NeologisticsMusic → Keith Jarrett


A Sketch of His Life and Work

Last updated: 09-Jul-01

Table of Contents

Some Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
Early History
New York and Hitting the Big Time
Jarrett's Diversity
Solo Concerts
Classical Work
The Standards Trio
Overcoming a Crisis
Albums on Miscellaneous Keyboard Instruments
Fighting Illness
Recent Activity
Other Sources of Information about Keith Jarrett

Some Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some answers to a few questions I have been asked by several readers. I have inserted these at the beginning so they won't be missed. The biographical information starts later.

Who are you?
I'm an ordinary listener with a strong musical background. I have been around great music all my life, because my father made his whole living as a prominent violist, conductor, violinist, teacher, and composer.

For the first twenty years of my working life I was a musician myself. For six years I studied music composition at the University of Illinois. I played bass trombone, piano, guitar, electric bass, and recorder.

The bulk of my living during that time was made preparing music for publishing as a music engraver. (We used the old technique, utilizing music typewriters and graphic arts techniques.) These days I play only piano, mainly classical. I improvise some, but not really well.

For nearly eighteen years I made my living as a software engineer for Motorola Computer Group. As of this update, I have been laid off and am seeking a new opportunity.

I've listened enthusiastically to the music of Keith Jarrett since I first heard his recordings with Charles Lloyd in the late 1960's. Since the early 1970's I have frequently told people that Keith Jarrett is my personal favorite musician on planet earth. My respect and admiration for his work, particularly as an improviser, has only increased over the years.

I'm not the sort of admirer who follows every detail about the life and work of Keith Jarrett. All I know is what I have heard on his commercial recordings, of which I have many, and from a little bit of reading from sources that are available to everyone. I've never met Keith Jarrett personally, though I would really love to sit down and chat with him for a couple of hours sometime.

I'm not a sycophantic hero worshiper who gets fanatically attached to individuals. I do follow the posts to the Yahoo Keith Jarrett Club, but rarely contribute myself. I don't seek details of Keith Jarrett's personal life, but when such information is sent to me unsolicited, I read it with great interest. I don't follow Jarrett's every breath and move, don't know his concert schedule, where to get recordings of this and that other than in a record store or at Amazon, don't know where to get transcriptions other than the one listed below in Other Sources of Information about Keith Jarrett, am opposed to collecting pirated recordings, have heard none and own none, haven't seen any of the videos, don't spend all day day and night listening to nothing but Keith Jarrett, don't go out seeking out every written interview that's been published, though I'm happy to read them when they come my way, and remarkably I've never seen Keith play live. He was supposed to play a solo concert in Phoenix once about 1980, but the concert was canceled due to a lack of advance ticket sales. That shocked me. When I heard he was going to play I rushed to get tickets because I was sure it would be sold out immediately. Silly me.

NOTE: I share the preceding information up front to help stem the tide of questions that come my way from people wanting to know everything from how to get in touch with Keith Jarrett, to what medication he is on, to what he eats for breakfast. The answer to all such question is: I have absolutely no idea!

What do you know about Keith Jarrett's illness?
This question was previously last in this list, but I moved it up front because I have recently fielded a hail of questions on the subject. People have asked me the name of Jarrett's doctor, what sort of treatment he has undergone, where there are Web sites for CFS, and many obscure questions regarding chronic fatigue syndrome, the malady that Jarrett has been suffering from, figuring that surely I must know.

The answer to all questions regarding Jarrett's illness is the same, namely:

I have absolutely no idea!

I'm interested in the man's music, not his diseases. Happily, reports are that Keith seems to be recovering steadily.

Whereas I sympathize greatly with persons who suffer from CFS or some similar misfortune, just because my favorite jazz pianist happens to have if does not make me an expert or a clearinghouse of information on the subject.

Furthermore, it would surprise me greatly if Jarrett himself made public the name of his doctors or the details of his treatment. I'm sure there are strong ethical issues involved. For one thing, just because a particular doctor or treatment routine was successful with one person does not mean that they would be so with another.

Additionally, some persons get weird about famous people. Just because some cure worked for a certain celebrity does not mean that person has discovered the Holy Grail, the Fountain of Youth, or the Secret of Life. Can you imagine — a person goes to a particular doctor seeking treatment ``because Keith said he was good.'' The treatment does not succeed. It becomes Keith's fault. If I were in his shoes, I would be extremely reticent about the possibility of putting myself in such a position.

