University of Minnesota

“If It Isn’t Fun.” – The Healing Power of Jazz

The scene is Makarska’s Hotel Jadran on the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia in late September, 1963, where the first follow-up survey of the Seven Countries Study was underway. Moreover, at the behest of Drs. Keys and White, some sixty cardiologist investigators from sixteen nations had worked for five long days in workshops of the International Society of Cardiology Research Committee. On the last work day, we had summarized findings and read them to one another in plenary session. The next morning we were to convene and vote final approval of broad new recommendations for cardiovascular research that we thought were needed worldwide.

As the evening Adriatic breeze freshened, so did our spirits. We had worked well together and produced a solid document we believed could affect the course of research for a decade. The workshop occurred at the peak of the international cardiological enterprise of Ancel Keys and Paul Dudley White, as co-chairs of the Research Committee. Their worldwide network had effectively stimulated collaborative studies and launched the fields of cardiovascular disease epidemiology and preventive cardiology. We, the younger, “second generation” of investigators in this new field, were caught up in the excitement. Our group had worked particularly hard and borne a large measure of responsibility for the actual writing of the workshop reports.

We all looked forward eagerly to the final gala dinner, its poetic toasts, and its climactic address by a 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 source of funding for the International Society and its Research Committee. Proud, dark-suited men and radiant women in elegant dresses swept down the balustraded stairways to the restaurant to be seated at long white tables. The pinkish wine of the region was splashed in all glasses, and these quickly emptied. The hum of conversation rose.

Eventually, the marvelous giant fish of the Adriatic, the Dental, was picked clean, 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 rose to deliver his message. Those at the head table, Paul Dudley White of Boston, Ancel and Margaret Keys of Minneapolis, Georg 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 …….”

He paused. A hush fell; no 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 to the directors of an American charity, appeared unconscious of the fact he was addressing representatives of sixteen nations, six of them socialist. He was even the guest of a Communist country.

As these thoughts flashed by, and before the speaker could continue, the silence was punctuated by a guttural exclamation and the scraping of a chair pushed back brusquely from the table. We saw only the back of Akmetaly’s head as he stormed out of the dining room, slamming shut the huge French doors. Almost instantly, the Soviet delegate 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, of course, is — heart disease!”

Having finished what he had thought to be a clever introduction, he paled and broke out in a glistening sweat. It seemed, too, that all the men remaining in the room suddenly aged a decade, and that the ladies, buoyant a few moments before, now sagged. Obviously, this Manhattan businessman had never visited an Eastern or socialist country. His talk went on about the need to approach “big business” and solicit the support of “substantial people” in the community for 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. Mr X apparently had experience in capitalist philanthropy but clearly had no tradition of international science — or diplomacy.

We sat stunned. We had arrived at the dinner exhilarated by the intellectual activity of the workshop, buoyed by the admiration and camaraderie that had developed among us, proud of the effort we all had given to produce the research report. It had 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 would likely find rich opportunities in it, stimulated by the Society’s international research and teaching activities. We had been so primed to celebrate on that culminating evening. Instead, it seemed that the success of the entire workshop and committee was threatened.

Word spread quickly that the Soviet delegate was not only enraged but was packing his bags and had requested 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. We heard that the 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, retired to his room. The calamity rolled on with tragic momentum.

On cue, as each evening, the wretched little hotel orchestra in an alcove off the grand terrace, started its doleful baying at the Adriatic moon. The musicians, playing an assortment of Western and Eastern instruments, played mainly out of tune, under-inspired, and usually tipsy. It was the ultimate week of their long summer engagement on the Dalmatian resort coast. Hearing them earlier I had decided that our conference would not be a good occasion to join them and exercise my newly acquired passion — the soprano saxophone. But the catastrophic evening now clearly required desperate measures.

I appeared at the rear of the alcove and beckoned to the band leader. In pidgin Croatian and English, I learned that the band members possibly knew jazz tunes that sounded like, Sweet Georgia Brown, Margie, and My Blue Heaven, and that they would welcome my joining them. These old chestnuts would do fine in a crisis.

I bounded up the stairs and retrieved my precious vintage Conn instrument from under the bed, then I paused to take stock. Opening the case, I found the best reed, wrote myself a reminder note of the keys for the three tunes, thought about the tempos and how it would be best to kick off each tune, and then about how to lead the motley orchestra without offending them.

From my balcony, I could see members of our much-chastened group slowly mounting the long spiral staircase leading from the restaurant to the terrace. The Adriatic air had turned languid, matching our mood. Participants gathered in tiny knots on the terrace. There was no closeness, little chatter, and no one danced.

I picked my way deliberately down the stairway to arrive at the back of the musical alcove. There the musicians greeted me with friendly smiles. Though I had never played with them, they had heard me “woodshedding” on my sax during the week and had an idea of what to expect. We were colleagues in spirit if not in tradition. I called the key, beat out the tempo, and we swung into Sweet Georgia Brown. It came out at just the right lilting bounce, not so fast that the musicians or dancers would be out of control, yet fast enough, one would hope, to raise pulses.

Faithful Ivica Mohacek, cardiologist colleague from Zagreb, responded first, racing across the terrace to grab Anna Brodarec our blonde partizanka chieftain, and escort her to the dance. They lurched merrily around the floor, infectiously enthusiastic. Others rose, one pair after another. The maitre d’ then turned on a brilliant bulb above the musical alcove, which formed a circle of light extending some meters about us and attracted dancers toward the bandstand like insects to a flame. The non-dancers brought up chairs and stood behind their companions, swaying and clapping their hands. As if on cue, a fresh breeze picked up from the mountains. Soon a throng of 100 or so of our scientific set were twirling and chattering and laughing.

Following the upward gaze of front-row colleagues, I could see on the second-floor balcony, beaming down on our happy lighted circle, an effusive 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 toward the two symbolic leaders. The first tune ended, the dancing stopped momentarily, and cheers burst from all throats!

The wound was healed, the evening and the meeting saved. Next morning the joint report was signed by all participants to be forwarded to the International Society of Cardiology and thence to the World Health Organization for publication and international circulation. Cardiovascular research and collaboration would expand and be enriched. The clumsy Wall Street banker would be forgotten.

Such is the healing power of jazz.

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