Saturday, July 13, 2013

Keith Jarrett, get help

I've been reading articles about Keith Jarrett's performance last week at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, the latest being Thomas Conrad's for JazzTimes. There are things I don't understand. Why would anyone pay up to 120 Euros for the likely chance of being walked out on and verbally abused by the artist he or she came to see? Why does Jarrett continue to perform in public? Does he need the money? Another brilliant, eccentric pianist, Glenn Gould, played his last public concert at the age of 32. Why doesn't Jarrett just stay home? Or record only in a studio? Or, if he needs the presence and energy of a live audience to create masterpieces like The Koln Concert and, more recently, Rio, what about relaxing his own unreasonable expectations for the audience's behavior?

Like countless other jazz and music lovers, I'm enchanted by Jarrett's piano playing. I have seen him live, but only once, on November 7, 2001, at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. (I'm reasonably sure that was the date. He also played Orchestra Hall three times in the 1980s.) That was an indoor, controlled environment, one where photography is forbidden, and back then there were no iPhones with cameras and flashes.

If he returned to Minneapolis today, I wouldn't go to see him. The risks outweigh the potential rewards, at least from my perspective (and I'm sure there are plenty of people who don't agree with me on this). I'm happy to buy his recordings (a whole shelf full, so far). I'd rather see him live, because live music is always better, but I wouldn't go.

When did Jarrett start melting down at the merest hint that someone might be taking his picture during a concert? It might have been November 6, 1982, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England. The unofficial Keith Jarrett website (there is no official Keith Jarrett website) includes these comments:

The concert was interrupted because of someone taking photographs. Comments from David: “It was a cold rainy Manchester evening, a sparse audience, some jaw dropping solos, but the evening was sadly remembered mostly for an extremely insensitive photographer on the balcony (during a particlarly sensitive section of a solo) blasting off a sequence of images on a motordrive, and Keith just slamming his hands on the keyboard marching over to the man and saying, ‘Do you realise what it takes for me to build up to preparing for this piece of work and then to perform it?’ He then told him to get out of the theatre, which to his credit he did.”

Most famous (or infamous) was the scene in Perugia in 2007, when Jarrett asked "someone who speaks English" to "tell all these a**holes with cameras to turn them f****** off right now. Right now! No more photographs ... If we see any more lights, I reserve the right (and I think the privilege is yours to hear us), but I reserve the right and Jack [DeJohnette] and Gary [Peacock] reserve the right to stop playing and leave the goddamn city!" The Festival declared they would never invite him back, but they did. And this time, as Conrad reports, Jarrett demanded that the stage lights be turned off. The trio played in the dark in case, God forbid, someone tried to take a picture.

Jarrett has walked off the stage because people were coughing, because he didn't like the piano, but most often because he saw or thought he saw a camera. He has refused to play an encore, telling the crowd, "Because of this [a camera sighting] we're not playing an encore!" Like an evil despot, he punishes the many for the sins of the few. He expects one hundred percent compliance from audiences of thousands at outdoor festivals, where there will always be someone who ignores the announcer's pleas for no photos, or forgets the ban on photos, or decides to see if he or she can get away with taking just one photo, or maybe even thinks, If I take a photo and Jarrett sees me, I can shut this concert down. That's power, to some. Jarrett may think he's calling the shots (no pun), but he's letting his audience decide if he'll play or not.

On the Amazon website, Jarrett has posted his own highly personal liner notes from the Paris/London: Testament recording (released in October 2009). He writes about his Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, how energy-sapping it is to play solo concerts, how "the amount of preparation work, mental, physical, and emotional is probably beyond anybody's imagination" and "it is NOT natural to sit at a piano, bring no material, clear your mind completely of musical ideas, and play something that is of lasting value and brand new," about his second wife leaving him for the third time and how he "quickly scrambled to stay alive," his "incredibly vulnerable emotional state" and having "lots of physical ailments ... plus stress, plus an emptiness that was overwhelming." Reading this, it's impossible not to feel compassion for a man who is genuinely burdened by genius, and gratitude for the absolute beauty he has given us.

But the scenes have to stop. Is there no one close to him who can intervene with kindness and love?

Next Friday, July 19, Jarrett and his trio play the Theatres Romains De Fourviere in Lyon, France., a large, open-air theater built on a Roman ruin. Good luck with that.