Where can I get a recording of Some Album?
Every Keith Jarrett recording I own I found in a bin at an ordinary record store. I don't go searching for them. Any good record store will allow you to special order things if they are not in stock. Most of Jarrett's ECM albums are still in print and available. It should be possible to get anything that is still available from Amazon.
How can I get the printed transcription of the Köln Concert?
I stumbled across it in bin in a local music store. Try Pepper Music Network. They had it available for quite a while. Last I heard, they were out of stock, were not planning on restocking, and it is no longer available.

If you can't find it at the source above, the only thing I can suggest is that you try ordering it from your local classical music store, one that sells printed sheet music. If they won't order it for you, then try writing to the publisher and ordering it directly from them. Everything I know about getting it is in this link.

To save you having to ask: No! I will not duplicate my copy and send it to you, not for any price!

Do you know where I can get MIDI files of Keith Jarrett's playing or other scores?
I do not. I don't have any such items myself. There are probably copyright issues involved in making and passing around such materials, which I would respect.
Do you know where I can get copies of unauthorized Keith Jarrett concert tapes?
I do not. As much as I would love to hear some of these, I don't own any myself, and don't know anyone who does. If I did I certainly would not tell others about them because they are illegal, and I'm a respecter of copyrights and of the rights of artists to control the circulation of their work. As far as I know, Keith Jarrett has never agreed to allow his audiences to bring recording devices to his concerts.
Do you know where I can find a Keith Jarrett tour schedule, or do you know when he will be playing in my area?
The only place I have ever seen a concert schedule is on the ECM Web site.

As of this writing (12/20/99), Keith Jarrett has performed very little the last couple of years because he has been very sick. He has been returning to health slowly, and has made a few appearances in the last year.

Do you know how to get ahold of Keith Jarrett personally?
I was once told by a manager of the ECM Web site that people can write to Keith Jarrett in care of ECM Records. The address is:
    1540 Broadway, 40th Floor
    New York, NY 10036

If Keith has an email address, he wisely keeps it a secret. I doubt that he has much interest in answering a flood of email. If I knew of such an address I certainly would not share it with others.

Just to emphasize the point, because some have still written and asked: I do not know any more than what I have just written about how to get ahold of Keith Jarrett. I'm not holding back any information I'd be willing to share if cajoled.


I have been listening to the music of Keith Jarrett since 1969, when he was playing with the Charles Lloyd Quartet. I presently own over seventy disks, counting individual disks in multiple-disk sets, of his very large recorded output, and admit to being an admirer of almost everything he has done. The account that follows can be characterized as unabashedly favorable.

This summary is largely a detailed book report, based mostly on the biography Keith Jarrett—The Man and His Music by Ian Carr. (Da Capo Press, 1992; ISBN 0-306-80478-6) I've consulted no other works in writing this sketch except Jarrett's recordings, plus what I remember from a recently read interview in the January 1997 edition of Piano Quarterly. Readers of the Carr biography will find few surprises.

Some of the information was written from memory. To this I have added some personal reflections and observations, so there may be some inaccuracies. I will be happy to correct any mistakes if someone who knows the facts will clue me in. I don't claim to be a scholar or researcher, so reader beware.

The best source of information about Keith Jarrett is his many recordings. One of the best and most complete discographies I am aware of for any jazz artist has been created and maintained by Mirko Caserta, and is available on the Web at Be sure to check out this outstanding resource!

Early History

Keith Jarrett was born May 8, 1945, in Allentown, PA, USA. Ethnically his family is a mixture of European peoples. Some people are surprised to learn this. He has dark kinky hair and a darkish complexion. During the seventies he wore an afro hair style, making his ancestry visually ambiguous.

He was raised by strict Christian Scientist parents, and is the oldest of five boys. His younger brothers are all also talented players of music. I don't know if any are trying to play professionally, but Keith recorded at least once with his brother Scott.

Keith Jarrett can rightly be described as a having been a genuine prodigy of the first magnitude. His parents recognized at a very early age that he has both perfect pitch and an unusual talent for music, and so started him taking piano lessons at the age of three, usually considered much too young. He began composing music immediately. The Carr biography shows a legible and correctly written manuscript he wrote at that age. He played his first full-length concert, including intermission, at the age of six, ending with two of his own compositions.

Also at age six, when it came time for him to start school, Keith's IQ was measured in the genius range, so they started him immediately in the third grade. Despite being two years younger than his classmates, he adjusted and got along well with the older children, was an excellent student, and even proved to be unusually athletic, even though as an adult he is only five feet eight inches tall, and has quite small hands for a pianist of such prodigious technical accomplishment.

