Keith Jarrett: Order and Ordeal

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Keith Jarrett
By Jimmy Katz
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Keith Jarrett
By Jimmy Katz
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Keith Jarrett
By Jimmy Katz

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The calendar in Keith Jarrett’s kitchen looks like any calendar in any kitchen—a bucolic nature scene on top, blocks of days filled with scrawled notes underneath. It’s easy to imagine that, in other times, the calendar might be dotted with names of exotic places and dates of important performances. The logistical minutae of where and when.

This calendar, though, holds no elaborate travel plans. Each square is filled instead with numbers. They are various measures of Keith Jarrett’s health. The squares are completely filled in. They are uniform, unfailingly orderly—the response of someone who is accustomed to having control of his life being in a situation of no control.

This calendar tells the story of the last two years in the life of Jarrett. Since November 1996, he says, he’s spent nearly all of his time in this delicately refurbished 18th-century farmhouse on a lake in rural western New Jersey. He has been battling what some doctors (not his) call "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome," a complex condition caused by stubborn bacterial parasites that literally rob healthy cells of energy. Some days, the good days, he’s been able to walk around a bit. Other days, he hasn’t been able to do much of anything. One doctor compared the illness, which attacks the immune system, to the last months in the life of an AIDS patient, except you keep living. Another told him he called it the "hummingbird" disease, because that is all his patients seem to be able to do all day—watch hummingbirds.

The 53-year-old pianist doesn’t want to talk about the specifics of his treatment—except to say that his doctor has him on an experimental high-dosage antibiotic regimen that, if successful, will change the way the medical establishment approaches this most vexing, often misdiagnosed disorder. In mid-October, as gorgeous fall light shone through the tall trees, the rail-thin—but hardly ill-looking—Jarrett sat at his kitchen table, drinking large glasses of water and occasionally taking big black pills, talking about his ordeal and the two full years he’s dedicated, “24-7,” to getting better. For someone as particular as Jarrett, it has been an especially confounding illness: “He’s a meticulous person in all aspects of his life,” says his manager, Steve Cloud, who has been involved with Jarrett’s career since 1976. “Like any great artist, he has enormous internal discipline. He understands that it’s all in the details.”

As he’s begun to regain strength, Jarrett has made several attempts to return to the piano. Last fall, there was a concert scheduled for Chicago with his longstanding partners, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Jarrett called a few rehearsals and suffered what he considers a relapse that forced him to cancel: “The problem is, any kind of taxing situation sets me back,” Jarrett explained in a voice that was alternately cranky and contemplative. “We never rehearsed before, and the reason we weren’t able to make Chicago was that I was just wiped out from the last rehearsal. I knew how good the music was, and I felt like shit the entire time. In the middle of playing I remember saying to myself, ‘I never want to feel like this again.’”

Then, in November, he made his first public appearance in two years, performing at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. This time, there was no relapse. Bassist Gary Peacock says everyone involved had a “serious desire to play, to show that the unit is still operating.” Yet, Peacock adds, he still found himself amazed by the pianist’s musical vitality: “He just goes full bore all the time. It felt as great as it does every time we play. Whatever he’s going through, it doesn’t seem to make any difference.”

The spring schedule holds more concerts, but as Cloud says, he is approaching every booking with caution. “The interest is at a level that’s greater than I’ve ever seen it. But there are still many unknowns involved in the process of getting back. And there will be unknowns.”

I arrived at the house expecting to spend two hours, and had been pre-warned that because Jarrett’s energy level was unpredictable, things might be cut short. Turned out he wanted to talk: Several times as I was packing up, he asked me to get the tape recorder out again, so he could elaborate on something he’d said earlier.

JazzTimes: So what have you been thinking about all this time?

What’s strange is you’re turned inward, but not given the energy to contemplate. I had all the time in the world, and I couldn’t ponder anything. I had the opportunity to think, but not the resources to really think. It was like a pre-experience of old age. I’d have insights like how much energy one person uses and doesn’t know it, you know, just reading a book or writing. I didn’t have the energy to do much, really.

JazzTimes: Did it take time to get used to the notion of having this kind of long-term illness?

I knew it was something, because I couldn’t think and I was completely exhausted. And what happens with this set of symptoms is a lot of doctors just automatically look at patients and think they should get more exercise. Well, the thing about that is, your body can’t use any energy, even good energy. When you exercise or do anything aerobic, what happens is you deprive your brain of oxygen. Before I knew that part of the story, I couldn’t figure out why I was feeling worse when I’d go out and exercise.

JazzTimes: Were you hearing piano in your head?

No. Not at all. There was a time when the piano was something to giggle about. I must be out of my mind—I can’t sit on a bench, I can’t do that.

JazzTimes: Were you able to really listen to music?

Not at any length. And that’s lucky, believe me.

JazzTimes: What about your own music?

