The Madness of Keith Jarrett

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

The Keith Jarrett Trio performs in near total darkness at the Umbria Jazz Festival, July 2013 image 0
Thomas Conrad

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

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.

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.