“Has JAZZ LIVES gone crazy?” some of you might ask. No, even though the book I offer for your consideration might seem to some to have only a tenuous connection to jazz.
But Judith Schlesinger’s new book, THE INSANITY HOAX: EXPLODING THE MYTH OF THE MAD GENIUS, is immensely relevant to the mythological accretions that jazz has had foisted on it for the last century. And the book is also immensely lively and entertaining.
Any jazz listener might list those jazz musicians celebrated for the irresistible combination of deep creativity and — to some — inevitable mental illness. Shall we begin with Charlie Parker? Buddy Bolden. Then add Leon Roppolo, Cassino Simpson, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk. A quick scan of “jazz musician” “mental illness” on Google brings up Charles Mingus, Billy Tipton, Rosemary Clooney, right there alongside Virginia Woolf and Vincent Van Gogh. Let’s not even talk about Billie Holiday, shall we?
These creative artists make good copy, and their “mental instability” has been used as modern-day evidence that Plato was right: to be creative, one must be beyond the “normal” that many people demonstrate. Schlesinger states it simply: “The mad genius is a beloved cultural artifact, a popular spectacle . . . . It provides the perfect container for every romantic fantasy about both madness and genius–and doesn’t have to be any more precise than that to be useful. But a fact, it is not. There is simply no good reason to believe that exceptionally creative people are more afflicted with psychopathology than anyone else.”
What fascinates Schlesinger is not so much arguing about biographical details: were Mozart’s scatological jokes evidence of a disordered mind? But she is much more intrigued, and sometimes horrified, by the ways that modern “scientists” and “chroniclers” have distorted, invented, appropriated, and misread evidence to make it fit their portrait: Creative = Crazy. And the misrepresentations are sometimes set in stone: Schlesinger has done all kinds of fascinating homework: her detective work about Beethoven’s “death mask” is a delight.
She is especially drawn to — and sympathetic to — jazz musicians and the burden of half-truth and complete fallacy attached to them, especially posthumously. She proudly asserts that the creative people she admires are “heroic,” rather than “mentally disabled,” and — without making lists, points us towards the much more stable, well-adjusted figures in the music business who don’t get the press because their narratives can’t be forced into romantic myth. Consider Milt Hinton, Dizzy Gillespie, Marian McPartland, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane — musicians too busy practicing their craft and having a good time in the process to be Mad Geniuses.
When it comes to the way in which jazz musicians are perceived by psychologists and therapists, the examples Schlesinger finds would be hilarious if they weren’t so appalling. Did you know that Coltrane’s “excessive practicing” and search for “the perfect mouthpiece” were dead-on symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder? So writes Gregory Wills. Ask Arnold M. Ludwig’s opinion about Bix Beiderbecke and you get this: Bis had “mental problems” because he had trouble, late in life with his embouchure.
THE INSANITY HOAX shows off Schlesinger’s sharp eye and sharp wit, but she’s more than George Carlin riffing on the absurdities she has read about, observed, and experienced. Although she has a free-swinging style, the book is no improvisation: it offers thirty-five pages of endnotes and bibliography. No doubt it will irritate those — patients, academics, therapists, and practitioners — who see the DSM as a sacred book, those who take Kay Redfield Jamison’s simple equation (all great artists are or have been mentally ill to be such great artists) as true. But it is intelligent, forthright, full of information, and a pleasure to read: one of those books I wished were longer.
You can find out more about the book here.