When Jazz Musicians Become Co-Therapists

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Amy: Among the strangest–and most enjoyable– things I’ve done in my career is to create what I called “The Jazz Consultation”.  I first got the idea of inviting  jazz musicians to comment on family therapy sessions when, as a budding jazz pianist/vocalist,  I attended legendary pianist Barry Harry’s Jazz Cultural Theatre workshops. At these sessions, I worked on developing my skills as a singer.   But I also learned a lot about rhythm, self-expression and–dare I say–life.

unknownThese Jazz Cultural Theatre  workshops were often on my mind when I attended professional family therapy conferences. A conference presenter would show a tape of a family session and wondered to myself, “What would Barry Harris say about the interactions of this family?” I began to put these crazy internal ruminations into practice when I created the first “Jazz Consultation” in 2000. I continued to work with jazz musicians as my co-therapists until a few years ago.

I guess the obvious question is, Why?  What does jazz music have to do with families?

My history with jazz, as a listener and performer, has taught me a lot.  I think that a good jazz ensemble shows us what a healthy family looks like. Many of the ingredients that make a jazz group “swing” make the family “swing” as well. Here what it looks like from the perspective of a jazz player:

  1. The foundation is solid. The group knows what’s it’s playing and they agree, more of less, on the chord changes. The broad outlines of the map are set, but no one knows yet how they’ll get there.
  2. Each band member openly enjoys the other. When my bandmate sounds good, it makes me sound good. His/her success doesn’t detract from mine: au contraire. And I’m rooting for him/her to sound good.
  3. Each member of the band has the freedom to play what he/she wants; in my band there are no limits on self-expression, but the band sounds better when the broad “culture” of the tune is respected.
  4. Healthy competition makes the band sound good: In a swinging band, members don’t coddle each other, but rather challenge each other, respectully, to be the best he/she can be. We enjoy setting the bar high, but “failure” doesn’t matter.  As Miles Davis said, “There are no wrong notes.”

images-3A swinging jazz band makes room for maximum individuality, while respecting the mutual respect/cohesion of the whole. The connection and mutual enjoyment of the band members are critical; it’s this  connection that contributes to freedom, rather than inhibition. And a good night on the bandstand inevitably comes with ups and downs: The band survives them; we forgive ourselves and each other, growing closer through the adversity. We’re all in this thing together!

When I began the “Jazz Consultation” I didn’t know how it would go, or what would come of it. By the third consultation I developed a format that seemed to work:

Briefly, the structure of the consultation went like this: I invited a couple of top-of-the line jazz musicians to observe one of my couple or family sessions, using a one-way mirror. Mid-way through the session I would invite the musicians to come in the the therapy room and comment, musically, on the interaction of the couple or family. The musicians had been watching the session on the other side of the mirror: I instructed them not to decide what to play beforehand, but to play whatever they felt, based on their experience of watching the couple/family. Of course, the couple/family gave their consent to such a consultation, so I didn’t worry about anyone having a heart attack when a jazz musician walked in and started playing music in the middle of their session.

The process of selecting musical consultants was relatively easy. I worked in New York City, and have many friends in the jazz community;  great musicians are plentiful. But I did select some criteria: First, he musicians had to be, or have been, in a committed relationship. (This eliminated about a quarter of the jazz community!) I wanted the musicians to know the agonies that come with a real relationship, so they would be able to empathize with my clients.

images-7Second, the musicians had to be willing to play “free”, meaning without a script. This, as you would expect, should be easy for most jazz players, whose art form is based on improvisation. Mostly, when I described the jazz consultation to prospective musicians, they readily agreed, though they acknowledged they’d “never heard of anything” like this. I had only one guy, a well-known trombonist, turn me down: He said “I don’t do that”. (I’m not even sure if he knew what “that” was.) Also, in case you’re wondering: I paid the musicians well for their time. These talented, hard-working folks get exploited enough; I didn’t want to contribute the that trend.

I continued these jazz consultations for about fifteen years, employing my musician consultants with all kinds of couples and families. Each one of these family therapy “jam sessions” offered a glimpse into the inner workings of the family that may not have been possible otherwise. And each couple/family responded differently to these consultations. Sometimes the initial feedback from session was intense, at other times neutral.

But at times something totally unexpected happened. On a couple of occasions, the reaction to the jazz consultation unbalanced the couple/family in unpredictable ways.

I will tell the story of a just such a couple in my next post….



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