Crazy Geniuses: The Mental Illness Epidemic in Jazz Artists

by Olivia Owen

Olivia Owen is a Management Informations Systems major from Yorktown, VA who wrote this essay in Tim Bradford’s Fall 2019 “From Spirituals to Hip-Hop” class.

I am fortunate to have grown up in the jazz community. My godfather and brother played trumpet, and now I play saxophone at the college level in the University of Oklahoma’s jazz band. The jazz community is vibrant, loving, and supportive, but has a deep hidden problem. This problem is undeniable and I have witnessed my mentors, peers, and even myself struggle with it. This problem is an epidemic of mental health issues. Jazz is an art form that pours directly from the soul. Every note from a musician is an expression, every melody is a story, and every song is a lifetime. Jazz musicians have stories to tell and, oftentimes, hidden demons live within those stories. Their solos tell a story, whether the melody is an intimate sonnet from the heart or a trouble-filled tragedy. Many jazz musicians suffer from troubling mental illnesses that often inspire these stories. According to David Derbyshire, “Jazz musicians are four times more likely to suffer from mood swings, anxiety, depression and other mental health problems than non-creative people.” Despite the social blockades and personal troubles it can cause, mental illness contributes uniquely to the greatness of jazz musicians. Although not the sole factor that contributes to artistic excellence, mental illness serves as a musical springboard for creativity as some symptoms of mental illness contribute towards the productivity and traits that are associated with musical greatness.

Discussions about mental health are often avoided because mental illness has always been taboo. People who suffer from mental illness are often too scared to admit they have an illness or do not quite understand it themselves. The light in which we see mental illness also varies, so discussions about mental illness are avoided due to conflicting feelings and ideas. In 2003, Dr. Geoffrey Wills, a British psychiatrist, started the discussion about mental illness in jazz musicians. His paper, “Forty Lives in the Bebop Business: Mental Health in a Group of Eminent Jazz Musicians”, was the first to openly discuss and dig deeper into the mental illness epidemic in jazz musicians. After studying the biographies of over forty prominent jazz musicians, he found a common link of poor mental health running through all of them. His research of this link found that, “Research (see Ludwig, 1995) shows that, with regard to psychopathology in the arts, for substantial numbers the predisposition for mental disorder is established long before they launch their careers. There is also a genetic tendency in their families for mental illness and they show more problems during childhood and adolescence than members of non-artistic professions” (Wills). Essentially, the musical journey of great jazz artists starts long before they pick up the horn. For some, the journey starts with a genetic predisposition to mental illness. Wills connects great African American jazz artists with the mental illnesses they had: Charlie Parker, manic depression and major depressive episodes; Charles Mingus, major depressive disorder, recurrent, superimposed on cyclothymic disorder; Miles Davis, mood disorder associated with sickle cell anemia; and Oscar Pettiford, cyclothymic disorder (Wills). Each one of these outstanding men has contributed greatly to the jazz world and art form through their virtuosity and mastery. Each of these men also experienced some form of mental illness. Their mental illnesses were not a handicap in their performance and mastery, but a springboard for creativity and the driving force in their pursuit of greatness. The unspoken epidemic of mental illness was not just a coincidental occurrence in the jazz greats, but a contributor to their greatness.

Psychological evidence backs up claims that mental illness contributes to the greatness in jazz of musicians. Many jazz musicians suffer from manic depression, which means they are prone to experience manic episodes. The defining characteristics of a manic episode are, “inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, more talkative than usual, ‘flight of ideas’ or the experience of racing thoughts, distractibility or difficulty differentiating between the relevant and irrelevant, increased goal-directed activity (either socially, at work, at school, or sexually), and excessive involvement in pleasurable activities having a high potential for painful consequences” (Schlesinger). These characteristics enhance/can enhance/have been shown to enhance a key component of the jazz idiom, soloing. Jazz soloing is based on improvisation, where the performer/musician quickly makes up the melody on the spot. Chester notes that, “improvisation, an aspect of jazz music, allows the expression of feelings through playing music within certain structural boundaries.” The manic-depressive symptoms of fast ideas and increased goal-directed activity complement and even align with the whole act of improvised soloing. Improvised soloing has to occur within an instant. Your story and melody has to be created without hesitation. When someone is in emotional turmoil, they are often told to find an outlet. Improvised solos served as this outlet because it creates a space where the thoughts and feelings of the soloist flow freely.

