I knew Jaco from the time he was 15 or 16 years old. His "creative genius" was evident to me then. I was surrounded by good musicians in Fort Lauderdale back then. But Jaco had an intensity that was quantitatively different from anyone else I knew. It was the thing that enabled him to be at one level, go off by himself to "woodshed" for a few days and come back with new techniques and material unlike I had ever heard. If Jaco were prescribed medication that dampened that remarkable creative energy, it would have caused him suffering that he likely would have been unable to tolerate. That may explain why he would have resisted available conventional psychopharmacological treatment. People continue to be fascinated by Jaco's music and persona. Maybe our interest will contribute in some way to a better understanding of creative genius for the sake of music and the humanities in general. We can always hope.

Perhaps this excerpt from an article entitled "Bipolar Disorder and the Creative Genius" by HimaBindu K Krishna will shed some light on Jaco's dilemma:

"Though this psychopathology is not for one to wish, one interesting association with bipolar disorder is the creativity of those afflicted. (2, 3, 5, 7) This is not the normal creativity experienced by the above-average people (on the scale of creativity). This creativity is the creative genius, which is so rare, yet an inordinate percentage of the well-known creative people were/are afflicted with manic depression. (2, 3) Among the lengthy list are: (writers) F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath; (poets) William Blake, Sara Teasdale, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson; (composers) Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky. (10) Psychiatrists, realizing a connection greater than coincidence, have performed studies all over the world in an attempt to establish a link between bipolar disorder and creativity. (5) In the 1970s, Nancy C. Andreasen of the University of Iowa examined 30 creative writers and found 80% had experienced at least one episode of major depression, hypomania, or mania. (5) A few years later Kay Redfield Jamison studied 47 British writers, painters, and sculptors from the Royal Academy. She found that 38% had been treated for bipolar disorder. In particular, half of the poets (the largest group with manic depression) had needed medication or hospitalization. (5) Researchers at Harvard University set up a study to assess the degree of original thinking to perform creative tasks. They were going to rate creativity in a sample of manic-depressive patients. Their results showed that manic-depressives have a greater percentage of creativity than the controls. (5) There have been biographical studies of earlier generations of artists and writers which show that they have 18 times the rate of suicide (as compared to the general population), 8-10 times the rate of unipolar depression, and 10-20 times the rate of bipolar depression. (5) The additive results of these studies provide ample evidence that there is a link between bipolar disorder and creative genius. The question now is not whether or not there exists a connection between the two, but why it exists.

One common feature in mania or hypomania is the increase in unusually creative thinking and productivity. (2, 3, 5, 7) The manic factor contributes to an increased frequency and fluency of thoughts due to the cognitive difference between normalcy and mania. (2, 5) Manic people often speak and think in rhyme or alliteration more than non-manic people. (2, 5) In addition, the lifestyles of manic-depressives in their manic phase is comparable to those of creative people. Both groups function on very little sleep, restless attitudes, and they both exhibit depth and emotion beyond the norm. (2, 5) Biologically speaking, the manic state is physically alert. That is, it can respond quickly and intellectually with a range of changes (i.e. emotional, perceptual, behavioral). (5) The manic perception of life is one without bounds. This allows for creativity because the person feels capable of anything. It is as if the walls, which inhibit the general population, do not exist in manic people, allowing them to become creative geniuses. They understand a part of art, music, and literature which normal people do not attempt. The manic state is in sharp contrast to the depressive phase of bipolar patients. In their depressed phase, patients only see gloom and boundaries. They feel helpless, and out of this helplessness comes the creativity. (5) The only way bipolar patients can survive their depressed phases, oftentimes, is to unleash their despondency through some creative work. (5, 3)

Since the states of mania and depression are so different, the adjustment between the two ends up being chaotic. Looking at some works of literature or music, it can be noticed which phase the creator was in at the time of composition. In works by Sylvia Plath, for example, the readers may take notice of the sharp contrast among chapters. Some chapters she is full of hope and life, while other chapters read loneliness and desolation. Another example can be found in Tchaikovsky's music; there is a great variation among his compositions concerning their tone, tempo, rhythm, etc. In fact, some say that most actual compositions result from this in-between period because this is the only time when the patient can physically deliver something worthwhile. (3) Because the phases are so chaotic, the ideas float during the manic and depressive states, but the final, developed products are formed during the patients' "normal" phases.

However, the problem with bipolar disorder in present time is that drug treatment often vanquishes the creativity in the patient. (5) In earlier days when drug therapy was not implemented, the creativity would be free. Yet, through the attempt for affected people to cope with day to day living, their creativity must be sacrificed. It is remarkable how these "afflicted" persons exude extraordinary creativity. Therapists and researchers are on the constant search to provide treatment for the debilitating symptoms. In the case of bipolar disorder, the world benefits from the mood swings endured by a large percentage of these patients. Though their ability to function properly is of utmost concern, since the cycling between manic and depressive phases is so traumatic and energy depleting, the unusual existence of creativity of such caliber in these people is something to conserve. As more effective drug treatment is being sought after, hopefully there will be medication that will permit the creative genius of the patients and allow them to function in society as well."

The particular point of the article above that speaks to me is the idea that for a person like Jaco "Bipolar Disorder" is not merely a disorder but rather (an aspect) of a way of being. Jaco lived his entire life in a manner unlike most of the people around him. If taking medication meant that he could no longer BE that way, well, can we begin to understand why he might wish to resist taking such a drug?

I also feel that we should resist thinking of the issue in terms of the disorder resulting in creativity. To do so would be to reduce some of the finest artistic works of humanity to products of psychopathology. Suffice it to say, there is much more to be known about the mystery of creativity. Jaco's genius has been an enduring inspiration to me. Jaco's example of life and his words to me the last time I saw him were instrumental in my decision to start performing music again after twenty plus year retirement from the "biz." We each have at least a little of the gift that Jaco realized so spectacularly in his lifetime. We ought to use it as fully as we can. Jaco did.

The other issue that I anticipate may come up is that someone is going to interpret these statements as supporting the notion that persons with bipolar disorder should not take their medication. That isn't my intention. I know a number of people including musicians with the diagnosis who have found that Lithium and/or other psychotropic drugs are essential for then to function in the world. The decision whether or not to take medications is a difficult one with complex consequences. Nothing I have said should be construed as counsel against taking medication that may help individuals achieve the stability that they need.


Ken Gemmer

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