Another photograph in the Carr biography shows Jarrett playing a concert at a Lion's Club Convention at Madison Square Garden at age nine. By about age twelve he was playing professionally on occasion.

He was trained entirely in classical music, and did not become interested in jazz until his early teens, but he immediately excelled in it. He was a special student guest at various Stan Kenton clinics, and by some extraordinarily young age, spent some time on tour with Fred Waring's band. I believe he played marimba and xylophone.

In addition to being a virtuoso pianist of the highest caliber, along the way Keith managed to learn to play almost every instrument he ever came near. Most of them he even plays well. He is an excellent soprano sax player, and still plays it occasionally on albums. During his high school days he worked primarily as a drummer, and also some as a guitarist. But more about that later.

New York and Hitting the Big Time

Jarrett spent about a year at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and played some cocktail piano to help make a living. Then he went to New York to break into the big time, but was not at all interested in playing studio work. Meantime he'd gotten married to Margot, and finances were extremely tight. He hung out at the Village Vanguard Monday night jam sessions waiting to be asked to sit in. Finally he got a single chance, and his days of being out of work came permanently to an end, because Art Blakey was there and hired him on the spot to play with the New Jazz Messengers.

Shortly thereafter he went on to play with the Charles Lloyd Quartet, which became for a while the biggest group in jazz, especially in Europe, at a time when the Beatles were still together, and jazz had lost a great deal of popularity.

Not long after that band came to an end, Jarrett was playing trios at a club in New York, and Miles Davis, whose name appears near the top of everyone's list of greatest jazz musicians ever, came in on at least three occasions to hear him. The last two visits Miles insisted that his entire band come, too. Miles had a history throughout his career of spotting the best young talent; some of the finest jazz players ever came out of his bands. Miles asked Keith if he would like to join his group, but Jarrett declined at first because he was enjoying the trio work he was doing at the time. Turning down an offer from Miles was tantamount to turning down a Supreme Court judgeship. After repeated requests he agreed to join Miles, and became the second keyboard player, playing electric piano and organ. The other keyboardist was the great Chick Corea.

Miles was pioneering avant garde fusion jazz rock at the time. Most people didn't understand what it was all about, including some of his players. Despite this the band was one of the most popular Miles ever had, and even played jobs at the Fillmore. Jarrett's presence in that band was one of primal influence, and Miles himself, who was prone to moodiness and would barely play if things weren't happening to his satisfaction, responded as well as anyone to Jarrett's presence. He was known to play night after night in that band until his lip bled.

By the time he left Miles, Jarrett was ready to begin doing things on his own. Since the early seventies he has worked as a sideman on only a very few occasions.

Jarrett's discography indicates he was working constantly in these days. He did a delightful and highly original album with Gary Burton. Jarrett got second billing. Then Columbia records picked him up and he did a superlative double album called Expectations, using about six people, and on a couple of tracks he added strings and brass. I still love that album myself.

Then unexpectedly Columbia dropped Jarrett in favor of Herbie Hancock. For some reason they didn't feel they could carry both artists. It was initially disappointing to Jarrett, but turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to him. My comment is not intended as a criticism of Columbia records.

One of the most fortuitous collaborations in recording history then began. Jarrett met producer Manfred Eicher, who was forming a record company and had only one or two albums out so far, one a record of solo improvisations by Chick Corea. He asked Jarrett to come in and record a solo album. So one afternoon he wandered into the studio with just a few sketchy ideas in his head and in a few hours created the album Facing You, which forever changed the history of solo jazz piano. I've been listening to it periodically since it was new, and it still leaves me breathless every time.

The record was an enormous well-deserved success. This gave a boost not only to Jarrett but to Eicher and his fledgling record company, which today is one of the most respected labels in jazz. Although Jarrett also recorded for some time thereafter for Impulse, he has recorded almost exclusively for ECM since about 1977. Most of his albums have been done with Eicher, who has used the best recording equipment and has given Jarrett everything he has wanted in the way of instruments, artistic license, and whatever else he has needed to do his job. (Jarrett is justifiably very fussy about his Steinways.) Almost all of Jarrett's albums have sold well.

Jarrett's Diversity

There have been many superlative improvising musicians in this century. One could cite players like Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and composers like Duke Ellington. But there has certainly been no one as diversely talented as Keith Jarrett. Jarrett's influences have been many, and his output has been correspondingly prolific and multi-faceted.