The “tortured artist” image has long been a known stereotype in the creative and artistic world, but there is concrete evidence that supports the idea that an artist can benefit from that “torture.” Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatry professor, explored the links of creativity and mental illness in her book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Her findings conclude that this link between creativity and mental illness is not a new occurrence, but that it has been prevalent for ages. She writes that, “In fact, many features of hypomania–such as outgoingness, increased energy, intensified sexuality, increased risk-taking, persuasiveness, self-confidence, and heightened productivity–have been linked with increased achievement and accomplishment” (Jamison). Although Jamison is speaking of all creative artists in general, her claim is prevalent with jazz artists. In the jazz world, all of the characteristics she listed are greatly important. Confidence and productivity excel the mastery of one’s instrument, outgoingness and persuasiveness allow artists to find new stages and bands to play with, and risk-taking is no stranger in the jazz world. All these factors, like increased energy and self- confidence, are aligned with promoting success and accomplishment. In other words, the greatness of an artist. Jamison also writes that:

Two aspects of thinking in particular are pronounced in both creative and hypomanic thought: fluency, rapidity, and flexibility of thought on the one hand, and the ability to combine ideas or categories of thought in order to form new and original connections on the other. The importance of rapid, fluid, and divergent thought in the creative process has been described by most psychologists and writers who have studied human imagination. The increase in the speed of thinking may exert its influence in different ways (Jamison)


When a jazz musician is composing or improvising, they are taking one main theme and adding to the theme to create a whole piece. That theme may start with a chord and then evolves into a progression of chords all working together. Dissonance, augmented chords, and syncopation might be added in as the “spice” of the solo. A soloist must think very carefully and rapidly while playing because you cannot stop the song just so you can think, that would break an unspoken rule of jazz. One single hesitation can change the whole mood and groove of the melody. The “flexibility of thought” and “ability to combine ideas” that Jamison discusses are foundations of jazz itself. Jazz itself features repetitive themes seen across generations of jazz musicians. For example, the melody from Glen Miller’s “In the Mood” is a highly copied rhythm and melodic theme. The beats are arranged into syncopated groups of three. This syncopation and rhythmic style are attributed to the father of bebop drumming, Max Roach, who introduced this rhythmic melody before it was used in “In the Mood” (“What Are The Mathematics of Jazz?”). This arrangement of beats is seen everywhere in jazz and rock. For example, the iconic drum solo from Phil Collin’s “In the Air Tonight” features this exact same theme. The combination of past ideas like the example above is prevalent among artists afflicted with mental illnesses. An artist afflicted with a mental illness already has a predisposition to greatness as the activity produced in their brain by their illness is what is closely aligned with greatness in their own art form. Although non-afflicted individuals can still be great in the art form, jazz musicians with mental illnesses have the upper hand.

Blue people hardly display a shadow of their soul
Hidden behind the panes of glass lies torments of days present and ole
Turn a blind eye we say, turn a blind eye
For we fear the pain that is hidden inside
Our story is told through bars and phrases
Listen to our story, hear our heart
May this lesson never do you part
-Olivia Owen, 2020

