What Jazz Music Can Do for the Brain
"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."
Posted Apr 27, 2014
I just got back from my second trip to the Katy Jazz festival, run by a school district just West of Houston. It was time for a jazz fix. You see, I am a jazz fan, and though not compulsive, I do need to dash occasionally to New Orleans or go to a festival like the one in Katy.
How does one become a jazz fan, particularly somebody like me who doesn't know much about music and who can't stand 200-year-old church music or the new mind-numbing songs in so many "contemporary" services. For Texas students who live in enlightened districts like Katy ISD, jazz appreciation starts as early as middle school in the larger schools that spin off jazz training from their marching and concert bands.
My fanhood began in the summer when I turned 19. After finishing my freshman year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, a fraternity brother talked me into spending the summer in Hollywood, where his family had moved. He steered me around all the clubs and concert venues, and I saw in person jazz icons like Stan Kenton, Cab Calloway, Gerry Mulligan, Louie Belson, Chet Baker, Shelley Mann, and Shorty Rogers. My buddy and I would even spend a whole evening listening to Dave Brubeck and Joe Morello for the price of one beer, which we managed to take three hours to milk.
At first, I thought what I was hearing was just unstructured noise. My buddy explained what was going on, usually opening with the tune's melody line, then improvising on that melody line, and then gracefully finding the way back home to the tune's opening statement. And I didn't need to know musical details to appreciate the rhythms that flowed through my body like honey on a warm biscuit.
I am since learning a lot at the Katy festival where some 12 schools showed off their jazz bands and subsumed combos. The festival also featured sets from eight professional combos. But the really important part is that the student groups are given critiques by professional musicians, many of whom are or have been college music professors. The critiques are miked so the audience can hear. From such instruction I am learning that really big things are happening in the brain's mental biology as one listens to or plays jazz.
First the listening: the most obvious effect is stress reduction. Stress, as I have explained in early posts, is the arch-enemy of memory ability. In my case, I put my West Coast jazz experience to good use in mastering the veterinary curriculum at Auburn. While classmates were beating their brains up trying to learn all the stuff involved in veterinary medicine (more than in human medicine), I spent a lot of my time listening to jazz records. And I still beat all but four classmates in grades.
Listening is also fun, probably less so than playing jazz, but still a lot of fun. In San Antonio, Jim Cullum's band used to be called the "Happy Jazz Band." Think about where jazz came from. It is uniquely an American innovation, beginning as emotional relief for slaves who found comfort in the blues, which eventually spawned jazz in its happier forms. Wholesome fun promotes happiness. Happy brains learn better. They can also often live longer (remember my blog on the long life span of so many stand-up comedians). Think about Preservation Hall in New Orleans. There and elsewhere around the country, many jazz artists are still performing sophisticated music in their 80s.
As for mental biology, a jazz player experiences enormous mental stimulation, Even as a listener, after a concert my untrained brain churns out a continuous stream of improvisation in my mind's ear that can include multiple instruments that I have no idea how to play. A player has to engage the brain in multiple ways that classical musicians do not. First, there are added technical requirements, such as playing blue notes, swinging eighth notes, and unusual time signatures like 12/8 and 5/4 or complex African or Latin rhythms. Then there is the huge challenge of improvisation, which is basically composing on the fly. When improvising, there is a safety net of knowing the proper chord structure and melody, but players have to have a huge musical vocabulary and realize in milliseconds what new notes will fit. They also have to listen hard so they can interact properly with what others in the band are playing. The "call and response" paradigm in jazz is actually musical conversation. I can't think of anything more mentally demanding, especially for youngsters in early stages of learning music. Early middle school is a particularly time-sensitive period for mental development, and I suspect that middle school jazz bands can have disproportionate beneficial effects on brain development.
Learning jazz may be the ultimate in training young minds to think critically and creatively. An earlier blog post after my fist trip to the Katy festival focused on the exceptional teaching skills of jazz band directors. Many teachers protested, saying in essence that anybody can teach good students. Regular teachers get stuck with so many underachievers. Maybe we should consider the possibility that jazz-band students are such high achievers because their jazz training has trained their brains in invaluable learning capacities for hand-eye coordination, the ability to memorize, discipline, patience, critical and creative thinking, high-speed intellectual engagement with the ideas of others, and self-actualization and confidence.
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that mental challenge develops new connections in the brain and with it, new biological capabilities. In jazz, such mental enrichment enhances the ability to memorize, not only directly in terms of having to learn a large musical vocabulary and the rules of jazz, but also in terms of basic mental biology. My new book, Mental Biology, explains some of the basic ideas.