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British Jazz Pianist Keith Tippett Dies at 72

Though best known for his work with prog-rock bands like King Crimson, he was an essential figure in his country's jazz scene

Keith Tippett
Keith Tippett in 2007 (photo: Richard Kaby)

Keith Tippett, a pianist and composer who was a key innovator in British modern jazz, died June 14 at a hospital in London. He was 72.

His death was announced on his official Facebook page, citing family friend Riccardo Bergerone as a source of information. Cause of death was a heart attack, which followed a series of health problems that had seen Tippett in and out of the hospital over the course of about two years.

Tippett was an essential figure in British jazz fusion. He frequently bridged the divide between London-based jazz and the progressive rock scenes in the capital and in Canterbury, performing on three albums by King Crimson and working frequently with members of that band, the Soft Machine, Nucleus, and Patto.

Jazz-rock fusion, however, was just one aspect of Tippett’s musical interests. He also was a major figure in London’s free-jazz movement of the 1960s and early ’70s; collaborated frequently with South African jazz musicians Harry Miller and Louis Moholo-Moholo; often performed as a solo improviser; and composed and arranged large-ensemble jazz that could be lyrical and delicate, lush and rich, or wide-open and experimental. His most frequent collaborator was his wife, the acclaimed vocalist and lyricist Julie Tippetts.

Though he was sometimes put in the more nebulous category of “contemporary improvised music,” Tippett resisted that classification. “I draw a line under the jazz tradition before you get to improvised music,” he said in a 2003 interview. “Improvised music means for me no preconceived architecture, it’s not a given … I think the important thing though is that we do have to put our hands on our hearts and thank black Americans for keeping improvisation in the frame, within earshot, in the twentieth century.”

Keith Graham Tippetts was born in Southmead, Bristol, England, on August 25, 1947. His working-class family—his father was a policeman, his mother a housewife—were music lovers, with Keith and his two younger brothers exposed very early to classical music and trad jazz. Keith showed a childhood interest in piano and organ, playing in the school band at Greenway Secondary School. He also founded a trad jazz band at 14, the KT Trad Lads. Tippett frequently won youth awards for his piano playing.

Going more deeply into modern jazz, Tippetts briefly formed a trio in Bristol; at 20, he relocated to London to become a full-time professional musician. Upon arriving, however, he was forced to take a menial warehouse job and rent an apartment too small to hold a piano. (He “practiced” by cutting the shapes of piano keys into a wooden table.) Soon, however, he applied for a jazz course at a school in South Wales, where his classmates included saxophonist Elton Dean, cornetist Mike Charig, and trombonist Nick Evans. The foursome served as the core of a band that became known as the Keith Tippett Sextet (at this point he dropped the “s” from his name), becoming a house band at the 100 Club in London’s West End and amassing a following. In 1968 they recorded their debut album, You Are There … I Am Here (released in 1970), a unique combination of postbop, avant-garde, and fusion jazz.

The album was only a minor success, but it caught the attention of guitarist and producer Robert Fripp, who enlisted Tippett to play with his band King Crimson on their 1970 album In the Wake of Poseidon. He appeared with the band on BBC’s Top of the Pops TV show to perform their single “Cat Food,” and worked as well on their two succeeding albums, Lizard and Islands. While performing with King Crimson, Tippett also recorded his own second album, Dedicated to You But You Weren’t Listening (featuring members of King Crimson and the Soft Machine in addition to his regular working band), and began work on an ambitious, large-scale composition.

The latter formed the content and title of Septober Energy, a 1971 recording by a 50-piece ensemble that Tippett dubbed Centipede—featuring Charig, Dean, Evans, Fripp, members of the rock bands he played with (and their own associates, brought in to fill out the ensemble), and his new wife, the former Julie Driscoll, among others. Regarded as a boondoggle at the time of its release, Septober Energy belatedly, in the 2000s, gained a cult reputation for its ambition and sheer uniqueness. However, the project’s size, along with the album’s commercial and critical failure, made Centipede untenable in the early 1970s.

Tippett then formed a trio called Ovary Lodge and did a few one-off experiments in small ensembles, but was more frequently found as a sideman in the 1970s, working heavily with Dean, South African bassist Harry Miller, or his wife Tippetts (who distinguished herself from her husband by continuing to use the “s” in her last name). In 1978, he joined another South African musician—drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo—for the latter’s benchmark work Spirits Rejoice.

The pianist frequently hopped from one idea to the next: He formed a large ensemble called Ark in the late 1970s, quickly moved on to concert tours and recordings as a solo pianist (often as a project he called Mujician, which expanded in the late ‘80s to become a quartet) or in duo formation with Moholo-Moholo, pianist Howard Riley, or saxophonist Andy Sheppard; and continued supporting Dean and Tippetts in their projects. His wife also became a regular duo partner in the 1990s and 2000s, although in both of those decades Tippett became increasingly eclectic and more likely to engage in one-off and short-term projects.

Tippett’s final recording was The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon, recorded with an octet in 2014 and released in 2016. In 2018, a heart attack, combined with complications of pneumonia, sidelined Tippett severely. He returned to live performance the following year, but appearances were few and far between as his health continued to decline.

In addition to his wife, Tippett is survived by his daughter, Inca Tippetts.

David Fricke selects 10 classic albums that combine prog-rock and avant-garde jazz, including two that feature Keith Tippett: King Crimson’s Lizard and Centipede’s Septober Energy.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.