The great jazz musician Charlie Parker once said that, “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom” (Parker). Charlie Parker was no stranger to adversity or turmoil. At the age of ten, Charlie Parker’s father left him to be raised by his single mother (Connor). By the age of fourteen, Parker had dropped out of school to pursue music, even though his technical skills were vastly questionable and not on-par to be a professional musician (Yanow). Now, his technical skill is deeply admired and held as somewhat of a gold standard. Because of this, if you were to ask anyone even remotely into jazz who Mr. Charlie Parker is, you would be met by unending praise and admiration. Praise of his fast flying fingers, quick melodies, and unbelievable skill. What is often left out, however, is his constant battle with depression and addiction. Parker did not just dabble in narcotics but was basically reliant on them. His frequent use of heroin was even once thought of as the sole reason why he was a musical genius. This led to many young musicians trying illegal substances to see if getting high would heighten their career (Yanow).

Enter Gillespie. Dizzy Gillespie began playing with Parker in the 1940s. Parker’s career would soar to new heights in the 40s because of their collaboration, even bringing the dynamic due to Los Angeles (Yanow). Parker would remain in Los Angeles longer than Gillespie though. Not because of fame. Not because of fortune. In 1946, Charlie Parker was hospitalized due to a mental breakdown (fueled by withdrawal because he had no access to heroin) and was left in solitary confinement for six months (Yanow). After his release he is said to have created the best work of his life and to have turned himself around, but by 1954 Parker had attempted to take his own life twice and began to drink and use drugs again (Yanow). His downturn in 1954 is due in part to losing his three-year-old daughter and the inability to cope with that substantial loss (Keyes). He would die a year later with an appearance so worn that the coroners wrote that he was 50 or 60 while Parker was actually 34.

As mentioned before, a musician’s playing and soloing can reveal what is on the inside. The original recording of “Lover Man” is a perfect example of this. Within the first few measures, Parker enters solemnly and almost breathlessly. It is almost as if he is speaking softly in short sentences to a friend, full of pain and full of heartbreak. The normal, expected virtuosity is not there. The quick notes flying by that he is known for are slowed down, broken, and drifting. When I showed this song to my friends in the jazz band, they all said things along the lines of, “there is something off” and “are you sure that’s Charlie Parker?” The recording was done in 1946, the same year Parker was hospitalized. In fact, this recording was made days before he was admitted. Musicians in the studio noted that Parker had not eaten or slept in days, was physically weak and ill, was drinking enormous amounts of alcohol, and was simply not himself. After researching more into the piece, I discovered that Parker had to be held up for the later portion of the song because he was too weak to carry on. Despite his physical condition, his soloing is impeccable. The use of theme and variation and heart-tugging melodic lines are ingenious. The amount of dynamic contrast, varied articulation, and response to the backgrounds shows his mastery. A gigging artist now will have catchy melodic lines to be sure, but the mix of musical elements show virtuosity. His mental state greatly influenced the song because the pain in him is something you can clearly hear. His complex thoughts and feelings are displayed through his runs and melodic choices. Without any pain in his heart, there would be a different kind of soul in the song because he would not have the same tumultuous, guiding emotion to shape the song after.

Any jazz song, or any song really, would be lost without a driving bass beat supporting the melody. Bass instruments take many forms, but in the jazz world, the standing bass and bass guitar are king. The bassist Charles Mingus was instrumental to the progression of jazz in the 1950s to 1970s. Mingus was originally trained as a classical bassist in Los Angeles where he perfected his technique (Encyclopedia Britannica). His musical style was greatly influenced by Charlie Parker, his classical studies, and Mexican folk music (Britannica). As he continued to study, his virtuosity and mastery attracted the attention of many touring groups and artists, including Louis Armstrong (Ginell). He toured with Armstrong in 1943 following the jazz scene but was quickly swayed in the 1950s to a more R&B sound. Mingus’ accomplishments and collaborations are vast and numerous, including performing in the historic Massey Hall concert in Toronto with big names such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and his idol, Duke Ellington. In fact, his interactions with Duke Ellington are notably historic; Mingus is noted to be the only person to be personally fired by Ellington (Ginell). His success in the 1950s was accompanied by a small break towards the end of the decade when he voluntarily checked himself into the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital (Chandler). Many sources state that reason was symptoms of a mental disorder, not clarifying the specific disorder, but Wills specified his disorders as major depressive disorder and recurrent, superimposed cyclothymic disorder. After his stint in the hospital he began advocating for economic stability for musicians and fighting against racial injustice (Ginell). He was noted to be so obsessed with hazards of economic stability for musicians that it weighed on his sanity (Ginell). By the 1970s, at the epitome of his popularity, his health was hitting a low. Mingus was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which would leave him wheelchair- ridden and unable to play the bass (Ginell). This would not stop him from continuing to lead bands and recording sessions, as well as collaborate with folk artist Joni Mitchell ,who added lyrics to some of his songs, using his voice for samples in some of the records (Ginell). Charles Mingus died at the age of 57 in Mexico.

