Becoming a Healthy Saxophonist: The Benefits of a Vegan Diet (with Wisdom from Dr. Ellsworth Wareham)

In the 1940s and 1950s, bebop jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie ushered in a new musical revolution. Their music pushed the technical and emotional boundaries of what a great musician could communicate to his or her audience. Unfortunately, for all of its greatness, the 1940 - 1960 era had a lot of deficiencies. For example, great female musicians like Vi Redd, Mary Lou Williams, and Peggy Lee had to stand in the shadow of a male-dominated music industry. Though great female musicians were celebrated, the enthusiasm for their playing was always a step behind that reserved for their male counterparts.

Another area of great concern during the golden era of bebop was the physical health of jazz musicians. Drug addiction was rampant, and many great jazz musicians experienced early deaths in part due to their drug addiction. What could the great Charlie Parker have accomplished if he had lived to the age of 80 or 90 instead of the age of 34 years young? The sad list of jazz musicians who died young is a long one:

  1. Fats Navarro, a phenomenal jazz trumpet player, died at the age 26 from tuberculosis. He also suffered from a heroin addiction.
  2. The great Nat King Cole, a heavy smoker, died in 1965 at the young age of 45 from lung cancer.
  3. Jazz piano great Fats Waller died of bronchial pneumonia at the age of 39 in 1943.
  4. Alto saxophone titan Charlie Parker died at the age of 34 in 1955 after an almost 20 year drug addiction. The coroner estimated his age to be about 60.
  5. Tenor saxophone titan John Coltrane died at the age of 40 in 1967 after a battle with liver cancer.
  6. Billie Holiday, an immense musical talent, died at the age of 44. Her health was greatly compromised by drug and alcohol addiction, and heart and liver disease.

Unfortunately, there was not a culture of "take care of the body that God gave you" in the jazz community at the time. Sonny Rollins, the tenor saxophone colossus, was one of the innovators who started to help change the self-destructive mindset rampant among jazz musicians. Rollins took a holistic approach to becoming a great saxophonist: he realized that being a great saxophonist was not only dependent on putting in the minimum 10,000 hours of practice described in Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers: The Story of Sucess".

Rollins realized that physical fitness, proper nutrition, spiritual health, and mental health were all parts of the formula for a long healthy career as a musician.

Growing up, I always knew that eating plants is inherently more healthy than eating a meat-based diet. But when I was young, as most people do, I took advantage of how forgiving the young human body is. In my twenties, I could eat anything that I wanted, and I wouldn't gain weight. Each decade after my 20s, it became harder and harder to keep the weight off. Then, in about early 2019, I stumbled upon a six-year-old video featuring a 98-year-old vegan. He looked fantastic! He skin was smooth, his mind was sharp, and he could have easily passed for 70 years old. His name was Dr. Ellsworth Wareham, and he had been a vegan for about 50 years.

In front of my eyes was solid evidence that the vegan diet is extremely healthy, and I decided that if I want to have a decades long career as an alto saxophonist, then I had better seriously consider converting to veganism. Dr. Wareham's mental acuity at the age of 98 was supporting evidence that a vegan diet can help to keep your mind sharp, even in old age. Dr. Wareham was a heart surgeon, and he worked until the ripe old age of 95. It was not his health that made him to stop working at the age of 95: he decided that he wanted to spend more time with his family. At the end of this post, I will embed the interview with Dr. Wareham that so enlightened me.

So why should a saxophonist, or any musician for that matter, strongly consider a vegan diet?

  1. Plants are lower in "bad" saturated fats (fats that can clog your veins and arteries) than meat products. Plants tend to be higher in the "good" saturated fats. For example, coconut oil is a saturated fat, but it melt at about 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Since the internal body temperature is about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, coconut oil will liquefy in the body when you drink it, or imbibe it as part of your meal. So even though coconut oil is a saturated fat, it will remain in liquid form inside the human body, and it will tend to soften and clean out veins and arteries (imagine pressure washing the insides of your veins and arteries with coconut oil with your heart acting as the pressure source). Saturated meat-based fats, such as beef fat, tend to be solid at room temperature, and at the 98.6 degree Fahrenheit internal body temperature, and that is why they reek so much havoc in the body over a lifetime. Saturated meat-based fats tend to raise "bad" cholesterol levels, and they tend to block veins and arteries in the body over time. 
  2. Plants tend to be a better source of essential vitamins than meat. For example, plants tend to be a healthier source of vitamins A, C, D, and E than meat products. 
  3. Plants in their natural form (i.e. not fried) tend to have a lower caloric density than their meat-based counterparts. In other words, you can consume the same mass in kilograms of plants as you would in meat-based products, and you will generally be consuming fewer calories, hence making it easier to maintain your weight at a lower healthier level.
  4. I don't think that their is conclusive evidence of this yet, but I suspect that eating only a plant-based diet allows you to keep your mental faculties longer. Being a great musician requires a good memory, and after seeing the interview with Dr. Wareham, it seems logical to me that a plant-based diet would lead to less damage to the brain and other internal organs over time, leading to a better functioning of the aged brain. Though this is not fully understood yet, there are theories that a vegan diet lowers CRP levels in the body. CRP stands for C-reactive protein, which is a marker for inflammation. To summarize the theory, a plant-based diet leads to lower inflammation in the body, with chronic inflammation being essentially chronic damage within the body (perfectly healthy tissue is typically not inflammed).

So I believe that if a professional saxophonist wants to maximize his or her probability of having a long and productive career, while still remaining healthy well into their 80s or 90s, these habits will be of great help:

  1. Eat a plant-based diet.
  2. Get at least one hour of cardio-vascular exercise every day to maximize your lung capacity.
  3. Practice long-tones and scales every day.
  4. Try to be a positive person, and try to minimize unnecessary stress.

Happy Practicing, and here's to a long and healthy life!

Here is the interview with a 98-year-old Dr. Ellsworth Wareham:

You should also read:

An Additive Theory to Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 Hours Theory from "Outliers, The Story of Success": The World is So Heavily Biased That You May Have to Actually Go Crazy to Succeed (Applicable to Performing Saxophonists)

This article is a follow-up to this one, and it is cross-posted on Reddit; the html version of the article is here:…