The Rippingtons’ Healing Sound

Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Here’s an unusual picture: guitarist Russ Freeman and the other members of the Rippingtons performing with their acoustic instruments at a clinic for physically and psychologically disabled young people.

The band, best known for its smooth, contemporary jazz, interacts with the children, urging them to join in with various percussion instruments. After a brief period of reluctance, the youngsters begin to respond, in some cases with more outgoing vitality than the clinic staff members have seen in weeks.

“Once we get them started,” says Freeman, “it’s amazing how they begin to communicate. It’s like they’re no longer troubled by their handicaps. Some kids actually get up and start dancing. It’s a very freeing environment.”

What are the Rippingtons doing in this remarkable setting?

In fact, their appearances at clinics have come about as the result of some surprising correspondence the band began to receive a few years ago.

“We got a letter from a mother who had an autistic child,” explains Freeman, “and she was astounded to discover that hearing our music was helping the child. Another letter came from a man whose fiancee had been in a coma from a car accident and was convinced that our music had helped her recovery.”


A connection with the National Assn. for Music Therapy followed, and Freeman now tries to include clinic programs around the country wherever the Rippingtons’ schedule permits. On their current tour, which brings the band to the Greek Theatre on Saturday night, they have performed at clinics in New York, Oklahoma City, Boston, New Orleans and Pittsburgh. Their newest album, “Brave New World,” is dedicated to the Music Therapy Assn.

Music therapy is a well-regarded, if not highly visible branch of the medical establishment. Hundreds of studies report the effectiveness of music in areas ranging from heart attack and stroke recovery to chronic pain, childbirth and immune enhancement.

There are a variety of other general ways in which music can be productive in the improvement of both physical and psychological responses in patients, and the Rippingtons’ work touches upon several.

Among them: the triggering of past memories (elderly patients often react with unexpected vigor to big band music from the swing era); as a form of emotional expression and communication (especially apparent when patients are given percussion instruments to play), and as a means of bringing coherence and order to confused and anxious patients (via the natural structure and time- sequences inherent to music).

It’s less clear why jazz music--and, specifically, the breezy, rhythmic jazz of the Rippingtons--is as effective as it seems to be. One reason may be that the spontaneity associated with the playing of jazz may stimulate a more open, unthreatening relationship with the patients.

Why do the Rippingtons do it? Clearly not for the pay, since their clinic performances are all voluntary.

“The whole thing started around the time of the cop-killer rap lyrics controversy,” recalls Freeman. “I remember being so glad that I wasn’t involved with music on that kind of level.

“And it suddenly dawned on me that this was why we were doing the clinics--for the chance to use what we do to help heal, not to hurt. And because the kind of communication we can help open up in these patients is probably the best thing that music could ever be used for.”