Every now and then I pulled something out, and usually I’d hear all the things I didn’t like. Mostly introductions. I agree with some of my critics on that: Just skip it. Not all of them [the intros], and not all of the long ones either. In a concert hall, it’s one way of connecting to the room. It’s a way of saying hello, providing an entrance. But I hear myself get all caught up in the process. I used to tell my students, play like it’s the last time you’ll ever play. And that idea came true for me at the last solo concert I did in 1996, in Italy. I knew how sick I was, but I didn’t know what it was, of course. I had no desire to go on. No music at all. I remember thinking, “This might be the last time.” And the last 20 minutes of that concert is like a dirge. To me, it’s the sound of the disease.

JazzTimes: As you were listening, did you find yourself second-guessing things you’d done?

Maybe some of the results, but not the intent. It was interesting to see that even when I was off base, and maybe going someplace that didn’t work, the motivation was always the music. You can get into these head games about not releasing stuff that’s not perfect. Which is normal, because you don’t think about things in a finite way. But here I was, confronting this complete detachment of ability, realizing it was all out of my hands. Eventually I learned that things depended on how I listened. I found I could listen like someone just coming into a room, and hear things in a more objective way. I had to admit that there were probably times when I was too caught up, too intimate with what my ideal was.

JazzTimes: Is that to say your opinion of things changed?

I think I became very existential, confronting the whole question of playing again, and also the thought that all my work would be what it was up until that point. I guess I always felt that there would always be more.

JazzTimes: Right before you got sick, you did a fair amount of advocacy work—you wrote pieces for the New York Times and several magazines talking about improvised music, offering things for improvisers to think about, parts of the history you felt needed to be addressed. At a time when it wasn’t necessarily fashionable, you assumed a much more visible role than many others, and I’m curious what your perspective is on that now.

I think we spend a lot more time talking about art than is healthy. Recently, my attitude has been “Show me the music.” That’s where the test really lies. And that’s where there is such an obvious void. When I did that writing, I had in mind young musicians. The people who were buying into the myth. At the time, people were talking about the New Jazz Age, and you just can’t be that simplistic. I felt [the media] were not giving young readers enough material to do their own judging. And other people felt it too, but you have to have a certain position for your opinion to be of any weight. In my case, I’ve had a clean career, no hype, no advertising. So I felt I could speak about what is over-emphasized.

JazzTimes: And that is?

Well, I don’t know any time when a pseudo educator has been the prominent artist in jazz. I don’t know other professions where the educators are the players at all. And then to hold this position that if you just follow these steps and listen to these records, come on. Jazz is one of the least learnable art forms. Who are we kidding here?

JazzTimes: So what is your sense of the so-called young lions movement?

My personal opinion is that it’s not been as good as it was made up to be. It has the feel of a class reunion about it.

JazzTimes: What about Wynton Marsalis. Does he swing?

I haven’t heard him swing. Or play the blues. Or play music, really. There’s a point where it’s up to history, but if the jazz world is saying this is good, accepting this, we’re creating a new generation of people who are not really listening.

JazzTimes: You’ve said that before.

The only way to be educated about jazz is to listen to it. That means listen to everything. And keep a list, trying to figure out why don’t I like that, what qualities are present in music I do like. The canon people have already decided in advance what’s good and bad. When it’s that absolute, you encourage people to not listen questioningly. And if the players are not good listeners, it’s the beginning of the end. You’ve got a guy who can play 60 different styles in 10 minutes, but how much music is he making?

JazzTimes: The idea of accomplished technical knowledge versus the ability to communicate something of emotional value.

It’s only ignorant people who think they’re experts. At times I think nobody should be a teacher and a player. Because part of the education process involves grouping things and organizing things. Listening in categories. Which is what you do when things are either/or. When somebody is saying “Yes” to this, and “No” to something else. Yes this is jazz because it has certain qualities. It’s analogous to the digital age, the world of zeroes and ones. What that does is polarize the listening: It develops people who listen for this particular thing, not to the music. Listening to see if certain criteria are being met. If anybody is listening at all, they are doing it in this way, which is a problem for musicians, let alone the general audience. When you hear a great drummer, what you respond to is the flow. Not the individual elements of the rhythm. Elvin Jones, in every band and every situation, has a certain motion in his playing. Music should be a stream. Not like a series of disconnected bits. The pessimist part of me believes that jazz isn’t going to live until we get the stream back. If everyone’s headed down some fake path, we may never get there. You hear Wynton Marsalis, saying this is this, and this is something else. And it’s not like behind the horn is a fluid thing. Which is the exact opposite of Miles. He played one note, and you were like, “That is a river.”

JazzTimes: You believe that the problem is as much with the way people listen as the approach of the musicians.

