I may have told you this story before. Stop me, if you’ve heard it.
When I was young, I started off as a Beatles fan. Then I was introduced to psychedelic rock like The Strawberry Alarm Clock and Pink Floyd’s first two albums. In 1971, an older friend introduced me to the band YES. They are still my favorite from that genre.
In 1975, I was 17 years old. My friend Wally Edwards and I were going to drive down to West Palm Beach to attend a conference [I was living in Florida at the time].
I stopped by Wally’s house to pick him up and, as usual, I was early. He was still getting ready and he took the opportunity to introduce me to something new. “I’ve got a record that I think you’re going to like,” he told me.
He put a record on the turntable and left me to listen to it. What I heard changed me forever. It was The Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett.
In my days of ravenously consuming everything from Motown—Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, Temptations, Supremes, and everyone else—I was unknowingly listening to Jazz in the playing of the Funk Brothers, that storied band of studio musicians who backed up the Motown stars. But this was different. The Funk Brothers had me listening to Jazz on the sly. Keith Jarrett was in my face Jazz.
The Köln Concert was solo Jazz piano. I was still studying piano at the time and piano music was what we always heard in my house from my mother. That was all Classical and Gospel. Keith Jarrett was the one Jazz pianist who was completely improvisational.
I was amazed that what I was hearing was composed on the spot. And that album remains my favorite Jazz album to this day. One of my best memories is when I first played it for Nicole and she felt the same way I did about it, like she has done with YES and Marvin Gaye and so many others.
It was an album, and Jarrett was that kind of artist, that moved me very deeply. In my worst of times, I found joy and beauty and hope in that music. I still do.
After Wally played me that momentous album, I took my next paycheck and bought that and four or five other Jarrett albums. I was transported. The next year, Keith released a 10-record set called The Sun Bear Concerts which covered eight concerts (Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo, Sapporo) in 10 days. Yes indeed, another paycheck went toward that.
I got to see Jarrett in concert only once and he was wonderful. Jarrett has a reputation for not putting up with audience nonsense during his performances. He would call noisy audiences rude or, once in Perugia, Italy, he had the stage lights turned off because of people taking flash photos during his performance at the North Umbria Jazz Festival.
Secretly, I was hoping for some antics onstage. But the audience was polite and Keith was the gracious performing. Dang it.
Keith recorded amazing with trios, quartets, and quintets. But the solo piano always remained my favorite format. In the 1987, Keith turned his considerable attention to Classical music and released his recording of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Two years later, he recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I remember the New York Times writing that Keith’s performance of Goldberg was the best since Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the same.
Keith recorded Mozart, Handel, and Shostakovich, as well, but he never left Jazz. He did, however, venture into playing more and more standards. To hear Keith’s version of Someday My Prince Will Come or Shenandoah and so many others was always emotional for me.
In 1991, Keith released Vienna Concert which he called “the greatest achievement of my life.” It was so fulfilling to him that he went into a brief retirement. Then, his long-time accountant raided Keith’s bank accounts and took everything. With The Köln Concert being the best-selling solo piano album of all time, there was plenty to plunder.
So, Keith took to performing and recording again. And thank God he did. In 1995, Keith released La Scala, a monumental work, his encore piece was Harold Arlen’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow. You should hear it.
In the late 1990s, more trios and standards followed. In the 2000s he was back at solo piano. His last public performance was at Carnegie Hall in 2017. He talked about America and his love for the country but fears over the divisiveness that we are experiencing. All the while, performing the most sublime music.
My friend Brian Zimmerman wrote about the concert for Downbeat magazine. “Jarrett was called back for two encores, during which he thanked the audience profusely. At one point, just as Jarrett was about to retake his seat at the piano, an audience member called out, “We love you, dude!” Jarrett, as if pricked with a pin, stood up and returned to the microphone. “I have to respond to that,” he said. Many in the audience expected a scolding.
Instead, he simply restated his gratitude. “I love you, too,” he said. Then, addressing once again the specter of Trump, he proclaimed, “We deserve better than this.” And with that, he closed the concert with poignant reading of “Autumn Nocturne” that received rapturous applause. Even the pianist was emotionally moved.
“You are,” he said before departing the stage for the last time, “the first audience that made me cry.”
He had been scheduled to return to Carnegie the following March for another of the solo recitals that have done the mos
t to create his legend — like the one captured on the recording Budapest Concert to be released on Oct. 30. But that Carnegie performance was abruptly canceled, along with the rest of his concert calendar. At the time, Keith’s longtime record label, ECM, cited unspecified health issues. But it was known that he had suffered a stroke in February of 2018, followed by another in May.
A few days ago, Keith issued a public statement. It is unlikely he will ever perform in public again.
“I was paralyzed,” he told The New York Times’ Nate Chinen, speaking by phone from his home in northwest New Jersey. “My left side is still partially paralyzed. I’m able to try to walk with a cane, but it took a long time for that, took a year or more. And I’m not getting around this house at all, really.”
Keith didn’t initially realize how serious his first stroke had been. “It definitely snuck up on me,” he said. But after more symptoms emerged, he was taken to a hospital, where he gradually recovered enough to be discharged. His second stroke happened at home, and he was admitted to a nursing facility.
During his time there, from July 2018 until this past May, he made sporadic use of its piano room, playing some right-handed counterpoint. “I was trying to pretend that I was Bach with one hand,” he told Nate. “But that was just toying with something.” When he tried to play some familiar bebop tunes in his home studio recently, he discovered he had forgotten them.
A friend of mine told me that his mother was in the same nursing home as Keith. She said that it was amazing and emotional to watch Keith play for the seniors. He played music from their childhood and youth and she said that even the worst dementia patients completely remembered the music.
That was the gift of Keith Jarrett, to help us remember or even realize who we are.
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