The Madness of Keith Jarrett

Will he be remembered more for his arrogance than his art?

Pianist Keith Jarrett played the Umbria Jazz festival in 2007 and perpetrated if not the ugliest, then certainly the most famous public meltdown in jazz history. When he walked onstage and saw people in the crowd taking photos, he went to the microphone and cursed not only the “assholes with cameras” but also the “goddamn city” of Perugia. His rant was (of course) captured on video, and went viral on YouTube. Carlo Pagnotta, Umbria’s founder and artistic director, said Jarrett would never be welcome at the festival again.

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Tim Dickeson

The Keith Jarrett Trio performs in near total darkness at the Umbria Jazz Festival, July 2013

Pagnotta changed his mind. For Umbria’s 40th anniversary in July, he booked Jarrett’s trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. On July 7, Pagnotta appeared on the stage of Arena Santa Giuliana and passionately pleaded with 4,000 people not to take photographs, and also asked them to greet the trio with a standing ovation of welcome. The musicians came out. The crowd stood and applauded. The trio left immediately. Apparently, Jarrett had spotted people using cameras. (In my original report for JazzTimes.com, I said that I saw no flashes. Others in the audience have since come forward to say they did see people using flashes.) Stephen Cloud, Jarrett’s manager, came to the microphone. In English, he repeated the plea for no photography because it is “distracting to the artists.”

The trio came out and assumed their positions. Jarrett called out, “Zero lights!” The stage went dark. They began to play “On Green Dolphin Street.” It was after 9 p.m. Night had fallen. The only illumination on the stage was a small light on Peacock’s music stand. Peacock could barely be seen, Jarrett and DeJohnette not at all. Jarrett had found a way to keep a few selfish jerks from taking pictures, even if 4,000 well-behaved Jarrett fans had to share the punishment. Tickets in the front section cost 120 Euros.

For the second set, dim stage illumination was provided. The vibe of the evening was toxic. Jarrett’s playing was mostly perfunctory, as though he were fulfilling a contract. The audience was quiet, and seemed more puzzled than angry. Jarrett did not do an encore. Four thousand people, whispering to one another, filed out.

Jarrett’s bad behavior over the years has become the stuff of legend. This unpleasant history is widely documented, both informally (blogs, social media) and formally (San Francisco Examiner, New York Times, Le Monde of Paris). San Francisco, 2010: Jarrett continually interrupts his concert to lecture the crowd about coughing. In return he gets angry catcalls: “Just play!” (Jarrett’s rules for his audience prohibit not only willful acts like photography but also involuntary acts like coughing.) Carnegie Hall, 2011: He repeatedly walks off the stage, protesting coughers and photographers. Paris, 2008: The concert is halted while Jarrett’s demand for a different piano is granted. And none of this is new: In the mid-1970s, Todd Barkan, then owner of Keystone Korner in San Francisco, grew tired of Jarrett’s constant complaining. He bought a baby bottle, filled it with warm milk and set it on the piano during a set. Barkan says the complaints stopped, for a while.

Jarrett’s insistence on absolute silence in large concert venues is not only vain, it is delusional. But his hatred of photography is understandable. He made an important point at Carnegie Hall in 2011 when he said, “Imagine back to [a] time when photography demanded that you actually learn how to take pictures. When people ... take [photos] home with them now, it’s meaningless. But it screws with us.”

After what happened in Perugia in 2007, after the sincere entreaties by Pagnotta and Cloud in 2013, the “assholes” (Jarrett had the right word for them) who took photos anyway deserved to be pilloried in Piazza IV Novembre, high up in the old hill town. Jarrett is not wrong that our culture’s current mania for digital snapshots is usually meaningless and often annoying. Jarrett, even more than most jazz musicians, is an artist who creates in the moment. He is fanatically protective of his concentration and does not want it “screwed with.”

But Keith Jarrett is also a highly intelligent man who does not seem to have asked himself certain fundamental questions: If coughing and photography and substandard pianos are disruptive, how much more disruptive is it for an artist to call undue attention to these finite problems? Doesn’t the artist make it much worse by creating dramatic crises, derailing (or refusing to illuminate) concerts? Does an artist who demands respect incur a commensurate obligation of respect for his audience, without whom, after his Umbria performance, he might be sleeping on a friend’s couch (as Jarrett did in 1974) rather than taking a private jet to a five-star hotel in Nice (as Jarrett did in 2013)? Is creativity without humility, by definition, flawed? Should artists with Jarrett’s sensitivities be performing in the uncontrollable environments of outdoor arenas? Should he be performing live at all?

