Was Schizophrenia the Catalyst for the Creation of Jazz Music?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Opinions about origins of jazz music are as many and varied as the different genres of jazz music. According to Wikipedia, there are over 50 genres of jazz music. With origins in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, jazz began in African-American communities and eventually spread around the world, drawing on different musical cultures, thus giving rise to many different jazz genres.

Given the number of influences and styles that went into the creation of jazz music, it is difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint its birth. There is one school of thought, however, that puts the origin of jazz music solidly on a man named Buddy Bolden.

imagesBorn on September 6, 1877 to middle-class parents, Buddy Bolden came of age in a post-civil war New Orleans during what many describe as the city’s cultural renaissance. It is not known how Buddy came to be a musician. Some say he went to the Fish School for Boys, where he would have been taught music in a very regimented way. Others suggest he embraced music at church, a place where music was an integral part of every service. What is known is that he took coronet lessons from a neighbor, a man who was having an affair with Bolden’s mother (Jazz.com).

Image courtesy of nirots at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nirots at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

For eight years, between 1898 and 1906, Bolden, then nicknamed “King,” ruled the black music scene in New Orleans (nps.gov). He was the leader of a band that played the improvised music that would later be called jazz (redhotjazz.com). At his peak in 1905, Bolden, along with his band, performed regularly throughout the city’s parks and dance halls, and even in surrounding towns (pbs.org). But even during the early years, some regular fans of the band noticed something strange about Buddy. When discussing his playing, they frequently used the term “the trance,” saying that while he was playing solos, Bolden appeared to enter a trance-like state, seemingly unaware of his where he was. They said that he appeared to be responding to voices in his head. Often, when he finished one of his lengthy improvised solos, he would nervously look around like he was trying to figure out where he was (lewrockwell.com).

IMG_0731In 1906, Bolden, a known heavy drinker and womanizer, began to deteriorate mentally. That year, while marching in the Labor Day parade, he “stumbled and staggered out of formation, screaming. He was assisted out of the parade route and shocked witnesses claimed he was frothing at the mouth” (lewrockwell.com). In 1907, he attacked family members and was committed to an area mental hospital, where he remained until his death in 1931 (bbc.co.uk).

While hospitalized, Bolden was diagnosed with “dementia praecox,” which was later renamed schizophrenia. Dr. Sean Spence, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Sheffield, thinks that jazz music arose from Bolden’s attempts “to execute novel performances” because he suffered from impaired motor functions due to his mental illness (bbc.co.uk). Spence goes on to note that the onset of schizophrenia usually occurs during young adulthood, and affects the functioning of the brain’s prefrontal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for creativity (lewrockwell.com). Spence goes on to explain that

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

because of his mental illness, Bolden “could not properly read music and had impaired motor function. The only way he could play his cornet was by improvising on the ragtime music popular from the 1890s to the 1920s. His lateral thinking influenced many classically trained bands of his time to play more ‘freewheeling’ music with upbeat tempos, beginning the evolution to modern jazz” (American Psychological Association).

It’s thought-provoking to think that something as wonderful as jazz may have grown out of something as insidious as schizophrenia. Many famous creative people suffered from mental illness, which may have contributed to their creativity. Edgar Allan Poe believed this, and once said, “…the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence – whether much that is glorious does not spring from disease of thought – from moods of minds exalted at the expense of the general intellect” (goodreads.com).


Works Cited

“Bolden, Buddy (Charles).” Jazz.com. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

“Buddy Bolden.” PBS. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

“Buddy Bolden.” The Red Hot Jazz Archive. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

“Charles “Buddy” Bolden.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

“Edgar Allan Poe Quotes.” Goodreads. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.

Jarvis, Gail. “The Founder of Jazz.” LewRockwell.com. 22 Aug. 2009. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

“Jazz.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Nov. 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

“List of Jazz Genres.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Jan. 2014. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

“The Melody behind Mental Illness?” American Psychological Association. N.p., Oct. 2001. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.

“Mental Illness ‘at the Root of Jazz'” BBC News. 07 Oct. 2001. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.

About the author: Mark Combs is a grant writer with Aspire Indiana. The opinions expressed above are strictly those of Mr. Combs. You can follow him on Twitter @MarkCombs1968. Visit him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mark.combs.7186. Visit Aspire Indiana on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AspireIndiana.

This entry was posted in Mental Health, Mental Illness and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Was Schizophrenia the Catalyst for the Creation of Jazz Music?

  1. A timely and articulate piece on a chapter of music and mental illness about which I was unfamiliar. Well done.

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