Mingus’ time in the psychiatric ward was the inspiration for his 1963 album, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. The album is broken into four tracks and six movements, partially written as a ballet would be. Mingus composed and played bass and piano for this recording, and his doctor from his stint in the psychiatric ward, Dr. Edmund Pollock, wrote some of the liner notes for the album. The first track is entitled “Solo Dancer”. For someone with an undeveloped ear for jazz, this track would sound like utter chaos. Mingus rapidly changes tempo, plays with changing keys rapidly and with little notice, and has deeply conflicting melodic lines. The polyphonic texture of the piece is accompanied by an ever-changing tempo that can startle the listener because they are not expecting such a quick change. Dissonance throughout the piece contributes to the overall theme, the chaos and illness within. When someone is experiencing mental illness, the feelings and emotions are too complex and abstract to be described and seen as “normal”. The polyphony and dissonance accompany that theme as it symbolizes an overactive mind and chaotic thoughts. The second track personally gave me feelings of anxiety. “Duet for Solo Dancers” starts with a misleading melodic line. At first listen, you might think it is beautiful but hidden layers and augmented chords build discord and conflict, symbolizing the subtleties of mental illness hidden behind a beautiful façade. The dynamics build throughout the piece and the finale of the piece builds with tempo. Steadily at first but suddenly rapid, the tempo builds and builds, becoming anxiety-inducing and giving feelings of being helplessly along for the ride. The resolution of this anxiety-filled ride is resolved with the third track, “Group Dances”. This track too has hidden layers, but they become more exposed. Flourishing melodic embellishments on the piano, played by Mingus, display the complexity of his emotions. A flute leads the band in a dancing melodic line that complements Mingus’s deep affection for Mexican folk music. Polyphony returns in this track as the folk music influence is juxtaposed with blues and jazz melodies but concludes with all lines joining in unison. The haunting melody created by the unison effects the listener in a profound way as it symbolizes that the conflicting emotions of a person are indeed from the same mind. The same effect is carried on into the fourth and final track, “Group and Solo Dances”. This track calls backs main themes and melodies from previous tracks to create an emotion filled ending, full of melodic complexities and diverse musical styles. Steven Chandler writes that, “The Black saint & The Sinner Lady’s (is) tumultuousness as well as its genius. There are moments of both clarity and insanity, rigorous composition and inspired improvisation”. No truer words have ever been spoken.