Keith Jarrett is now in danger of being remembered more for his arrogance than for his art, and that would be unfortunate, because he is one of our greatest living jazz musicians.

Originally published in October 2013

7 Comments

  • Oct 20, 2013 at 11:41AM JosABeasley

    A brick wall's a coming . . .
    Just you wait and see
    A brick wall's a coming . . .
    That's just between you and me

  • Oct 20, 2013 at 01:59PM DavideGarda

    I don't agree with the author of the article.
    Jarrett is as demanding with the crowd as he is with himself. Italians (I am one) are notorious to be loud and quite insensitive, let alone obedient!
    So, I totally agree with Jarrett, he gave them a lesson once and this second time, 4,000 had to carry the burden of a few uncivilized assistants.
    This is the main reason I don't like to live in Italy, a country blessed by so much talent and yet a very uneducated country.
    Long live Jarrett!

  • Oct 21, 2013 at 11:43AM 5thwarder

    Saw him at Royce Hall UCLA recently for the first time after I had read an article about the Umbria concert. He couldn't have been more accommodating! He did display a few quirks, he didn't like the piano stool so he changed that during the set. But we totally enjoyed the concert. We had to leave at the end of the set because of the lateness and to pick up our grandson from the babysitter but I understand he did several encores. I'm not an ardent Jarrett fan but I enjoyed the trio as a guest of some friends.

  • Oct 21, 2013 at 06:28PM Craig Brann

    I do not know this, but I would also caution judgment about these matters (based as much on his genius as anything else) in that these 'quirks' seem to indicate a possible mental illness or developmental disorder. I mean that with the utmost respect. The flashes, coughing, etc.--may in fact be torturous to him. He may be entitled and arrogant -- but i think he may just have a heightened sensitivity. After all -- his playing is like HDTV while the rest of the world is still in black and white. He clearly has deeper/broader spectrum/palette of emotions/ideas than most of us dream in, let alone live with 24/7.

  • Oct 21, 2013 at 08:23PM jonregen

    Is that a serious question? Of course he will be remembered for his art. Listen to 12 seconds of FACING YOU or STILL LIVE or RIO or any of his transcendent recordings and you'll brush the nonsense aside. I interviewed him in 2012 for KEYBOARD http://www.keyboardmag.com/article/keith-jarret-on-the-power-of-being-in-the-moment/147870 and was struck by his humility and deep devotion to his craft. That's what matters.

  • Oct 21, 2013 at 08:44PM cmcreddie

    I had the opportunity to listen to a solo piano concert at the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, Argentina in april 2011.
    I had great expectations towards this concert, since I am a Jarrett fan and the Colon is a marvelous opera house.
    However I was extremely disappointed. Mr. Jarrett was very rude, to such point that he even said that the piano was a "piece of shit". He also did all the acting regarding photos, coughing and assholes.
    I still listen to his recordings and recognize his wonderful talent, but I can't justify such bad manners and rudeness.

  • Oct 24, 2013 at 05:49AM Vigarano

    I interviewed Jack DeJohnette recently, and he said to me, "Keith is ALL about the music." I've also read Ian Carr's biography of Jarrett, and it was clear to me that – like many monomaniacal geniuses – Jarrett is perhaps not a man you'd enjoy eating dinner with.

    But so what?

    Thomas Conrad's conclusion is correct: Jarrett pours fuel on the problem, rather than seeking a gentler solution. But as DeJohnette said, "Keith is ALL about the music." He's not interested in half-measures (if you'll pardon the pun), and it's his way or the highway ...

    I've seen the Trio many times in concert, and solo Jarrett concerts even more times. I haven't had an experience like those in Umbria and Buenos Aires (related by @cmcreddie above), so I will continue to go. But if I had been subject to an experience like that, I would undoubtedly in future be reserving my money for ECM discs and downloads rather than concert hall seats.

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