Hearing a tribute the other evening to Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (marking 120 years since he was born and 50 years since he died), I thought I would focus this blog post on jazz and how it can help health and wellbeing. It’s another in my occasional series of posts on different music genres’ impacts, from musicals to ballet and folk.
Jazz has so expanded and grown across the world over the yesrs that many people have explored its wider impacts, and uncovered different positive responses. Just one point however – obviously not everyone responds positively to jazz! Maybe more than most genres, some people find jazz disturbing. But then you can never win ’em all.
Jazz has its roots in pain and struggle: it grew from the blues, which began amidst slaves and former slaves in the USA. Louis Armstrong’s own early years were spent in poverty, and he only learned to play music while detained as a boy for “delinquency”. So it seems to follow that so much jazz expresses a need for freedom and joy.
Serotonin is a relaxing hormone, known to make people feel calm, even serene. Studies have found that hearing jazz music can release serotonin in the brain. I can imagine thar: I remember hearing the sounds of a jazz trumpet drifting through an open window in a city one summer’s day, and a feeling of “all’s well with the world”. So jazz has been found to have a measurable impact in reducing stress and anxiety.
William Klemm Senior, a US professor of neuroscience, has written about jazz’s role in reducing stress, but also about other impacts. He finds jazz to be a form of “mental enrichment” for people, boosting their brains’ “biological capabilities” so that they have improved memory and ability to learn.
Klemm has also written about the impact of playing jazz as well as listening. Jazz’s distinct features, like improvisation, blues notes and unusual time signatures, make jazz playing engage the musician’s brain in different ways to other music, and this can be very positive.
Recovery from stroke is one specific situation where jazz can be helpful. Research has found that listening to music (jazz as well as other) during the 3 months immediately following a stroke can improve memory, focus and concentration, and can also boost mood.
Maybe jazz owes some of its power to the sheer diversity of styles within jazz. The jazz tradition spans so many movements, from early blues, New Orleans jazz and gospel, through dance orchestras, big bands, swing and bebop to neo-bop jazz and the new styles that continue to evolve. Different instruments also impact on different people, as do particular musicians and singers. Gregory Porter, who presented the tribute I heard on BBC Radio 2 (Louis Armstrong Remembered By Gregory Porter, 1 August) highlighted the way Armstrong’s “growling” voice complemented Ella Fitzgerald’s clear, light tone when they sang duets together, as in Summertime from Porgy and Bess.
Known as the first major jazz virtuoso, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong in some way embodies jazz’s enormous power over listeners and players alike, fifty years on from his death.
Does jazz enhance your life? It would be great if you would like to share any thoughts or experiences – or favourite songs or pieces of music – on Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you.