Let’s put it this way: Music depends on both the musician and the listener. When you listen, you are making a giant effort. People need to think about their own responses to what they hear. The need to be given the slack not to be interrupted by some musician telling them what to think. Seems to me to break this spell, it’ll take listeners to turn away from it.

JazzTimes: Which means rejecting the canon paradigm?

It’s completely meaningless. I don’t know what possible good comes from it, other than going into a museum. I’d rather have all the music I ever heard disappear rather than have it canonized. If the whole music world canceled itself, and everyone either had no memory of hearing music or no recordings, we would then be ready to hear again. This comparative stuff the critics and the educators do: [he affects a pained voice] “When Herbie was playing in Miles’ band he incorporated a little European influence”—that’s the stuff that drives me to drink. If I drank. That’s what’s wrong with viewing it from an educational point of view.

It’s like the Pied Piper marching those rodents off. The students are saying “We’ll follow him.” He’s saying do this, listen to that. And there’s no one to present a different opinion. We don’t want to be our own Pied Pipers. We’d rather sit there and wonder “How many videos do I have to see before I get off?” Jazz is there and gone. It happens. You have to be present for it. That simple.

JazzTimes: Do you think people—musicians and listeners—are equipped to deal with this more metaphysical idea of improvised music?

Right now, we don’t have a world where individual effort plays much of a role. Which is not good, ultimately, for jazz. There’s very little individual music happening now. I’m hearing information when I hear those guys play. They’re well informed about styles, but they’re so close they’re far away. It’s the idea that the way to get jazz is to investigate the styles, and now that we know all that, what do we know? Nothing.

JazzTimes: There’s the argument that knowing the past leads, ultimately, to the development of one’s own voice.

[Some of the young guys] are playing the way a guy might speak doing a lecture on Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. When you focus on the past in that particular way, you forget that when he is improvising, the jazz artist is using all the elements. It’s a heart thing, a particular American heart state. Words don’t do it justice. The great improvisers did not think in terms of doctrine.

JazzTimes: What seperates the “state” you describe from scholarship?

It’s meaning what you say. It’s the internal burning. With those guys, the flame isn’t lit. Jazz started with someone needing to express himself. Not being a singer even. Just have the desire to express. You can’t want to mean it. You have to need it. I don’t think music comes from anyone when they’re in that information place. We’ve gotten away from that idea. Jazz is so personal in its essence. From that first voice in the fields, it’s not meant for anyone else. The singer does it out of need, that’s it. The tools, the chords and stuff, have never been the primary problem. It’s is there something in you that absolutely needs to get out? I feel I can hear that when I listen to players.

As he talks, Jarrett gives the sense that despite what he says about not being able to ponder things, he’s obviously been percolating, perhaps on a subconscious level, about the “state of jazz.” At one point he calls himself a pessimist, because he’s not convinced that the music can go forward without widespread rejection of the status quo. Then, later, he admits to holding out hope that the pendulum swings back toward a more tolerant creative atmosphere. He’s more cynical than ever about the jazz record business—”the producers are in charge right now, everybody is working to sell a particular hook”—and confesses that whenever he gets despondent about the music, he reminds himself that it’s his nature to be analytical, if not an outright naysayer. After he ruminates a while, he says, “That’s when I start to wonder: Is all this as important as I’m making it?”

The question of jazz education, he believes, is that important. “There has to be a cost for everything,” Jarrett said after we’d finished and he’d asked me to turn the tape recorder back on. “The cost for being an influential educator is everything else. It’s hard enough to play a couple of good notes a night. When you are concerned with teaching, part of the work is to present an order, a way of looking at something. Well, all great artists, part of that work is questioning first causes, the beginnings of things. The artist has to be looking outside of that orderly vision, challenging it.”

He adds that there was also a cost to speaking out. “As a musician, your saying something about music is seen as odd. Why are you doing that? What are you trying to protect? If a musician decides to speak, then he’s a spokesman. I got tired of it, because I don’t feel the need to confront issues every time out. People thought I was bitter. That’s not true. I don’t feel envious of Wynton Marsalis, I feel sorry for him. He was too young to know how to handle what happened.

JazzTimes: By that you mean...

All the ways you have to be prepared, some of which have nothing to do with music. Like having the ability to say no. No is the most important word in the English language for a musician. You will always have a producer saying “I’ve got an idea for a Gershwin record.” I would say no to that. Once you say yes to anybody, to anything, things change.

JazzTimes: Are you saying that these musicians who are recording now are not capable of that?

It would appear that way. I know that they’re not apprenticing themselves in older groups. There are fewer of those opportunities, but there seems to be a bookishness to the whole enterprise right now.

JazzTimes: And, to go along with that, an emphasis on owning and knowing everything. Do you believe that a jazz musician needs to devour everything Charlie Parker ever played?

