It was Christmas Eve 1965 and the internationally famous, jazz-inspired singer Tony Bennett was having a miserable time.  His marriage was failing and his career seemed over as Beatlemania swept the West.  Alone in a New York hotel room Bennett tried to sleep off his depression until he was forced out of bed by the sounds of a choir.  At first he thought it was the TV but then he opened the door to find the choir actually standing there and singing ‘On a clear day you can see forever’.  They had been sent by his friend,  jazz legend Duke Ellington.  Just to cheer him up.

Bennett later wrote, ‘I realized, ‘’Wow, what great friends.  To take the time out to think of someone else’’.

That story was told in a CNN online article by author John Blake (July 30th 2023) to mark the death of this iconic singer.  Blake went on to make a number of striking points about Tony Bennett and about jazz music.  Much of what I’m writing here derives from his article.


Tony Bennett hated bigotry.  He was demoted in the army for inviting a black soldier back to his home for a Thanksgiving meal and he later went on Civil Rights marches with Martin Luther King Jr and Harry Belafonte to fight against segregation in the US.  Duke Ellington virtually became a family member.

As Blake says, many jazz artists were similarly anti-racist.  Frank Sinatra sided with black artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Sammy Davis Jr.  He once saw Nat King Cole eating his dinner alone in a hotel dressing room.  Sinatra took him into the main dining room and told the management that he would have the entire serving staff fired if they didn’t integrate the dining hall.

Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck refused to play in segregated venues and had the first integrated band in the American army in World War II.   Big band leader Benny Goodman brought six black musicians onstage at Carnegie Hall in 1938 when virtually all such venues were segregated.

The African-American art form

Clearly the stance of these white musicians says something about their character but it also says something about jazz music itself.   Blake states that, at a time when most Americans saw black people as servants, Tony Bennett called colleagues like Ellington and Louis Armstrong geniuses.   Bennett said, ‘Jazz is an African-American art form.  People don’t realize how creative and intelligent it is’.  He went on to say that ‘it’s elongated improvisation, which has never happened before in the history of art’.

Improvisation and collaboration

The point about improvisation is important.  In jazz, musicians do improvise and respond to one another in a group setting.  Blake quotes jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis as affirming that ‘jazz means working things out musically with other people.  […] You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don’t agree with what they’re playing.  It teaches you the very opposite of racism and anti-semitism’.  Conflict is negotiated through collaboration, Blake observes.

Amy Winehouse

And he adds that ‘jazz artists are known for seeking out artists and music that don’t seem natural to them’.   They ‘instinctively aim to erase categories’.  So jazz is all about embracing difference.

To see that, think of Tony Bennett’s collaboration with Lady Gaga or the one that Blake describes with Amy Winehouse.  In 2011, just four months before her tragic death, the eighty-five year old Bennett recorded a duet with the twenty-eight year old Winehouse.  She was in awe of Bennett and, while singing the duet, suddenly stepped away from the microphone, denigrated her own singing and told him that she didn’t want to waste his time.  But Bennett told her she was getting better with each take.  ‘We’ll keep doing it till we got one, okay?  You’re not in any hurry, are you?  I’m not either.’  Then she nailed it and gave him a big hug.  Asked, years later, to compare Amy Winehouse with other young singers he had encountered, Tony Bennett quietly mused, ‘She was special’.

A common spirit

I’ve called this article ‘Jazz and group therapy’.  Where’s the group therapy?  Well, there are an awful lot of parallels – not identical things but similarities – between jazz and therapy in small groups.  The spirit of jazz and the spirit of group analysis are not unrelated.  They share common principles.

First of all, to state the obvious, they both happen in a group environment.  All the complex psychological dynamics of groups – fascinating but way too numerous to attempt to list here – are at work in each.  A difference is that in a jazz band you don’t have an analytically trained group therapist drawing attention to them.

And there can be vast strength and richness in groups – therapeutic and musical.  They are often greater than the sum of their parts.


Then you have to improvise in both settings.  In a therapy group neither the therapist (musically called the group conductor) nor the group members know what’s going to happen in a session.  You can make some guesses in advance but you can’t really prepare.


Next, there’s the question of difference.  People often imagine that therapy groups are full of individuals with the same problem.  The reality is that the opposite is frequently the case and the power of the treatment resides in precisely that fact.  This diversity also means that in a group you learn to appreciate and understand people who are different from you.  John Blake says that Tony Bennett ‘wasn’t threatened by people who were not like him’ and after spending a good period of time in a group that tends to happen to the participants too.


All this takes in issues of conflict.  As with jazz, group members are encouraged to listen to people they don’t necessarily agree with to the point where, if it’s a well-functioning group, conflict can be resolved through collaboration.   It won’t be easy but real growth can occur.  John Blake cites Greg Thomas, co-founder of the Jazz Leadership Project making a relevant point: ‘You have to be willing to play beyond your comfort zone.’


Diversity obviously includes race, about which so much has been said in this blog.  As with jazz, group analytic psychotherapy strives with all its might to avoid discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity.  It aims to do the same on grounds of religion, age, gender, sexual orientation or disability.


There are many other parallels between the art form that is jazz and the art form that is group analysis.  But perhaps the most important similarity is that, through their emphasis on difference and diversity, on respecting the other and on helping that person find a voice which is then heard, they are both, at their best, truly democratic.

Tony Bennett the man

I began with Tony Bennett and perhaps I should end with him because he represented this democratic spirit.  ‘He reached’, Blake writes, ‘across racial lines, cultures and generations to find common ground’.   He was not, of course, without his problems.  He had relationship difficulties at times, he struggled with addiction and he had little financial nous.  But he was also a giant in his embrace of those whom society excluded, at a time when that could cost you your career.  He was a great singer.  But he was also a great human being.