March 17, 2010

When Reich Was Cool and Jazz Was Hot

I recently had the opportunity to correspond with blog follower Jessica Williams, a renowned musician and composer. Music critics have referred to her as one of the greatest pianists of our time, with a jazz style that is experimental and avant-garde. Ms. Williams has had a longstanding interest Wilhelm Reich’s work and, in 1979, made an LP record entitled Orgonomic Music. She has written beautifully about Reich and the emotional plague in her blog CURRENTS: The Collected Writings of Jessica Williams
If you haven’t yet heard Ms. Williams’ music, treat yourself and be carried away by her beautiful compositions and remarkable technique. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1948 and began piano lessons at the age of four. Remarkably, at seven, she entered the Peabody Conservatory of Music. As a teen she moved to Philadelphia and played with the quintet of Philly Joe Jones, who had been the drummer with Miles Davis’ band. She left for San Francisco in the 1970s, where she played with notables such as Eddie Harris, Tony Williams, Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz. Ms. Williams now resides in Olympia, Washington. Throughout her career, she recorded many general release records and CDs and presently has at least 40 CDs available for purchase. 
Ms. Williams told me of a particular concern she has with those who have set themselves up as authorities on Reich. I am now in the process of researching and writing on the issue that troubles her and will address it in a future post. It is good to know there are still artists out there who appreciate Reich’s work and want it kept free from distortion.  
In the past, there was a strong connection between Reich’s ideas and the art world. Myron Sharaf, author of Fury on Earth, the acclaimed biography of Reich, wrote a letter to the editor of the magazine Commentary in 1962. In it, he spoke of the “sweep and depth” of Reich’s influence on major contemporary American artists such as Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Karl Shapiro, and Paul Goodman. 
Reich’s influence was especially strong in New York during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when artists of all kinds were becoming fascinated with psychology. Some became involved in Freudian psychoanalysis while others were taken with Reich’s ideas. Many experienced some form of “Reichian” therapy. 
At this time, in many circles, Reich was the height of hipness. William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) mentored Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997). It is reported he introduced them to Reich’s writings. These three were the icons of the Beat Generation. Burroughs included many references to orgone energy and Reich’s research in his novels, Kerouac wrote of the orgone accumulator in On the Road, and Ginsberg corresponded with Reich about his own emotional concerns. 
Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg and their followers frequented the Manhattan nightclubs, listening to the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, musicians Ginsberg dubbed as “secret heroes” to their group. It is evident, although not widely acknowledged or known, that Wilhelm Reich, jazz music, and the so-called Beat Generation are linked. 
At the same time, Reich’s ideas were generating interest among musicians. In the book Jazz Visions: Lennie Tristano and His Legacy, British jazz double bassist and record producer Peter Ind writes about Reich's influence on Tristano and other jazz musicians and artists during the 1950s, including Ronnie Ball and Gil Evans. Ind points out that the draw was that orgone therapy was less introspective and less cognitively-oriented than Freudian psychoanalysis.  
It is not accidental that orgone therapy was, and is, appealing to musicians who sense the energy in and around them and rely upon their contact with it to play. Musicians “spark” one another, making for performances where the energetic charge builds and affects both performers and audience. Hence it is said that performances are exciting, electrifying, thrilling, stirring, moving, stimulating, and so on. Also, when one is performing, they are feeling not thinking. Orgone therapy is, in part, about getting out of the world of the “thinking brain” and into the world of the “feeling body.” Improvisation, so fundamental to jazz, is not intellectual but spontaneous and immediate, free of conscious thought. I believe this can only be explained through an energetic connection. 
Emotions are based on the perception of the movement of orgone energy within the body. In fact, the word “emotion” is derived from the Latin emovere, which means “move.” It is also why we say we are moved when something, especially a musical piece, touches us emotionally. If a person’s energy is stagnant, they don’t feel much. However, if the energy becomes excited (as it does when one hears or plays music) and begins to move, the perception of feelings emerges. This is why music has the capacity to ignite deep feelings in both listener and performer. 
Just as some in the jazz world were being influenced by orgonomy, so too were practitioners of orgone therapy being influenced by the jazz scene. I am a fan of Thelonius Monk and heard him play in the 1960s and 1970s. I recall being with Dr. Morton Herskowitz when Monk was at the Showboat in Center City Philadelphia. Monk at times struck the treble keys not with his fingers but a two-foot long shoehorn, swaying from side to side, stamping time, and drinking whisky. Around the corner from the Showboat was Peps, another jazz emporium that brought in the finest musicians and vocalists. 
