University of Minnesota

Henry Blackburn on the Healing Power of Jazz

International Society of Cardiology Research Committee. Makarska, Yugoslavia 1963

Some sixty cardiovascular investigators from twenty countries assembled on the Dalmatian coast in balmy September days of 1963 to plan and stimulate international researches on the salient questions facing cardiology. Expert authorities found it near impossible not to participate at the invitation and with the support of Paul Dudley White, internationally respected leader of cardiology. The younger generation also invited were motivated to accomplish the needed preparatory work and to serve as rapporteurs for the technical reports. The goal was submission of well-reasoned recommendations to the legislative formalities of the subsequent 1966 World Congress of Cardiology in New Delhi. The imagination and enterprise of the co-chairs Paul White and Ancel Keys included setting the program and selecting its international participants as well as arranging propitious sites of ISC planning conferences. Participants included representatives from WHO and NIH and the ISC, with recognized experts in clinical, laboratory, and epidemiological investigations (Report ISC 1964).

[This active ISC Research Committee began with the first symposium on CVD epidemiology at the 1954 World Congress of Cardiology where Ancel Keys and Paul Dudley White had joined their visions for the future of the field of CVD epidemiology, for medical science and for enhanced international relations. It was formally composed with Keys and White as co-chairs, at the Brussels World Congress in 1958. Now, it began its formal works.]

On site at Makarska, all got down to productive work defining priority researches to include CVD nomenclature and diagnostic criteria, epidemiological study design, electrocardiography including computerized versions, and hypertension, and clinical physiology. The reports moved forward with general agreement on priorities for CV functional evaluation, computer applications, and pathogenesis. Special reports were prepared on studies of exotic populations in East Africa, Polynesia, Greenland, Finland and Israel, and special plans considered for on-site training in field epidemiological operations. Reports were also prepared on lipid chemistry, diet, and electrocardiographic standardization, and an interim meeting planned for Venice in Spring 1965 to complete final recommendations for the New Delhi World Congress deliberations of the ISC.

At Makarska’s Hotel Jadran on the Dalmatian coast, on the final evening, the working groups summarized and read their findings to one another in plenary session. The next morning they were to convene and vote and sign final approval of the broad new recommendations for cardiovascular research needed worldwide. Their recommendations would provide the framework for new priorities in CVD research and training for the society. Henry Blackburn tells the story from that point:

“As the evening Adriatic breeze freshened so did our spirits. We had worked well together and produced a solid document that we believed could affect the course of researches for a decade. The workshop had come at the peak of the international cardiological diplomacy of Keys and White. Their worldwide network had effectively stimulated collaborative studies and launched into the mainstream the fields of cardiovascular epidemiology and preventive cardiology. We, the younger generation of investigators, were caught up in the excitement. Our group had worked particularly hard and borne a large measure of responsibility for the planning and actual writing of the several workshop reports.

We all eagerly looked forward to the final gala dinner, anticipating its endless poetic toasts and a climactic address by the Wall Street banker, let’s call him Mr. X. He was representing Albert Baer, the industrialist-philanthropist who was then President of the International Cardiology Foundation, the major source of funding for the Research Committee in its far-flung activities.

Elegantly dark-suited men and radiant women in long dresses swept down the balustraded stairways to the restaurant where all were finally seated at long white tables. The pinkish wine of the region was splashed into glasses that were quickly emptied and as quickly refilled. The hum of merry conversation rose.

The meal proceeded happily. A giant local fish, a Dentale, was picked clean and the last drops of wine quaffed in a final, convivial toast. As the Yugoslavian version of a Baked Alaska was brought in, flaming, the guest of honor, the New York industrialist rose to deliver his message from the heart of American culture. Those at the head table, Paul Dudley White of Boston, Ancel and Margaret Keys of Minneapolis, Aleksi Akmetaly from Moscow, Vittorio Puddu from Rome, Bozidar Djordjevic from Belgrade, and Sir Kempson Maddox from Sydney, turned, as did everyone, toward Mr. X, who began his address as follows:

Some might think that the greatest enemy of mankind is Nikita Krushchev; others might think it Madame Nhu. Some might even say it is John F. Kennedy! But we all know that the greatest enemy of mankind is …”

The hush was complete. Not a fork lifted, not a glass clinked. We couldn’t believe our ears. This “fat cat” from Wall Street, apparently thinking himself at the Waldorf-Astoria talking as if to the Board of an American foundation, appeared unconscious that he was addressing representatives of sixteen nations, six of them socialist. He was even the guest of a Communist country!

All these thoughts went flashing by, but before the speaker could continue there came a loud guttural exclamation followed abruptly by the scraping of a chair pushed back brusquely from the table. We saw only the back of Akmetaly’s head as he left, storming out of the dining room, slamming shut the huge French doors. Almost instantly he was followed by all the Eastern Bloc representatives and their companions.

Weakly, the lecturer continued: “But we all know that the greatest enemy of mankind is — heart disease!”