  1. I saw Jarrett at Orchestra Hall back in the 80s, a solo concert. He stopped playing at one point and asked if everyone could cough at the same time, as there was some sporadic coughing taking place prior to his "cough directive." I felt very upset by what he said, and he didn't even swear. I've heard him solo, with the trio, and with his European quartet. Like you, I would be very reticent to go hear him again, just because I would worry about him having a meltdown. I don't worry about any other jazz musician I go to hear. I don't carry cough lozenges with me 24/7/365, but I would probably buy some if I were to hear Jarrett again even if I didn't have a cold, just in case. As far as him changing, sometimes people get trapped in a pattern that is beyond their ability to change for the better. Jarrett is truly on an island, and people like you and me who love his music can only make a choice to refrain from seeing him live. It often takes a life-shattering event (divorce, cancer, etc.) for people to change. Jarrett's had his difficulties, but he hasn't been shattered (IMO). Gandhi, though he was very influential in his dealings with the British and Indian governments, once said that the one man he has had very little influence over was himself. I realize that Jarrett is not free to make a better choice, thus he is bound in a destructive pattern that is not born of free will. It's not like he's considering (A) should I be gracious? or (B) act like an ass? and then consciously chooses B. A isn't an option for him because of how trapped he is. Having been trapped myself at times in my life and set free by a nearly unbearable shattering, I have compassion for him, but I won't go hear him again because he simply isn't safe; I don't hang around people who aren't safe. Thank you for what you wrote. Gary

  2. 7 july 2013 Perugia- I visited this strange concert with my family and all of us were very dissappointed. I been to many jazzconcerts the last 43 years and this was a disaster of many aspects. If you are as sensitive as Mr Jarrett I don't think you should perform in an open air arena. If you think you can control about 4000 spectators and nearly everyone has a cellphone with camera I think you are naive. You can solve some parts of this problems by clearily announcing in english, italian and in french that it's ok to take photos without flash during the first tune. Play for example a tune in 2 minutes and the musicians can close their eyes if they are "allergic" to flashes, because it's always in a crowd with 4000 thousand someone who will break the rules. It's not fair to play the first set in darkness. Our family had paid 210Euro and the flight tickets from Copenhagen. For me Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette concert were the top artist in 2013 Umbria Jazz Festival. They definitely not now. I talked to the american sound engineer in the pause because I never been to a concert with such a low pitch of volume. He was totally frustrated and had argued with Mr Jarrett but was forbidden to put up the volume a bit.The Italian coengineers said it was a great mistake to have such low volume in an open air arena. The sound from this equipment was awesome! Other nights in same arena when we listened to Wynton Marsalis and the duo Chic Corea and Herbie Hancock it was outstanding sound, a perfect volume and a great concerts. These musicians didn't get upset or act rude to the people that feed them and take some photos. It was a really nice atmosphere in these two concerts. The duo (Corea and Hancock) also play music that is subtile and demands very high concentration. They managed that and behaved in a good way. As my daughter said- "Fantastic ,they talk to the audience in a nice and a friendly mood." :) And two extra tunes! I think Mr Jarrett should avoid Umbria Jazz Festival in the future because he for sure got a hang up with the audience in Perugia. This was the third time I visited to hear this great Trio live. It was great the two first times but not this time!

    / Claes from Sweden

  3. Thank you for writing, Claes and Hedda. I hadn't heard about the instructions to the sound engineers.

  4. I saw Andres Segovia in concert at Orchestra Hall (late 70's) where he played unamplified to a full house. One person started to cough, and he didn't say a thing, but looked in their direction staring daggers. That was the end of the coughing for the night.

  5. Keith has long been one of my biggest inspirations and influences. I have heard him numerous times solo, trio and also in various classical settings. He has never been anything less than totally professional and respectful towards the audience when I have seen him, so it somewhat mystifies me why he has become so irate the past few years. This is his decision to behave this way. What I think is sad and unfortunate, is that this has potential to blemish one of the greatest legacies in the history of jazz. At this point in his career he commands the respect and rewards very few musicians ever see, I would think that is reasonable incentive to keep things in check while on stage.

  6. He did the low volume thing with the trio in London - people were throwing coins at the sound engineer to try to get him to turn the volume up. Keith stopped the concert and told the audience how appreciation of acoustic music had been ruined by people listening to bass enhanced music on walkmans/headphones. Lecture over he proceeded. Was an ok concert but surprised they released it. Recently on his solo piano concert in London he told people not to take photos, berated one who "didn't get it" and turned in a genuinely lovely evening - completely different to the awkward trio concert. I thought he's just trying to be a serious guy in an age where the attention span in 5 secs, but if he's been doing it for 40 odd years maybe its just too much colmbian marching powder or something like that.