The chaotic and complex nature of the album are the result of musical genius and mental illness. Inspired by his time in the hospital, the album tries to relay emotions that are deeply complex and hard to describe. Mingus himself said that, “there’s all kinds of emotion to play in music, but the one I’m trying to play is very difficult. It’s the truth of what I am. It’s not difficult to play the mechanics of it, but it’s difficult because I’m changing all the time” (Chandler). As mentioned previously, Mingus’ own psychologist contributed to the album as well. Dr. Pollock stated that, “It must be emphasized that Mr. Mingus is not yet complete. He is still in a process of change and personal development. Hopefully the integration in society will keep pace with his. One must continue to expect more surprises from him” (Chandler). Mingus was diagnosed by Pollock with major depressive disorder and cyclothymia, a somewhat milder version of manic depression. The symptoms of manic depression and cyclothymia are almost identical and consist of many overlapping symptoms (Cleveland Clinic). Jamison stated that “fluency, rapidity, and flexibility of thought on the one hand, and the ability to combine ideas or categories of thought in order to form new and original connections on the other” were common for patients afflicted with manic depression. These symptoms can be seen through The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. The album features a deeply polyphonic texture in most tracks, which requires flexibility of the composer to incorporate conflicting melodic lines. Mingus also includes a diverse array of musical styles. He incorporates Mexican folk, blues, jazz, and classical music all into one composition. The symptom of the ability to combine ideas or categories of thought to form a new or original connection complements his combination of diverse styles. This is certainly a combination of musical styles that is completely original as the listener’s ear somewhat rejects it and expects the melody to go in a vastly different way than it actually goes. Mingus’ mental illnesses helped him create this complex track as the state of his mind enhanced its creation.

I would be remiss if I left out a female perspective. Although jazz continues to be a genre dominated by men, few can touch the pure artistry of Ms. Lady Day, Billie Holliday that is. Born Eleanora Fagan Gough, Holiday began life in extreme poverty. Her mother was only a teenager when she brought Holiday into the world (Monir and Durando). By the age of fourteen, Holliday had been raped, in and out of an institution for troubled girls, and arrested for prostitution (Notario). There was no gentle upbringing of the soulful singer, only a cold and violent world. With no formal singing education, the inability to read music, and an extremely limited range, Holliday struggled even after she was discovered to find producers and bands willing to work with her. John Hammond discovered her at age eighteen, shocked by the raw quality of her husky voice (Monir and Durando). Her career began to soar from that point starting with a recording session with Benny Goodman. In 1938 Holiday became the first African American woman to play white orchestra when she paired with bandleader Artie Shaw (Monir and Durando). With her rising success began a rise in her drinking. She began to drink heavily and once she started Joe Guy in the 1940s she began to use heroin. Her heroin addiction would become a main theme in her life causing her to be sentenced toa year in prison (Monir and Durando). The forced hiatus of being in jail caused her to have the inability to play in any clubs that served liquor because she did not obtain a cabaret card (Brody). Her struggle did not last long as she performed a sold-out show in Carnegie Hall a little under a year later (Monir and Durando). The final ten years of her life were filled with wild success paired with wild abuse of drugs. Her mind was plagued by negative experiences in the south, harsh discrimination, and the mental cruelty of racism (Brody). The mental trauma was unescapable and she turned to drugs and alcohol to try to remedy her pain. Despite being one of the most highly paid artists of her time, most of her fortune went to her drug addiction (Morin and Durando). July 17, 1959 Holiday passed away due to drug and alcohol related problems, oly after being arrested on her death bed for heroin possession (Brody).

Billie Holiday left behind many great songs but one in particular has touched generation after generation. Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” protests the lynching of African Americans in the south. The piece begins with droning chords while a trumpet plays a sorrowful melody on top. A piano takes the lead of the sorrowful procession evoking a strange stillness within the listener, leaving a feeling of wistfulness. Lady Day begins her melancholy poem by telling her listeners about the strange “fruit” bloodening southern trees from root to leaf. Innocent “fruit” swaying in a calm southern breeze, contradicting the event that occurred earlier at that tree. Holiday, with irony in her voice, points out that the “gallant” south is not courageous but cowardly as they lynch the innocent. The sweet smell of southern magnolias is cut out by the smell of a decaying body. This fruit is a “strange and bitter crop”.

