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The Healing Power of Pop Music? Happy 50th, Chicago!

By Steven Halpern – I don’t often write about this aspect of popular music, because there’s usually not that much to write about. Pop music is not generally created with the intention of promoting healing, and certainly not relaxation.

However, 50 years ago, there was a brief moment in time when a number of creative musicians were inspired to explore pop song forms that got radio play with innovative arrangements; combining the rhythms of rock, pop, the improvisational creativity of jazz, and consciousness-raising lyrics. It’s high time to acknowledge this forgotten road not traveled by many bands.

About 50 years ago, I got a midnight call from one of my best friends to come over to his apartment to hear the LP he had just bought. “It’s the Paul Butterfield Blues Band…with horns! Let’s start our own band, and you’ll be able to play trumpet again, instead of just guitar!” We did, with a lineup that included Joe Ford, who went on to play with jazz legend McCoy Tyner, but that’s another story.

As soon as I heard the textures of horns, guitars, and keyboards, I was hooked. About the same time, Blood, Sweat & Tears released their first album, spawning in short order Mike Bloomfield and The Electric Flag, Larry Coryell, Gary Burton, and the Free Spirits. Manfred Mann and Rick Derringer also released albums in this genre. I know this, because I had a direct connection with  all of them in 1969.

Only one band that was formed in February 1967 built on their initial success, through many ups and downs, and continues to be vital today. That band is Chicago. Their first release (as Chicago Transit Authority) was a double album, with many familiar hits. I wore out my copy learning all the parts. That album inspired my own 8-piece jazz/rock band with horns, and we played many of these songs.

CNN aired an extraordinary documentary on January 1 that took me, and I’m sure many others, on a wonderful ride down memory lane. I’m sure the quantity of natural, music-assisted highs resonated around the country; yet it was more than that. As I watched, I could feel the accelerated flow of sound-stimulated endorphins (feel-good hormones our own bodies produce that contribute to healing feelings) coursing through my body. I even dusted off my trumpet, and held it in my hands for the first time in 10 years.

 

Déjà vu and Flashback Central

It’s amazing how music can trigger specific memories. No senior-moment fuzziness in this house. If you saw the show, I’m sure you had your own memories. If you didn’t, I recommend checking out the DVD or online "Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago" this month.

One of my sharpest flashbacks was when I interviewed the band Chicago backstage at their concert in Buffalo, the summer of ’68. I spoke mostly with Jimmy Pankow, the dynamic trombone player who did most of the horn arrangements. He told me and my band’s phenomenal sax player, Joe Ford, how he was planning to write more horn parts inspired by the great Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

That never happened, of course. If it had, their band wouldn’t have been as successful as they have been. The documentary details the personalities, and reasons they shifted their approach.  There are a few songs that they’ve done over the years that reminded me of that conversation when I first heard them on the radio.

I remember exclaiming out loud, “Hot damn, Pankow. You finally did it!” when I heard the dynamic horn parts on “Free,” and “Feeling Stronger Every Day.” It reminded me of the San Francisco Bay Area’s own Tower of Power.

Of course, their huge hit, “Beginnings,” featured the horn section. “Walt, the horns sound (or are) like one set of lungs,” Jimi Hendrix once said to Walter Parazaider and Jimmy Pankow.

Listen with attention and intention, beyond the words, and you’ll more deeply appreciate the healing power of the uplifting resonance of the trombone, trumpet, and sax. No synth matches the real deal. “Beginnings” also included Peter Cetera's brilliant bass lines, and segued into an African percussion section that broke new ground on pop radio.

Thank you, Chicago, for a lifetime of inspiration.

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Steven Halpern is a founding father of New Age music, best known for his ethereal keyboard compositions. In his New York incarnation, he co-led the #1 jazz/rock band in Buffalo while he was still in college. Steven’s latest releases are Manifesting Abundance at the Speed of Sound, and Optimal Health at the Speed of Sound. Read more at StevenHalpern.com.

 

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