Having finished what he had thought would be a clever-cute introduction, he paled and broke out in glistening sweat. It seemed, too, that all the eager men remaining suddenly aged a decade, and that the ladies, bouyant a few moments before, now sagged. Obviously, this Manhattan businessman had never visited an Eastern Bloc country. His talk rambled on about approaching “big business” and soliciting the support of “substantial people” for our international research efforts in cardiovascular disease. The entire message was as inappropriately worded as had been his introduction. Even in Western countries, most cardiovascular research is supported by government, not by private solicitations of voluntary contributions. The man apparently had some experience in capitalist philanthropy, but clearly no tradition of international diplomacy or of science.

We sat stunned, having arrived at the dinner exhilarated by the intellectual activity of the workshop, buoyed by the camaraderie that had developed among us, proud of the work we all had done to produce the research report. It seemed to us that the International Society of Cardiology would surely, in the future, become much more than an exclusive club of prominent cardiologists. Many others like us would find rich opportunities, stimulated by the Society’s international research activities. We had been primed to celebrate. Instead, the success of the entire workshop appeared threatened.

A rumor spread quickly that the Soviet delegate was not only enraged at the insult of Kruschev, but was packing his bags and requesting space on the next flight to Belgrade. That would mean that the Soviets and Eastern Bloc representatives would not ratify the working paper, and that the truly international import of our assembly and its work would not be realized. It was also rumored that the international dean of cardiology, Paul Dudley White, had gone directly to the Russian’s quarters in an attempt to mollify him. That encounter apparently was so unpleasant that he, too, had retired to his quarters. The calamity rolled on with tragic momentum.

On cue, the wretched little hotel orchestra, in an alcove off the Grand Terrace, started its doleful baying at the Adriatic moon. The musicians, with mixed Western and Eastern instruments, played mainly out of tune, under-inspired and over-imbibed. It was the final week of their long summer engagement at the Dalmatian resort. I had already determined that this would not be an optimal occasion to exercise my newly acquired passion — playing the soprano saxophone. But our situation now required desperate measures.

I appeared at the rear of the alcove and beckoned excitedly to the band leader. We talked, I, in pidgin Croatian, he, in pidgin English. I learned that he and one or two others possibly knew some jazz tunes that sounded something like, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and “Margie,” and “My Blue Heaven,” and that they welcomed me to join them. These worn chestnuts would have to suffice.

I dashed up the stairs in large bounds and dove under my bed to retrieve the precious vintage Conn instrument, turning to hurry out of the room. Suddenly, to take stock, I carefully opened the case, found my best reed, tested it, wrote down the three tunes and thought about the proper tempos, and pondered how it would be best to kick off each tune to lead the motley orchestra without offending them.

From my balcony, I could see our conference group mounting heavily the long spiral staircase from the restaurant to the terrace. The Adriatic air was languid, matching the mood of the conferees. They gathered in tiny knots. No one danced.

I picked my way carefully down the stairs and arrived at the back of the alcove. The musicians greeted me with broad smiles. I had not played with them before, but they had heard me “diddling” on my horn in my room all week long and had an idea of what to expect in traditional jazz. I felt they agreed with me in spirit that a radical cure was needed for the evening’s malaise.

I beat out the tempo for the first tune with a rhythmic lilt, called out the key at the last moment to assure we would be together, and then, with a one and a two, let go with the old sawhorse, Sweet Georgia Brown. Thankfully, it came out at just the right bounce, not so fast that the musicians or dancers would be out of control, yet fast enough, I hoped, to get pulses throbbing.

Faithful Ivica Mohacek, cardiologist colleague from Zagreb, stood up first and raced across the terrace to grab Anna Brodarec, the blonde Partizanka, and escort her to the dance floor. They lurched merrily around the terrace, infectiously enthusiastic. Others rose, one pair after another. The maitre d’ turned on a brilliant bulb above the musical alcove, forming a circle of light extending some meters about us and attracting the dancers toward the bandstand, like insects to a flame. The non-dancers brought up chairs or stood behind their companions, swaying and clapping their hands. The breeze picked up freshly from the mountains. Soon a throng of a hundred or so of our scientific set were twirling, jigging, and smiling.

Looking upward, following the gaze of colleagues, one could see on the second floor balcony, beaming down on our brightly lighted circle, the effusive figure of Comrade Akmetaly, now arm-in-arm with the dignified Paul Dudley White! They held their glasses high, toasting the multitude below with broad smiles and bows. Soon, all eyes were turned upward toward the two symbolic leaders. The tune ended, the dancing stopped, and hurrahs burst from all throats.

The wound was healed; the evening, and the meeting — with its hard-won report — were saved. Our joint release was later signed by all participants and forwarded to the International Society of Cardiology, and on to the World Health Organization for publication. Cardiovascular research would expand, enriched, and the naïve Wall Street banker would soon be forgotten.

As the music and dancing resumed, our eyes were attracted to the night sky where the shiny U.S. balloon satellite, Echo, was flaming across the zenith. Our earthly balloon, too, was floating high, such was the healing power of Jazz! (Henry Blackburn)


Blackburn, H. 1995 On the Trail of Heart Attacks in Seven Countries. Privately published and available from the author: School of Public Health, Univ. of Minnesota.

Report of International Society of Cardiology Research Committee Meeting at Makarska, Yugoslavia, September 1963. 1964. Japanese Heart Journal 5: 188-198.