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Jazz and disability: UK Disability History Month

To mark UK Disability History Month (which is on the theme of music), here is a short piece taken from a chapter I’ve written about jazz and disability, to be published shortly in The Routledge Companion to Jazz Studies, edited by Nick Gebhardt et al. 

I was originally going to talk about jazz at the launch of UKDHM, in Parliament last week. But when I got there it seemed quite a … punky … audience so I ended up talking about punk and disability instead (drawing on an earlier essay,  ‘Punk rock and disability’). There’s a report of the launch event here

What is jazz? Is it art, a disease, a manner, or a dance?—Bandleader Paul Whiteman, New York Times, 1927

Art or disease? This short talk both draws on recent work on music and disability studies by looking at the case of jazz. (The sources are all here.) 

(It’s part of what has become an on-going project of mine around disability and music.) I seek here to answer a question I raised largely in passing in Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability: ‘Shall we say … that jazz music is predicated on disability?’

Alla zoppa

Consider here a definition of the musical instruction alla zoppa, which is usually employed in western classical music to signal a physically impaired character: zoppa in Italian is ‘lame’, ‘limping’, and so it has been applied to music. But it can also mean ‘syncopated’—and so the rhythmic feature at the heart of much jazz has a musical connection with a physical disability, a disability which is about moving differently.

The talk has three key points, focusing first on discussing aspects of jazz as a music of disability, from its earliest days on. Very briefly, I want to sketch what we can think of as competing discourses of jazz, both negative (jazz as disabling) and positive (jazz as enabling). I then look at one major jazz figure who was disabled in some way (and there are many, many others—the free downloadable resource on music & disability produced by UKDHM tells some of their stories).

Negative: jazz as disabling culture

The birth and early reception of jazz has been widely studied, and includes an increasing number of works looking at how the music was received, adopted, adapted, as well as rejected in different countries around the world in the first decades of the 20thcentury.  These pivotal times set a template during which, as Russell L. Johnson puts it, ‘jazz was disabling’. How was jazz in its early reception in America understood as disabled? Johnson explains that

[the] disability argument against jazz started from the critics’ reaction to the fact that due to syncopation and polyrhythms, the music failed to follow ‘“normal” rhythms.’ It was unrhythmical, discordant, and ultimately ‘defective’ music…. [J]azz dancing … reminded critics of the movements of people with epilepsy or nervous disorders…. Jazz in 1920s America brought to the forefront debates about disease, disability, noise, and rhythm. [and sex and race]

1920s US newspaper headlines warned readers of the music’s disabling dangers, particularly for young women: ACTRESS SAYS JAZZ DEFORMS GIRLS’ LEGS, or, in the context of pregnancy, JAZZ LIFE MAY MEAN CRIPPLES (i.e. lead to birth defects). The extraordinary Irish ‘anti-jazz’ movement of the times could articulate its concerns in pathologising language, too—as the Irish Independent reported in 1921, jazz ‘has made a terrible number of people abnormal’.

(BTW We can think that a similar kind of combination of fear and fascination around the out-of-control pop body would be seen in the invention of rock n roll 3 or 4 decades later.)

Positive: jazz as enabling culture

Within studies of music and disability, Alex Lubet’s work stands out for its most committed championing of the specific practice of jazz. In his view, ‘[t]he interpretive latitudes of jazz—to arrange, improvise, and compose one’s parts’, are a vital liberatory feature.

Even if the jazz cultural system is ‘no utopia, [for Lubet it nonetheless] provides expressive latitudes sufficient to accommodate the embodied variations of technique and style’ of differently-abled instrumental players.

The protocols [of jazz] are shown to accommodate individual impairments far better, even allowing for unique approaches to virtuosity, thus providing an apt model for full participation of musicians with disabilities (Lubet).

Freaky, squeaky, leaky

Jazz is periodically a freaky, squeaky, leaky form, in which unconventional as well as extended instrumental techniques produce novel sound, noise and effects. It has frequently been an oral/aural practice, not fixed on notation. Sonic abnormalities have been core aspects of its production. Improvisation and adjustment are core aspects of its creative process. All of these features speak to the lived experience and cultural articulation of disability. Miles Davis said something extraordinary once about pianist Bud Powell, which was really about a quality of jazz:

Before Bud went to Bellevue [psychiatric ward in 1946], everything he played had a wrinkle in it; there was always something different about the way the music came off. Man, after they bashed his head in and gave him some shock treatments, they would have done better cutting off his hands. 

One disabled jazz musician

I want to turn now to consider the case of one foundational jazz musician.

Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden (1877-1931), was an innovative New Orleans cornetist and bandleader active around the turn of the century. He is as jazz historian Ted Gioa puts it,  ‘often cited as the first jazz musician’, while his band is ‘the most important unrecorded ensemble in the history of jazz’. This is the only surviving photograph of him with (six of) his seven-piece band. Drawing on blues, ragtime and combining instruments from brass and string bands, Bolden was effectively playing ‘the music that became jazz’, in Alyn Shipton’s neat phrase.

But, although he lived until 1931, Bolden’s sonic and performative innovations lasted only roughly from 1894 to 1906, for in that year he experienced a series of mental health crises, variously described by his biographer Donald M. Marquis as ‘depression’, ‘dementia’, ‘fits of insanity’. The next year he was declared insane and committed to the Louisiana asylum at Jackson, not yet aged 30, for the rest of his life.

The only known photo of Buddy Bolden Band, Bolden standing next to bassist, 1903-05

Yet what is remarkable is the way Bolden’s cornet tone, sound, choice of notes and arrangements, and the impact of these on listeners, audiences and fellow musicians, is described. His sister-in-law Dora Bass said Bolden ‘broke his heart when he played’—not her heart, but his own. A local musician described how ‘He played like he didn’t care’, while another said ‘With all the notes he’d throw in and out of nowhere, you never heard anything like it’. Most resonant, perhaps, is the memory of New Orleans trombonist Bill Matthews:

… on those old slow blues, that boy could make the women jump out the window. On those old, slow, low down blues he had a moan in his cornet that went all through you…. Everybody was crazy about Bolden.

Apparently from an edge, the edge of sound mental health or a normal life itself, Buddy Bolden, ‘the most mysterious figure in the annals of New Orleans music’ (Gioa), seems to have had a mind that let him hear and create a new music, even as his cognitive function could not bear the weight of what he was making. Or are we already entering what Tony Whyton calls the ‘overblown’ myth-making world of jazz legend, of jazz madness? Bolden’s tantalizing as well as desperate story, his achievements and influence, which is shrouded in silence, is also one of cognitive impairment at the heart, the opening heart, of the jazz tradition. There is no music, and it is everywhere.


At its best, we can think of jazz as a generous, inclusive form which has wanted and been able to accommodate the differently embodied or minded, because jazz was capable of flexibility and sought novelty, and because jazz was a music forged in the experience of oppression, resistance and liberation. In its concern with the individual voice of expression, its fetish of the desire for the musically unique in tone or approach, jazz was open and welcoming to those who could, as Laurie Stras has put it, ‘sing a song of difference’.

This embrace of its inner crip was there in the fundamentals of the music—its freak noises and effects, its syncopated rhythms that are alla zoppa, its out-of-control dancing body, its acceptance of alternate techniques or voices. And—this is Disability History Month, after all—the embrace of its inner crip is also there in jazz music’s history and innovation, from its very start.

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