Jarrett's first major group with him as leader was a quartet that showed his avant garde side. It included tenor player Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden, who played a long time with Ornette Coleman, and drummer Paul Motian, who played for years with Bill Evans. They made altogether eight or ten albums. Some of them may be a little hard to penetrate for persons not attuned to the free jazz of the fifties and sixties, but the best of these, e.g., The Survivors' Suite, my favorite of the group, contain some ecstatic music.

Solo Concerts

In 1973 Jarrett began doing what has made him most famous: playing solo improvisation concerts. These are not concerts of ``tunes'' in the traditional jazz sense, but pure improvisation, with nothing preconceived until the moment he begins to play. The first concerts were so consistently remarkable that people couldn't believe at first that this was really what he was doing. It seemed impossible that anyone could improvise that well for that long without experiencing major lapses. But over the years that has proven to be one of the most remarkable facts about Jarrett's musicianship: there are virtually no creative or technical lapses ever. (At least not in his recorded output.)

Then he put out another history-making album: a three-record set of a pair of Solo Concerts played in Lausanne and Bremen. It was inconceivable in those days that anyone could actually put out a triple album of nothing but pure piano improvisation, and even expect people to actually buy it. But again, this album got nothing but the highest accolades, and it is still selling well to this day. It contains passages of improvisation that are barely short of miraculous.

There is an astonishing story behind the Bremen concert. Jarrett was in agonizing pain the whole time. He suffered a severe back injury when he was about twenty, trying to push a car that wouldn't start, and it has bothered him ever since. He had done the entire tour he was on wearing a back brace and gobbling pain pills. The night of the Bremen concert he hadn't slept in over 24 hours because of the pain, could only play for about ten minutes beforehand to do a sound check before he got nauseous, and was afraid he might have to cancel the concert. But he did go on, the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1976 he one-upped the audacity of his triple album by giving a series of superlative concerts in Japan. They were of such high quality that Manfred Eicher decided he wanted to put out the entire set of tapes. It was released as The Sun Bear Concerts, a package of ten vinyl disks retailing at the time for $75. I still remember the double take I did when I first saw it in a store, but I couldn't afford to buy it, and it wasn't available in pieces, which saddened me. I finally got it myself in 1995, in a boxed set of six CDs, for $54 (US). To my knowledge these have never been available separately. The music is wonderful, a worthy companion to his other work in this genre.

Jarrett has presented not just a few such concerts, but as many as fifty a year, and quite a few have been recorded. Several of his solo concert albums surpass the original, notably the Concerts set played in Bregenz and München.

His Köln Concert is his best selling album ever. After many years of requests for it, Jarrett finally authorized the publishing of a complete written transcription of the entire concert. He resisted this for a long time because the concert was completely improvised, and he was afraid that some persons who study the written transcription might forget that point. I have this work in my music library. Speaking as one who made my living preparing music for publication for twenty years, I will say without reservation that the work is both technically and graphically outstanding. To my knowledge, no other music of Jarrett's is available in printed form. Click here for publication information on the Köln Concert.

Jarrett is presently giving fewer solo concerts, but still does them on occasion. Regrettably I've never been able to hear one, nor to hear him live at all. He scheduled a solo concert here in Phoenix, Arizona, about 1980, but then canceled it, reportedly because of poor advance ticket sales. I bought mine the day after I heard about it! The concert was to be in Symphony Hall, which is large, too large for a solo piano concert, and in my opinion has poor acoustics as well.

NOTE: Attention Keith! In case you ever happen to read this yourself — Get yourself a gig at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, which holds about 800 people, has an exceptional Steinway, and provides the perfect ambiance for solo and chamber music performances. I'll buy the first ticket and bring all my friends! I've seen Chick Corea twice there, and dozens of classical pianists as well.

In 1974, when his American quartet was winding down, Jarrett started another phase of his development when he formed his European Quartet, featuring Norwegian Jan Garbarek on tenor, bassist Palle Danielsson, and drummer Jon Christensen. Their music was more mainstream and lyrical than what came out of the fiery American quartet, which I believe never had a name. Manfred Eicher finally called the European group Belonging, after they made an album by that name, another milestone album for Jarrett. I'm not sure exactly how many records they made altogether, but it was around a half dozen or so, including My Song and Personal Mountains, both albums of the highest quality.

