lost all of your energy. In general, I just like to be able to hear myself. Or not even that—I enjoy getting really quiet.”

Wright runs, swims, and practices yoga regularly to keep her body in shape. She also consistently eats well to enhance her artistry. “It’s truly a conversation about energy. I experience music as a physical, anaerobic practice. It takes all of my body to do it,” she says, comparing singing to the athleticism of drumming. “You need a certain amount of energy to keep your tone alive and to stay focused mentally [on] what you’re doing, but also to be strong enough to let go and be caught up in what you’re doing. Even adhering to the structure and melodies of the songs, it takes great energy to do that.”

Vibraphonist Warren Wolf incorporated more cardiovascular exercises into his weight-lifting workouts specifically to improve his stamina during performances. He recalls playing with bassist Christian McBride at the Village Vanguard earlier in his career and being nearly out of breath after a blistering solo. “It was because I didn’t have any wind underneath me,” Wolf explains.

Soon after, his wife—who’s also a fitness advocate—suggested he do more cardio exercises because she noticed that he was slightly overweight for his size,and that he exhibited little endurance. “Once I started learning how to breathe correctly as if I’m playing a wind instrument, it helped a lot in terms of control of the instrument,” he says.

Tenor saxophonist and composer Jacques Schwarz-Bart also prizes cardio for improving his musicianship. “If I have time for only one exercise, I will do that. I will run on the treadmill or elliptical machine,” he says. “I will do anything that’s going to help me with my saxophone playing, my core, my shoulders, and my arms—anything that will support my body and my breathing.”

Audience members can sense if a musician is embracing self-care, according to Wright. “They can hear and feel the quality of your health and state of being by your sound,” she argues. “Highly sensitive people can really hear it. For instance, I can’t watch American Idol because of the levels of anxiety, excitement, and trembling that the singers have. It’s excruciating for me because I have a very intense degree of empathy. Whatever fuel you are burning off, people feel where you’re coming from. It’s possible to distract yourself by being unhealthy and not go deep inside the caves of who you are to find something that will surprise you and the audience. That extra thing happens when we are burning good fuel. So every effort that we can make on these different levels to arrive and be ready and open is important.”

Singer and composer Theo Bleckmann, another avid practitioner of regular physical exercise that includes weight training and cardiovascular routines, is also fond of the fuel metaphor. “Eating is what you put in your body, as if it’s a machine,” he says. “A machine works differently depending upon the fuel. Food influences your body on an immediate level and a long-term level.”

Sleeping Beauty

A crucial element of physical wellness is proper sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends between seven and nine hours of sleep per night for adults between the ages of 26 and 64. Jazz musicians often struggle to get that amount, partly because of the nocturnal nature of their work. There’s also the hustle and bustle of touring—early hotel checkouts, constant travel, jet lag, soundchecks, and more—which can interfere with regular sleep patterns and overall health.

“Some people come up to me and say, ‘Wow, your tour looks fun!’” says alto saxophonist and composer Andrew D’Angelo. “I then turn around and say, ‘Yeah, but we’re also fucking tired.’ Being on the road is stressful. There are some fuck-yous going on, and anger going back and forth, because people are tired and all up in each other’s shit. And nobody’s gotten the nourishment or the time to heal.”

When Schwarz-Bart is home, he tries to get between six and eight hours of daily sleep. While on the road, he switches to a vegetarian diet to get better sleep. “The second I hop on that plane, I’m strictly vegetarian because it’s the only way to minimize the amount of bacteria in my body and to make sure that my metabolism doesn’t have to fight extra hard,” he explains. He also maximizes any opportunity he has to sleep, regardless of place or time. “A lot of my music students tell me that they can’t sleep on a sofa, chair, or a bench. My response is: ‘Get used to it,’” he laughs. “If you close your mind to the possibilities of it happening, then it will not happen.”

Tenor saxophonist and composer Tobias Meinhart says that lack of sleep affects his whole creative spirit. “My sense of well-being goes down,” he avers. “I get depressed and I’m not creative and I can’t practice. So I try to get enough sleep even if I come home late. I try not to schedule anything in the morning.”

To rest better at home, Meinhart tries not to watch television or drink alcohol before going to bed. Sometimes he tries to induce himself into lucid dreams in which he can control the narrative. Afterward, he might write down those dreams. “Not that I dream very often about something related to music, but I find that it helps me train my brain and my connections to creativity,” he says. “The thing about dreaming is that you don’t question anything that’s happening. The most creative thing could be happening and it’s completely normal. I like to think about that when I compose—doing something that isn’t supposed to work in the real world but somehow I make it work.”

When Meinhart travels, like Schwarz-Bart, he gets as much sleep as possible on the plane or bus; he refrains from watching movies during travel time and occasionally takes melatonin. “A big life experience for me is having noise-canceling headphones,” he adds. “They are incredibly helpful, either for the plane or even riding the subway. I become less anxious on the subway when I wear those headphones.”

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.