Why all that jazz can mean drugs and mental illness

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The Independent Culture

Many outstanding innovators in the world of jazz suffered from psychotic disorders and other mental health problems, adding weight to the theory that artistic brilliance may often be linked to mental instability.

A study of 40 musicians, including the trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and the saxophonist Art Pepper, also found high levels of drug and alcohol abuse and family histories of mental illness.

Dr Geoffrey Wills, a retired clinical psychologist based in Stockport, Greater Manchester, said his work supported past studies showing that high-achieving performers in the arts had above-average levels of mental health problems while managing to produce exceptional work.

He said that in the case of drug dependency, jazz musicians were eight times more likely to suffer than the rest of the population at the time, and mood disorders were four times as common.

Writing in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Dr Wills focused on the classic era of American modern jazz, which spanned 1945 to 1960. He found that out of the 40 musicians studied, four had family histories of psychiatric problems. Pepper's parents had alcohol-related problems, the mother of the saxophonist Stan Getz suffered from depression and the twin brother of the pianist Erroll Garner had severe learning difficulties.

There were also examples of unhappy and unstable childhoods in 17.5 per cent of the sample. Gillespie and the bass player Charles Mingus remembered being beaten by their fathers, and the father of the saxophonist Charlie Parker deserted the family when his son was just 10.

Drug addiction was a big problem among the musicians, with more than half dependent on heroin at some point during their lives. Dr Wills said: "Modern jazz was a revolutionary music that was rejected by the general public, and heroin, like the music, was defiantly anti- establishment."

Davis, Pepper and the pianist Bill Evans all developed an addiction to cocaine. Eleven of the musicians were dependent on alcohol and six abused it at some time in their lives.

Serious psychotic disorders were found in three musicians. The pianist Bud Powell was admitted several times to psychiatric hospitals and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, while Davis suffered paranoid delusions and hallucinations due to a substance-induced psychotic disorder. The trombonist Frank Rosolino shot his two sons, killing one of them, and then killed himself.

Dr Wills found that 28.5 per cent of the subjects suffered from mood disorders, while two experienced anxiety problems. Pepper, for example, had obsessive-compulsive washing rituals and a phobia about the sight of blood and answering the telephone.

Dr Wills said he now hoped to go on to compare mental health problems of jazz musicians in different eras, up to the present day.

"I am not trying to say that all jazz musicians are crazy, but I have highlighted a trend in mental health problems that is comparable to other creative people," he said.

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