Serious Play: What Jazz Does To Your Brain

What jazz improvisation does to our minds

One of the epiphanies I had with my first-born, almost three decades ago, involved the miracle of play. As an expectant father, I was consuming books and articles — or rather they were consuming me — about fetal and early-child development. With each read, I became increasingly awestruck by the physiology of child’s play. This obsession led me to launch Play magazine, the second issue of which featured my then 2-year-old son on the cover (nepotism exists).

Play was aimed at parents. Each issue offered recommendations of music, video, books, activities and what we then called, erroneously, “interactive toys” (as if to contrast these items with non-interactive ones) that we considered beneficial in childhood development. While Play represented a new concept in the parent-targeted magazine world, my plate was already full — laboring deep into the night on JAZZIZ, spending long days as a radiology resident at the University of Florida and working 24/7 as a parent of three children. In the mid-’90s, I abandoned Play. Still, however, the idea of play continues to fascinate me.

Steven Johnson writes widely about popular science and the media. In his latest book, Wonderland, he theorizes about play and its role in shaping our world as a prognosticator of things to come. I was particularly struck by his discussion of flutes, nearly perfectly tuned, made from animal bones thousands of years ago. Johnson touches on Darwinian selection, and I imagine flute-playing prehistoric studs attracting and perpetuating a species of music lovers. Add to this the fact that music teaches a concept of spatial reasoning in one’s earliest years that can’t otherwise be learned at those ages by other methods of instruction. Johnson points out that dopamine in the brain is released when we experience something new. It’s as if our brains are telling us, “This is new; pay attention.”

Which brings me to jazz. The first jazz recordings were made 100 years ago. In the interim, we’ve been introduced to a countless sounds and genres through live and recorded performances. A passage from novelist Derek Miller’s [i]Norwegian By Night[i] strikes the right note: “I remember when Harry James hit that C note above high C at Carnegie Hall in 1938. It was Benny Goodman’s orchestra. No one was sure if jazz deserved that level of respectability — if those musicians were serious enough to deserve Carnegie Hall. And then that one note. The city went wild.”

Since the ’30s, it was the sound of electric guitar that heralded the rock music of the ’50s and ’60s just as the newly programmed sounds of electronic keyboards earmarked music of the ’80s. Even though jazz today occupies a diminishing slice of the music consumption pie, the dopamine system might help to explain why playing and listening to jazz has had such endurance.

Ten years ago, when Herbie Hancock, former JAZZIZ managing editor Larry Blumenfeld and I interviewed Bill Clinton, one of the things that the President told us about playing the saxophone was, “There are lots of people like me who weren’t good enough to be professional musicians, but the fact that we did it and loved it changed our lives forever.” Aside from an obvious “democracy on the bandstand” that jazz so naturally invites, I’m convinced that something also takes place in the brain that causes that everlasting change.

If improvisation is the essence of jazz, then there’s something new every time we hear a song. When that happens, jazz tells our brains, this is new, pay attention.




Join Our Newsletter
Join thousands of other jazz enthusiasts and get new music, artists, album, events and more delivered to your inbox.

The Authoritative Voice in Jazz