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

Illustration: Julia Chiplis

Late Nights and the Hang

Going soundly to sleep right after an evening performance is easier said than done. Playing music activates the brain and raises the adrenaline. Coming down from that euphoric high can take considerable time. And the lure of the hang, as well as after-hours jam sessions, can keep some musicians awake past their desired sleep schedules.

“Adrenaline and excitement take over to a certain extent, so I can get by with much less sleep when I’m on the road,” Bleckmann says. “There’s just so much fun and excitement from hanging out with people. But that stuff catches up with me when I come back. Then I need about two or three days of just being off, doing nothing, just to replenish resources within my body.”

Bridgewater is more mindful of how she spends her time after performing. She tries to refrain from the hang altogether when she tours. “If I choose to hang somewhere, I have to see someone who is really special to me to forfeit sleep,” she says. “When I tour, sleep becomes my golden therapy. If I do hang, I don’t go to jam sessions because people will want me to sing. I don’t sing except during my shows when I’m touring.”

The hang and late-night jam sessions, however, have played crucial roles in jazz’s evolution. They’re where a lot of musicians, venue owners, concert promoters, and record industry folks meet. And jam sessions have long been a proving ground where musicians test their mettle. “You can’t get rid of creative jam sessions in the world of jazz,” Schwarz-Bart says. “You shouldn’t, because this is how this music is passed on from one generation to the next. Jam sessions are one of the most precious and unique transmissions of excellence in jazz music.”

It’s an unfortunate but unavoidable fact that jazz first drew worldwide attention during the era of Prohibition in the United States (declared exactly 100 years ago), an age of moonshine and the speakeasy. Ever since then, nightclubs filled with booze, cigarettes, and drugs have been an enduring and sometimes romanticized backdrop for the music. Within that hazy historical narrative also resides the idea that some artists need to suffer or enhance their creativity with dangerous substances.

“Needing to smoke or do harmful things to your body for art’s sake is a false notion of what art is,” Bleckmann says. “Having to abuse yourself doesn’t work in the long run. Some singers don’t think their voices are raspy or interesting enough because it supposedly doesn’t have color, so they start smoking. Some of my students would tell me, ‘Well, Billie Holiday smoked.’ I can only say to them, ‘You’re not Billie Holiday! What does that mean? Because someone else abused themselves, you have to do it?’ It comes from a place of insecurity, which is a dangerous place.”

Berklee College of Music’s health and wellness department received donations in 2012 from parents of former students who wanted to see programming and outreach around substance abuse. That money paid in part for artists such as bassists Rocco Prestia of Tower of Power and David Ellefson of Megadeth to visit the college and tell their cautionary tales of addiction. Still, Jeff Klug, associate dean of student health and wellness at Berklee, notes that according to a recent (unpublished) survey conducted in 2015, the school’s students didn’t drink or smoke as much as perceived. “I think it’s important to separate myth from fact,” he says. “We try to balance our efforts to support positive behavior that’s already occurring, and to address some of the behaviors and lifestyles that are not so great.”

“There’s a certain number of students who come here with that mythology about the perception of drug and alcohol usage,” says Leah Driscoll, Berklee College of Music’s director of health and wellness programs. “I think this particular era of students, with the cost of higher education being so expensive, they’re making an investment. So I think there is a better understanding that they need to make the most and best of their timehere. And part of that means taking care of themselves.”

Connections and Disconnections

Another major concern that the Berklee health and wellness department tries to tackle is anxiety. Jazz has always been a competitive endeavor; just look at all the readers’ and critics’ polls ranking instrumentalists, singers, and composers. And that sense of competition has been supercharged in recent years by the rise of social media, which can send anyone into a frenzy of constantly comparing oneself to others—and often leaves one feeling that those others always seem to be faring better. “Anxiety is one of the highest-occurring problems on our campus,” Klug confirms.

“We’re moving in a very self-curated world that needs to be on every social media platform,” Bleckmann observes. “I see a lot of singers and instrumentalists be very concerned about their self-image and how they come across. It’s very self-centered. When anxieties come up like newcomers getting more attention, you need to see that it’s not that important. Newcomers getting more attention is not about you. Just keep doing your thing. And hopefully, you’re enjoying it while you’re doing it. If not, maybe you need to find something else to occupy your time.”

“Mental sustenance is really what separates the professionals from the fair-weather musicians when it comes to longevity in the music,” Schwarz-Bart concludes. “You’ll face rejection and sometimes humiliation on a regular basis. And it doesn’t matter how great you are. This is why you have to get used to not focusing on what’s on somebody else’s plate, because that person’s plate will always look great from where you’re standing. You have to concentrate and do whatever it takes to reconnect to your initial love for music. The second you lose track of why you are doing this, you will fall into the trap of depression and your sense of well-being will fall apart.”

Overdramatic, perhaps? Think back to what Lizz Wright said earlier in this article, about going on social media and finding that she’d suddenly lost all her energy. It’s just one more indication that emotional, occupational, physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual health and wellness do go hand in hand. Take care of one and you help the others; take care of them all and you’ll be in good health.

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.