Here's a shocker: Alleged Arizona gunman Jared Loughner played saxophone in two jazz bands while in high school and dug Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. According to yesterday's New York Times, Loughner, 22, was so passionate about jazz and dedicated to practicing that a career in music was once considered.
These details comes as something of a head-snapper. Most of us think of jazz as an intellectual art form favored by thoughtful, sensitive people who appreciate melody, harmony and dexterity. For us, jazz is an uplifting force and a guiding light, helping us remain optimistic, tolerant and productive. The very nature of jazz encourages freedom within the confines of structure, allowing an individual musician to be both an admired soloist and a respected team player. Loughner and jazz? There seems to be a disconnect. We just assume that murderous jack-in-the-boxes have spent their lives marinating in high-volume heavy metal.
We also assume that people who enjoy jazz and gravitate to musicians like Parker and Coltrane will be in a safe haven mentally. After all, the music is so beautiful and there is such a wide variety of recordings to choose from. Few music forms offer listeners a cozier cerebral retreat or as much history and variety. How many of us have faced a bad day, only to turn to our jazz collections for solace and rejuvenation? Jazz has a way of righting emotional ships.
And yet, here's someone who slipped though jazz's safety net, not to mention the mental health system. According to yesterdays New York Times...
"Jared seemed to find escape for awhile in music, developing a taste for the singular sounds of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. A talented saxophonist, he could show off his own musical chops by sweetly performing such jazz classics as Summertime.
"He belonged to the Arizona Jazz Academy, where the director, Doug Tidaback, found him to be withdrawn, though clearly dedicated. He played for two different ensembles, an 18-piece band and a smaller combo, which meant four hours of rehearsal on weekends and many discussions between the director and the mother about her son's musical prospects.
"But Mr. Tidaback did not recall ever seeing Jared's father at any of the rehearsals or performances. And one other thing: the music director suspected that the teenager might be using marijuana.
" 'Being around people who smoke pot, they tend to be a little paranoid,' Mr. Tidaback said. 'I got that sense from him. That might have been part of his being withdrawn.' "
Of course, one does not become a psychotic, strip-mall killer by being exposed to jazz or any other form of art. Nor does the normal mind become twisted to this extent merely by watching bad movies or playing video games. And with all due respect to Mr. Tidaback, marijuana may induce mild feelings of paranoia (illegal things tend to do that to you), smoking it hardly results in Reefer Madness crimes or the monstrous acts in Arizona last week. Clearly other drugs—or a lack of the right ones—helped lead to the shootings.
Jazz artists throughout history have not been immune to mental illness. Depression is as common among jazz musicians as any group, perhaps more so in the '40s and '50s given the debilitating roles that racism, long road tours and loneliness played in everyday jazz life. The blues was invented and played routinely for a reason, and meds to treat severe mental illness are relatively new.
Jazz history also has had its share of self-destructive artists and those who have met with violent ends, either by their own hand or by someone else's. Some have even ended their lives horribly and taken innocents with them. Trombonist Frank Rosolino comes to mind.
And let's face it—if marijuana or harder stuff led directly to mass murder, jazz would have imploded years ago. As far as I know, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker never hurt a fly. Clearly, every mind is different, and out of 300 million Americans, there will always be people who are delusional and wind up a menace to society. The neurological reasons for severe mental slides remain mystifying and the results terribly sad.
Perhaps we'll never know how a young person goes from a jazz-loving saxophonist to a glassy-eyed mass murderer. I'm sure certain environmental conditions have to occur along with emotional challenges like alienation, overexposure to the media, narcotics and mental issues that go unnoticed and unmedicated.
The victims of this tragedy and their families have suffered horribly, leaving the residents of Tucson and the rest of us puzzled and shattered. Questions about the alleged killer and what would possess him to commit such an act will take months if not years to sort out. It's quite possible we may never have a rational reason for why he or anyone does such things. As for Loughner's early fondness for jazz, we'll also never know why the music's supposed palliative powers failed to turn a negative mind into a positive force.