The Philly clubs, along with those in New York, were a center for the jazz greats, beginning in the late 1940s. I was fortunate to have seen many amazing musicians who were, or became, legends. I also grew friendly with a few. These experiences have added to my lifelong enjoyment of this wonderful musical genre.  
Those of my generation had the opportunity to live through a remarkable period of artistic and intellectual expression, a cultural wave that allowed Reich’s ideas to be embraced, for a time. I would even argue that Reich played a role in creating that wave, and hope one day history will properly recognize this contribution.
In the late 1960s, and even into the 1970s and 1980s, those of us involved in orgonomy held out hope that Reich’s discoveries would be accepted and really take off. That interest in orgone therapy would grow in an exponential fashion. We felt we were at the beginning. Unfortunately, the therapy I practice and know to be so beneficial has not caught on in the way we’d anticipated. There is far less interest in orgone therapy then there was decades ago. For example, while I do have a few patients who are artists, there is not nearly the demand for orgone therapy by those in the art world as there once was. 
On a personal level, I am glad to have helped many lead happier, more satisfying lives. Yet I do worry about the future of orgone therapy. Those few of us who continue to practice the treatment Reich pioneered are not young. Furthermore, beginning psychiatrists and psychologists have shown almost no interest to be trained in this unique method. My hope is that with the Internet people will not only come to know Reich in an intellectual way, but will also be inspired to experience the extraordinary therapy he pioneered. Perhaps some of these will then undertake training. In my experience, only by having therapy do people come to see the tremendous value of it and, by extension, the whole of Reich’s work. 
Through the years, gifted artists of all disciplines have experienced and benefitted from therapy. Correctly conducted therapy systematically loosens “armor,” chronic contractions within the body. Contractions are removed first in the upper body, which include the ocular, oral and cervical segments. Alleviating holding in these areas increases the flow of energy to the areas below, especially the thoracic (chest) segment which includes the shoulders, arms and hands. It is important to point out that armor is not not just physical but is also held in a person’s character. Character involves a complex set of thoughts and behaviors that have developed to defend against painful feelings.
The thoracic segment holds rage, reaching, longing and sobbing. During therapy sessions, as armor is dissolved, long-buried feelings that would otherwise remain unconscious are re-activated and their expression is allowed. For example, removal of armor might lead to feelings of heartbreaking sadness, which sobbing then relieves. With the breakdown of  armor, stronger contact with core feelings comes about and one feels better and more, emotionally and physically. Often even serious disorders such as chronic depression and bipolar illness can be treated effectively without psychotropic medications. It is truly a mind-body therapy. 
I have had the good fortune to treat a number of artists and virtually all have felt therapy has helped them with their artistic expression. Those who express their art with their arms, hands and chest are able to play their instrument, sing, or paint with more feeling. Their “mechanical” movements are not necessary improved, but their “heartfelt feelings” are better able to come though. This makes sense because reducing armor brings about better contact with the self and allows for freer expression of one’s individuality. Also, when energetic holding in the ocular (brain) segment is reduced, there is decreased intellectualization and increased spontaneity. Thinking always interferes with emotional and artistic expression. As Jessica Williams says: “Music doesn’t come from one’s hands. It comes from one’s HEART.” 
In my experience, therapy moves artists away from adherence to former, needed structure. For example, a patient of mine who is a painter had relied a great deal on copying and produced work that was detailed. She is happy to report she now is painting large, abstract forms in a much freer way. Transformations of this kind occur without any conscious effort on the artist’s part. Complexity gives way to more effortless expression of individuality. Art is performed more simply, one might say, more organically.
Of course, many vastly talented artists have not had psychiatric orgone therapy. Neurotic, and even psychotic, individuals can produce phenomenal work. Reich said artistic expression was able to come through “a hole” in the armor. However, painter Ken Noland, one of the best known color field painters, had a different perspective. In a January 2006 interview I conducted with him, he said he was not sure about a “hole" and that “probably armoring can be put in abeyance in creative circumstances, somehow put aside.” Sadly, Ken passed away on January 5th of this year. I will miss him. 
As for Jessica Williams, she says she has managed to discover a whole new type of music, which is not jazz. Instead of playing in smokey venues and immersing herself in all that such a lifestyle entails, she has chosen to focus on recording at her great piano right at home. She says: “Now my audiences are larger and the music, just as hip, is presented in the way it deserves. And I deserve.”  I feel much the same about my work, now, in the field of orgonomy. 
Ms. Williams feels her most recent CD titled Jessica Williams: The Art of the Piano is her best yet. It is available for purchase along with her other music at She is also working on a new CD, titled Touch.


