Jazz and Psychiatry

This post was inspired by two recent visits to jazz clubs in Paris. It’s the first in a series of three. The others are: Medical Dangers of Jazz and The neuroscience of Jazz.

What do we know about the relationship between mental illness and creativity, more specific about the relationship between mental illness and jazz. Other art forms and mental illness are discussed elsewhere on this blog.

It will be particularly valued by that group of psychiatrists who prefer to frequent jazz clubs rather than conference gala dinners (those who prefer gala dinners are advised to obtain a copy of the CD reissue of Kind of Blue by Miles Davis).

A review of biographical material of 40 famous jazz musicians of the period from 1945 to 1960 excluding those who were still alive, was studied and rated for psychiatric diagnoses according to the DSM IV classification.

The categories used were: heroin-related disorder, alcohol-related disorder, cocaine-related disorder, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, mood disorders and anxiety disorders. The categories of family background, sensation- seeking, late-life deteriorations and suicides also were added.


  • 10% (4) had family psychiatric disorder
  • 17,5% (7) had unhappy or unstable early lifes
  • 52,5% (21) were addicted to heroin some time during their lives.
  • 27,5 (11) were dependent on alcohol and 15% (6) abused alcohol
  • 8% (3) were dependent on cocaine
  • 8% (3) had psychotic disorder
  • 28,5% (11) had mood disorders
  • 5% (2) had anxiety disorders
  • 17,5% (7) had sentsation seeking tendencies such as disinhibition and thrill and adventure seeking. This has been linked to borderline personality disorder
  • 2 killed themselfs later in life

These results are comparable to the results in composers and musical performers, with the exception of a higher drug use in jazz musicians. The results were higher compared to general population as researched in the Epidemiological Catchment Area study in the beginning of the nineties. Much later than when these jazz musicians were living.

For some name dropping you can read the whole article with the names of the jazz musicians here or go here for the download of the pdf.

The trouble with this kind of research is the lack of prospective design and relying on probably biased information from non scientific information written by biographers. The selection of participants could also be biased. Those considered famous now would be judged otherwise in earlier days. The group of jazz musicians was small and there was no control group living in the same day and age. more discussion on the short comings of this kind of research can be read here and here.


To maintain a sense of perspective in the present study, it needs to be stated that many of the sample were exemplary, well-balanced human beings.

WILLS, G. (2003). Forty lives in the bebop business: mental health in a group of eminent jazz musicians The British Journal of Psychiatry, 183 (3), 255-259 DOI: 10.1192/bjp.183.3.255

Poole R (2003). ‘Kind of blue’: creativity, mental disorder and jazz. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science, 183, 193-4 PMID: 12948989