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Body and Soul

Music Therapy and Jazz

Russ Freeman

For many jazz fans, music is good therapy. But for a growing number of health professionals, it’s serious medicine.

More than 5,000 music therapists in the United States enter hospitals, hospices and nursing homes to jam with the elderly, sing with the sick and trade fours with the youngsters. Doctors explain that familiar lyrics are jarring the memories of Alzheimer patients, strains of melody are easing the pain of chronic sufferers and specific rhythms are helping regenerate muscle tissue in physical therapy patients.

But is this legitimate medicine, or just good-hearted entertainment? “We have standards of practice. We have ethics guidelines,” says Al Bumanis of the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), which for the past 50 years, under different titles, has developed and promoted music therapy services worldwide. “It’s not a cure, but it’s a way to get your foot in the door [toward healing].”

Here’s how it works: A team of doctors and nurses submits a referral for a music therapist; the music therapist evaluates the patient and devises a treatment plan based on the patient’s needs. Then, whether it’s Beatles, Chopin, acoustic, electric or a romping rendition of a Rod Stewart nugget, the music assigned for the healing is based on a strict medical guideline that music therapists are trained to follow. This is not just a jam session; it’s strictly regimented science.

Music therapy started in the United States after World War II, when musicians of all types visited veterans hospitals around the country to play for wounded war vets. Since then, 70 colleges and universities have adopted degree programs in music therapy and all music therapists are required to graduate.

At the AMTA’s national conference this year in Pasadena, Calif., singer Maureen McGovern gave a special concert performance in support of music therapy. McGovern, who also has a 20-year relationship with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, explains, “I’ve seen how music can affect a physical change in people in the face of unspeakable difficulty. That’s what music does. It’s life affirming. Why not harness that and do something specific with it?”

McGovern’s sentiment is shared by many in the jazz community, including Pat Martino, Stanley Jordan and Shirley Horn, each of whom has attended AMTA conferences in the past.

Contemporary-jazz musician Russ Freeman just finished a nationwide tour with The Rippingtons in support of music therapy, donating a portion of CD sales from the tour to the AMTA. “We do clinics at children’s hospitals and whatever facilities we can on the road when we have the chance, ” says Freeman. “It’s just very fulfilling spiritually for us.”

Drummer Ed Thigpen attended an AMTA conference in 1997 and attests firmly to the healing powers of percussive instruments. “You’d be surprised. It triggers things. You get an emotional experience that sound triggers. It’s like a steady heart beat, the pulse.”

But is jazz music any more therapeutic than other forms of music, such as classical or nonwestern? Is there perhaps a telling irony behind the names Dr. John and Dr. Billy Taylor?

“You go back to the roots. You go back to the blues,” says Bumanis. “Probably the most therapeutic music out there is straight blues.” Bumanis sees jazz musicians as “experts on improvisation and the human condition.”

Music therapy calls into play many of the same musical devices that inform jazz music: call and response, trading fours, improvisation. Just as when Bessie Smith cries out “I hate to see” and Louis Armstrong responds with a series of wailing trumpet groans in “St. Louis Blues,” a music therapist strums a block chord and an autistic child beats a drum in response. Call and response is nothing new for jazz, but it’s helping music therapists in their effort to heal patients.

“Call and response,” explains Thigpen. “You do what I do. You play a figure; I play it back. I play bip boom bam, bip bip chee-bang, and if you don’t play it back correctly, you’re not listening correctly. You’re either presupposing something’s happening, or you’re somewhere else.”

Jazz history has seen cases of music therapy before. Charlie Parker played in hospital bands as part of his own music therapy during drug rehabilitation when he was on the West Coast; and music helped Bud Powell say what his mouth, and mind, couldn’t.

“Working with Bud Powell was a very interesting situation,” remembers Ed Thigpen. “At that particular time, he wasn’t communicating verbally. Just through the piano. Every now and then, I’d play something and he’d say I like what you’re doing, bang bang on the piano.”

In a time when the audience for jazz is dwindling and the medical community is open to suggestions, a foray into the world of medicine might give a needed shot in the arm to both jazz and medicine. Hospitals are seeing results, musicians are finding work and music audiences are diversifying.

For more information on music therapy, log onto the AMTA Web site,