If you’re really listening, you don’t need every note Charlie Parker played. Back in the ‘70s, some people used to follow me around. There was a Japanese man who spent lots of time and money going to the concerts. He used to write Steve Cloud these little notes about what he heard. Part of me thought it was fantastic, but my other feeling was if you really heard one concert, you don’t need to go to all the others. If you are really in it, paying attention and absorbed, that can teach you more than many concerts.

JazzTimes: One of the inevitable things that will be said about you, as you return, is that this illness-imposed exile changed your playing. Did it?

People will be saying that. And I don’t know whether it really applies or not. I do know that I understand stuff about life and the fragility of it I didn’t have any possible idea about before. But it’s not like I was doing this as a developmental thing.

JazzTimes: What was your return to the piano like?

My first attempts at playing had no harmonic flow. I couldn’t really try anything. I could play ballads, but with only a meager amount of cleverness. I used to stop playing for months intentionally, because I wanted to lose patterns, clear out whatever was coming into my head all the time. This time, I lost more of those than usual. When we first started playing with the trio again, I wasn’t sure how much they’d be familiar with me. And for them it was strange, too. I think we did three rehearsals, and they were by no means extensive. But I was wasted after each of them. The first time, I think they [Gary and Jack] were trying to be nice. The last time, they didn’t believe how bad I felt. It was like, “You don’t look sick. You don’t play sick. What’s going on?”. Meanwhile I’m aware that I can’t really prepare, that it’s a stress and it may make me sick again. I can’t play every day. So with a concert coming up I have to slow all the processes down, and save every ounce of energy.

JazzTimes: What specifically changed?

I was thinking much more about the lightness of bop. Involving the left hand in different ways. What I heard on some of the records was just this heaviness that I didn’t like at all.

JazzTimes: The Tokyo record has a real crispness to it. You are really articulating, varying the attacks. Sort of going through the conventional bebop phrasing in a very fresh way.

I’m doing that all the time, but the way the piano is recorded doesn’t always pick that up. Gary always told me that no one’s heard me play the way he has, because he’s right there. For that record we changed the miking system a little bit. Often when people hear the trio, the piano is not jumping as much as it should the way I’m playing it.

JazzTimes: That’s especially true of “Billie’s Bounce.” It comes out of nowhere a little bit: People haven’t heard the trio do stuff like that.

Not everything has to be introspective. People have that idea about me. And again, sometimes the way the pianos come through affect that. I’ve always had times when I’ve played hard, played with a lot of intensity, and that’s another thing I had been thinking about more consistantly around the time I got sick, you hear that on the Tokyo record.

Another reason that tune works is the way it comes up: One of the things people should know about the trio recordings is almost every one has been in real time. The order we played things is the order on the disc. I never prepare a list. We might know what we’re going to play first, but from that point on it’s totally instinct.....One of my strongest gifts is the ability to know what to play next. It ends up creating something more magical than the music itself: Thinking about the relationships of key and tempo and feeling, you create a single event out of a series of songs. I’m often amazed at how seamless it all is... Since we don’t know how things are going to end, the trio performances become very much like the solo concerts. I’ll sit there with three pieces of paper with something like 70 tunes on it, and things just flow. We go out there knowing the key for the first tune, and that’s all we know until it’s over.

What that really is, in terms of skill, is listening. You don’t just hear what you did; you listen to what’s happening in the moment. If you’re present at the end, you know what might sound good next. You let yourself be guided a little, you don’t take time between songs, you pay attention, because it’s like there’s a tempo still going on, that has something to do with what’s next.

JazzTimes: How has the trio evolved through this period of inactivity?

The trio is its own entity. Sometimes we come off the stage and we’re like little kids, we’re going “What just happened?” and marveling at it. One of the most important things for me was to feel that we were able to, in a sense, pick up where we left off. Lots of stuff changed about the way each of us play, but the basic communication was right there.

JazzTimes: Is there anything else you have learned from this ordeal?

There’s no time to waste. One thing that kept me feeling OK during this was that when I looked back and thought about things I wanted to do, most of the time I’d been able to do them. Even things I’d been saying for decades, like shutting down everything else and doing Mozart. [When I did that], I could sense it was the time to invest energy in that, and if I hadn’t done it, or any one of those things, I’d be sitting in my house saying “What an asshole” right now. You have to just do things. You can’t know it’s gonna be possible any other time. Most people might think, “If I had done a zillionth of what you had done, I’d be happy,” but you never think of your work as being in the past tense. I mean, my body is still alive, my cells are changing, and I intend to explore more music. I don’t have another contribution to make, other than the music. So I’m waiting.

Gear Box

Keith has both an American (New York) Steinway and a German (Hamburg) Steinway in his studio. When he performs, he prefers the American, because “ they have a little more color and character, a slighty richer timbre.”

Listening Pleasures

“The real stuff from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Made by black or white musicians.”

Originally published in May 1999

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