George said...

I was fascinated to learn of Reich's influence in the jazz world. It actually makes sense in terms of the energy involved in making the music and the emotional expression it engenders. However, I was under the impression that Reich was somewhat critical of jazz music itself and felt it was chaotic and undisciplined. I know his favorite composer was Beethoven so I'm not sure how he reconciled the two. Like everything else I suppose there is good jazz and not so good jazz.

George Hughes

Richard Tabnik said...


as a jazz alto saxophonist, i have been deeply influenced by the music of Lennie Tristano for decades. When i began studies with his closest associate, pianist and teacher Connie Crothers in 1980, i then became introduced to Reich's work by her and have recently begun orgonomy with Dr. Harry Lewis.

Connie and I also had the honor of playing at the Wilhelm Reich Museum's 50th seminar after his passing; an amazing place to visit for anyone in that area

As you may imagine, that seminar and visit to the museum was literally mind blowing!

Thanks so much for this post!


Richard Tabnik, jazz alto saxophonist with
The Connie Crothers Quartet

claus schlaberg said...

Concerning Reich's paintings:
Is there any illustrated book on them available?

Psychiatric Orgone Therapy

One of Wilhelm Reich’s most important and lasting contributions is a unique treatment for emotional disorders called psychiatric orgone therapy. Reich began as a psychoanalyst and was a member of Freud’s inner circle, but moved away from Freud’s method of free association when he developed a more effective verbal approach he called character analysis. Later he came to recognize the existence of a specific biologic energy in living organisms that he called “orgone,” which was coined from the word “organism.” With this discovery Reich was able to combine his verbal method with a technique that could normalize a person’s energy. The result was an entirely new approach to treating emotional disorders that he named orgone therapy.

Reich’s work with patients convinced him the disturbance in an individual’s energy state is caused by contractions in the body, especially in the musculature. He called these contractions “armor,” and established that they begin to develop in infancy as a way to block out emotionally painful events.

Past traumatic experiences are locked in the body--and they remain throughout life. How this happens is not fully understood, but there is no question that anxiety, anger and sadness, as well as the other upsetting feelings and emotions from childhood are not forgotten. Armor not only holds the disturbing past, causing it to remain alive but out of consciousness awareness, but it also affects how one feels and functions. Because living a natural healthy life depends upon whether a person’s energy flows freely or is blocked, the aim of psychiatric orgone therapy is to free up energy by breaking down armor. As these areas of holding dissolve, patients release their long buried feelings and emotions in the safety of the therapist’s office. They most usually surface spontaneously with the specific method Reich innovated, without the need of urging or any intervention on the part of the treating psychiatrist. However, occasionally, pressure needs to be applied to spastic muscles, or other techniques used to normalize the body. Because this treatment combines a verbal approach with a physical technique, it addresses both the mind and the body to bring about profound changes in how one thinks, feels and functions.

Today almost all people seeking treatment from a psychiatrist are given medications to reduce their symptoms. However, with psychiatric orgone therapy it is usual that patients, over time, find themselves able to wean themselves off medication and function without pharmacologic treatment. Reich’s therapy is unique in that it not only relieves distressing symptoms, but also does much more. It enables individuals to expand and feel pleasure, and better enjoy the many satisfactions life has to offer.

There are people who claim to practice some form of “Reichian” or “orgone” therapy, even though they have had no formal training in medicine or psychology. Often the techniques used by these self-proclaimed therapists have little or nothing to do with the very specific methods Reich developed and taught. The value of such therapies is questionable and may even harm those who get involved in them.

Qualified psychiatric orgone therapists have extensive training. They are physicians who have gone on to specialize in psychiatry and then in the very unique subspecialty of orgone therapy. They practice in much the same way as Reich did more than a half century ago. Ph.D. Psychologists who have had proper training can practice a form of orgone therapy safely and effectively. However, it is crucial they have supervision by a qualified psychiatric orgone therapist.