Although Holliday did not write the song, she poured her depression into it. She stated she would not sing what she did not feel, so unfortunately, she was singing her pain. There is no formal record of Holiday having a diagnosed mental illness, but she presents many signs that indicates she had some sort of mental illness. Her decades long abuse of drugs, experience with the cruel realities of racism, and emotional trauma from being raped builds a strong case. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that over half of people facing substance abuse have a strong from of some mental illness (NIDA). In her own autobiography, Holiday retells how exhausting the racism was both physically and mentally. Every time she performed “Strange Fruit” it was reported that the song ate away on her piece by piece. Increased risk-taking behavior is highly associated with mania, as mentioned before (Jamison). Holidays abuse of drugs and risky relationships fit within this description. Her life was filled with abusive lovers and torment. All of the trauma she faced in her life left an undeniable mark on her mental health. However, she used that pain and suffering to convey the emotions she wanted. Her past was not a roadblock to her artistic expression but a ramp to new heights.

This epidemic of poor mental health is not over even in this modern time. One of the biggest problems in this epidemic is the stigma around mental health and the disparity in health care for African Americans. The truth is that every single human has mental health. At some point, you may experience an issue with it. No one is exempt, everyone has a brain. The difference is that people with little experience with serious mental health issues compares their experience to it, thus invalidating the reality of that individuals struggle. The lack of understanding does not stop there. African American individuals with mental health issues like schizophrenia are more likely to be incarcerated than people of other races with the same issue (American Psychiatric Association). African American people are less likely to be offered personalized medication and therapy for their mental health issues and physicians are 33% less patient oriented in these situations (American Psychiatric Association). The disparity in healthcare has also led to a deep mistrust of the healthcare system, often causing individuals to not seek the help they need. Not everyone can be institutionalized with a kind doctor like Mingus. Most live like Holiday harboring demons and haunted by racism. Although things have changed since the jazz age, our healthcare and treatment of our fellow human has a long way to go before being fair for all.

Greatness in any art is not solely attributed to one single defining feature. There are hours of practice, years of experience, and amazing technical ability behind every artist. The careers of Parker and Mingus were not instantly created overnight, but through years of hard work and dedication. However, their mental illnesses did help them and serve as a springboard of activity. Yes, it is true that musical composition takes great technical skill, but the creativity and originality of the compositions of many jazz artists come from their mental afflictions. Flight of ideas, unusual flexibility of thought, and ability to create new combinations, the symptoms of manic depression, enhanced the greatness of jazz artists. Creativity and originality are a part of the pillars that create jazz. Every work and solo must be original. Going beyond the expectations of a genre equate to the greatness of a musician. Parker wrote fast melodies that were groundbreaking in his time. Mingus combined completely different styles but somehow managed to stay in the jazz idiom. These are examples of genius and greatness. Their mental afflictions were springboards of activity as their mental state enhanced the creative process. Composing any piece of music requires a creative process of some sort, often no two composers have the same process. The creative process of someone with manic depression or any mental illness is hyperactive, allowing for an easier creation of ideas, as the flexibility of thought is enhanced and goal seeking behavior is present. The compositions of a mentally ill composer express feelings that are too abstract for words, which creates completely unique sounds and melodies within a piece. Chandler states it best as, “The greatest jazz albums are expository forces, musical confessions whose notes, chords and rhythms extend directly from human sensation and feeling.” Jazz is a deeply personal art form so by using the complex feelings from mental illness, a jazz artist can create their best works.

The times I feel most alive are when hearing and playing jazz music, and feeling the emotions along with the musician. I can feel emotions that are beyond what mere words can describe. I believe that is part of the point of deeply expressive genres like jazz. The epidemic of mental illness in jazz musicians allows for heart wrenching pieces to be created and artists to become great. Symptoms from various mental illnesses promote this greatness as it complements the artistic process and promotes mastery. Although the afflictions of the greats were hidden for a long time, we can now understand that the factors that made jazz icons great can be partially attributed to their battles with mental illness. Although it is not the sole reason for their greatness, mental illness was a springboard of activity and helped to create what jazz is today.

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