In 2017, blues vocalist and Buffalo Music Hall of Fame inductee Patti Parks was invited to Memphis to speak as part of a panel during the Blues Foundation’s annual International Blues Challenge Festival.
The symposium, “Blues as Healer,” found the singer sharing her experience of music’s restorative powers, much of it witnessed during her day gig hours as a nurse, and solidified by the 2015 launch of her Nurs’n Blues initiative, a bi-weekly program at area in-patient rehabilitation centers aimed at aiding in the recovery of patients suffering from chemical dependency and mental-health issues.
It might seem counter-intuitive to some, that the blues – a music often drenched in suffering and never too far removed from the field hollers and slave lamentations that form its roots – could act as an agent of elevation and healing. But it is precisely that recognition of our shared suffering - our common humanity, and the fact that we will all die one day – that can act as a salve for suffering.
Parks, who watched her son struggle with dependency issues, knows too well the need for this restorative therapy. It’s at the core of the Nurs’n Blues mission statement.
“We mirror the powerful impact that the blues has as a means of communicating thoughts and expressions in very safe way, through music,” she tells me. “Blues is reflective of survival and perseverance - through laughter and tears. So many thoughts and feelings are unleashed through these rhythms.
"Our board-certified music therapist uses this beautiful art form as part of a plan of care. We’re doing music interventions concurrent with teaching blues history. We’ve served over 1,000 clients and their families, and the feedback has been that the music has provided these struggling people with feelings of well-being and calmness.”
Parks teamed with Music Is Art and the Blues Society of WNY this year to present the fourth annual Nurs’n Blues Music Fest on May 25.
The bill is a hot one, joining some of our scene’s most prominent blues and blues-related artists (Robert “Freightrain” Parker, the Jeremy Keyes Band, the Patti Parks Band, Grace Stumberg & Grace Lougen, Hanna PK, 12-Pack Jack, and Sheila Connors) on a bill headlined by renowned New Orleans-born guitarist, bassist, harp player and vocalist Kenny Neal, a 2016 Grammy nominee and ambassador of the Cajun grit and swampy blues associated with his home state.
"I can say from my own experience with my mother being sick, her loving and wanting to hear music is what got her out to gigs while she just finished chemo," said Grace Stumberg.
"She wanted to fight because she couldn’t imagine not hearing me sing or listening to music anymore. Having a concert to attend is what got her up. It healed her and really gave her something to fight for.
"I think music therapy - no matter what style, whether classical or metal or whatever - is underrated. I’ve seen with my own eyes how it heals people. Music in nursing homes is bustling right now. Residents love it. That’s why I’m super pumped to be a part of this concert. Music is a true healer of mental and physical struggles."
For Parks, the fact that a music born of suffering can be employed to alleviate suffering is a beautiful irony.
“This is a mission of hope,” she said. “We want to help those struggling with addiction and, through our adjunct therapy, catapult them into their recovery.”
The Nurs'n Blues Fest
3 p.m. May 25 at The Cove, 4701 Transit Road, Depew. Tickets are $20 advance, $25 at the door via musicisart.org