Your Brain on Jazz


Frank London, Trumpeter, The Klezmatics, On Mindfulness:

“Jazz improvisation is a combination of deep meditation and complex analytical problem solving — all done in real time. The improviser is confronting an almost mathematical challenge: create melodies that conform structurally, rhythmically, and harmonically to the given composition — simultaneously drawing from one’s inner creativity, from music that one has practiced, and from what the other musicians are playing. The other musicians are themselves listening, improvising, and interacting. It is a fluid system; one is both responding to and provoking the other musicians at every moment. One must be fully focused on a wide array of inputs.

“When I am done giving a concert which has involved such deep concentration, listening, creation, and improvisation, I often have difficulty speaking coherently. Words do not come easily, and thoughts do not translate into language. Whatever part of my brain that I tap into in order to engage in the act of improvisation — is almost opposed to the part of my consciousness that forms language and conversation — on the other hand, like the practice of meditating, the act of improvising has taught me how to be fully aware and in the moment.”

Janice Mautner Markham, Jazz Teacher And Violinist, Mostly Kosher, On Novelty:

“The magic of jazz is the spontaneous nature of the art. When I am teaching and ask the kids to improvise, at first there is often this intellectual and emotional fear — a fear of failing and of the unknown. But, to leap in as a musician and a listener means you can be open to a new experience, and this is such a healthy emotional place to be. I often hear of music and art therapists playing jazz for their patients, and I think this is because there is a new page to turn in each phrase — a new feeling to feel and emotion to experience that is unpredictable. I think ultimately jazz can feed the soul and add to a sense of joy and fearlessness. These are welcome qualities as a musician and a listener.”

Stanley Clarke, Bassist, Return To Forever, On Well-Being:

“I lived in a racist neighborhood. It was a very hard time for me. I was also very shy; I did not know where I fit in or what to do. Still, my mother, who was a semiprofessional opera singer, really inspired me to get into jazz. She made sure that music was there for me, and it really made a difference. As I grew older, I really felt it in my soul.

“I was a habitual practice guy — that was very relaxing. I think if you don’t have an emotional outlet, then you’re taking trips to the psychiatrist and you stay in your room because you have such low self-esteem. Jazz truly gives people the riches. It’s beautiful.”

Katisse Buckingham, Saxophonist, Flutist, And Spoken Word Artist, On Anxiety:

“What I have done is put myself in a profession for which I’m well suited, because the things I am asked to do are extremely difficult and demanding. And it can be stressful. Some of the time, someone you’re playing with is too loud, or rushing or dragging or something. And that’s a distraction. I ‘think’ when all the pistons are not firing in the other players. I’m a perfectionist. I see the smallest details.

“What I try to do is prepare as much as I can. That is what gives me peace of mind. Being prepared relives my anxiety quite a bit.”

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Fall 2017 issue.

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