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On Blind Tom, Essence of Creativity, Autism and Jazz

Hrayr Attarian By

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It is safe to assume, that today, Blind Tom Wiggins (AKA Bethune) is not a household name. In the mid to late 19th century, and into the first decade of the 20th, however, Blind Tom was a phenomenon who some named the Eighth Wonder. Although no contemporary physician made the actual diagnosis of autism, it is quite clear from reading about him that he, in all likelihood, fell within the autistic spectrum. Jazz per se did not exist then either, but Tom improvised all his pieces in the style of popular music of the time including waltzes, nocturnes and some proto-ragtime.

I came across Blind Tom Wiggins accidentally in the used CD bin of a local record store. The copious liner notes include essays and biographical information by four authors: John Davis, the pianist interpreting Wiggins' work; magician/actor/writer Ricky Jay; neurologist/author Oliver Sacks; and poet/activist Amiri Baraka.

Sacks' piece contains a curious statement: that, because Blind Tom was most likely autistic, and therefore did not possess strong personality characteristics, and because "creativity has to do with inner life—with the flow of new ideas and strong feelings. Creativity, in this sense, was probably never possible for Blind Tom." Whether he was autistic or, as Baraka claims in the disc booklet, was labeled such because of "white supremacist mumbo jumbo... which still passes for science," two things are clear: first, he was indeed extremely creative, as his improvised pieces (taken down by others) demonstrate; and, second, science can prove even the most august minds wrong as it has done in this case with the venerable Sacks. Autistic people do have an inner life and can be creative. To be fair, Sacks wrote his essay in late 1999, and a lot has changed in our understanding of autism, as I write this, a dozen years later. People reading this in 2023 may find some of the provided information here, in turn, to also be outdated.

What is Autism?

A disorder of brain pathway development, autism primarily affects social interaction and communication. There is a change in the way brain cells process information and organize their connections with one another. The cause remains unknown. The school of thought that autistic individuals cannot be creative comes from research now almost two decades, where animals whose brains were experimentally damaged, in areas thought of as the seats of creativity, exhibited symptoms similar to autism.

In 2010 a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) research study showed that, compared to controls, autistic individuals had an impaired response in the areas of the brain that process the understanding of the emotional content of language. They did, however, try to "compensate" for it by showing an increased activation of language comprehension areas of both sides of the brain.

On the left, In this highly stylized and simplified drawing marked in red is the area of the brain that is involved in grasping emotional content of speech and in blue the primary area of language comprehension and on the right, in orange are parts of the brain that are activated in jazz musicians during the creative process.

Previously research on jazz musicians had shown activation in areas of the brain unrelated to the above two areas, and, although no studies exist on autistic jazz musicians, given what we have here strongly suggests that autism does not preclude creativity. This is not to suggest that, in order to be an artist, one needs to have autism or one of the related disorders, as most musicians are not, and most individuals on the autistic spectrum are not musicians.

Here is some evidence from history of art and music as well. Arguably the greatest modern interpreter of the Johann Sebastian Bach canon, Glenn Gould, was a high functioning autistic individual, as is young jazz piano phenomenon Matt Savage, who started performing with his own trio at age nine. Not to forget jazz pianist Derek Paravicini and jazz multi-instrumentalist Tony DeBlois, both of whom, much like Tom Wiggins, are also blind. The list goes on and on, but it's worth mentioning one more individual: Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay, who is severely autistic and non-verbal, and although not a musician, is a brilliant poet, author and philosopher, and has written Beyond the Silence: My Life, The World and Autism (National Autistic Society, 2000). Can we sincerely claim that these individuals are not creative in the traditional sense of the word?

Autistic individuals are not devoid of an inner life, nor are they indifferent to the world. In fact, what is interpreted as indifference is, in reality, the anxiety produced from being overwhelmed by ordinary sensory inputs. Many years before the advent of MRI and the publication of the research quoted earlier, therapist Gail Gillingham eloquently summarized the misunderstandings surrounding autistic individuals in these words:

"When we listen to those with autism, we discover a totally new picture of the condition. We find individuals who long for relationships with us, who have cognitive skills intact and are able to communicate with us in ways we never dreamed possible."

What About the Role of Jazz in the Science of Autism?

Many a dedicated music teacher has discovered that autistic individuals can become impressive improvisers when encouraged—in fact, many of them have perfect pitch. Moreover, improvised music and jazz therapy has become a useful tool in helping musically gifted autistic children gain self-awareness and relate to others in social situations.

Jazz, in using improvisation as an end rather than a means of perfecting a composition, is the quintessential unconventional musical (and conversational) form. Therefore, how can we define it by the narrow and rigid conventions of creativity? The freedom involved in playing jazz became a metaphor for not only the yearning and demands of the oppressed African Americans who invented the genre, but also for freedom in other political and social situations, hence most dictatorships banned the genre. In the same vein, autistic individuals by being labeled "devoid of inner life," and other such pseudoscientific epithets, are a marginalized group. Jazz in its freedom of expression is a uniquely suited art form to express their own desire of equality and respect.

As Canadian author John Clifton remarked:

"They live dissonant lives in a world made up mainly of neurotypicals [non autistic people]. They are frequently landing on the "wrong note" and hence their feelings of isolation."

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