Classical Work

Jarrett never abandoned classical music. He loves that music as much today as he ever did. And through the years he has written many completely composed non-jazz compositions. Early in his association with Eicher, he put out a double album called In the Light that includes numerous early works: a fugue for harpsichord, a brass quintet, a string quartet, various other chamber pieces, and a fine piece for guitar and strings, played by Ralph Towner and conducted by Jarrett. These pieces are not earth-shaking ground breakers, especially to one who is experienced in listening to better works of ``new music'' from the twentieth century, but most of this work is at least competent, and highly listenable.

About the time Jarrett formed the Belonging quartet, he also put out an album called Luminescence, consisting of an extended suite for solo improvising tenor sax, played by Jan Garbarek, and string orchestra. It's very pleasant music. Later he produced another similar and even better album called Arbour Zena, which he and other soloists play on.

In the middle seventies Jarrett was prolific beyond comprehension. In one span of two calendar years he recorded 22 complete albums, a movie score, played concerts constantly, played as a sideman on at least one album for trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and completed the 200-page score of The Celestial Hawk for orchestra, percussion, and piano, commissioned by the Boston Symphony and Seiji Ozawa. Ozawa ultimately lost interest in the piece, because they were expecting a piece for orchestra with improvising jazz soloist rather than an orchestra piece with completely composed obligato. Jarrett ultimately recorded it himself with the Syracuse Symphony. (Not a leading orchestra.)

The movie score Jarrett did was for a French director. (I've forgotten her name.) He wrote some things, she loved them, and contracted a long studio day to record it. They were done to the director's complete satisfaction in a couple of hours, and when she left, Jarrett and Eicher looked at each other, shrugged, and said, ``Heck, we have free studio time, let's do an album.'' About four hours later they had completed the album Staircase, a double album of solo piano works that is still one of my personal favorites.

In 1976 Jarrett, who says he basically didn't practice for 16 years, went on a practicing binge that lasted for years. He began working as though he were starting from the beginning again. Something that people who know Jarrett as a jazz artist don't realize is that he never practices jazz or improvisation, or so he claims. When he practices he works on Beethoven, Bach, and the other composers he loves. So for a remarkable period of several years he dove headlong back into seriously playing this music.

Some musicians might do such a thing to demonstrate their versatility, or to show their audiences that they can ``really play.'' In Jarrett's case he has always played the classics with complete devotion and integrity. But he hadn't given classical concerts since he was a teenager. So that became his next goal.

Jarrett was well aware that if some unknown conservatory graduate were to give a big concert in New York and blow it, the critics would forget it, but if he were to give a bad concert, the reviews would appear all over the world. This knowledge added to the stress. Nonetheless, he began accepting concert engagements, but started by playing unusual and unfamiliar music; for instance, he played some pieces by Lou Harrison with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, one of the premier chamber orchestras in the world. Then he commissioned Harrison to write him a concerto, which he did, and Jarrett subsequently recorded it. It is an excellent piece, and is quite difficult to play.

After a while Jarrett started playing a heavy schedule of classical concerts, including some extremely difficult stuff, such as the Samuel Barber Concerto and some Stravinsky. He performed with the best musicians, including Ashkenazy and Christopher Hogwood. He played Mozart on period instruments with Hogwood, whose specialty is playing eighteenth century and earlier music.

Jarrett has recorded the entire two volumes of Bach's Das Wohltempierte Klavier, 24 Preludes and Fugues per volume, one in each major and each minor key. Volume one is on piano, and volume two is on harpsichord. Then he recorded the very difficult Goldberg Variations, also on harpsichord. It's actually easier on a double manual harpsichord than piano because of some technical hand crossing problems. A few years ago he did a double-CD recording of the 24 Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. I bought it and believe it is superlative. I have not heard his Bach, but the word is it's quite good.

The Standards Trio

Then Jarrett's musical explorations took another turn. He called bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, whom he'd known, worked with, and loved for many years, and asked them if they wanted to get together and do an album of standard tunes. He knew the standard repertoire very well from his days playing cocktail music in Boston. Mind you, in these days you had to be a little bit nuts to consider putting out a piano trio album with songs like My Funny Valentine and God Bless the Child and All the Things You Are. It just wasn't being done any more. But Jarrett's approach to jazz is complete: he is a total improviser, and can make anything come alive. So one day the three got together for dinner, Jarrett discussed the project with great animation, and the next day they went to the studio. All Jarrett had was a long list of songs, and asked the guys ``What would you like to play?'' They'd say ``Let's try ...'', the tape rolled, and out came the album Standards, Volume 1. They recorded all of their first three albums at the same session. The reviews were ecstatic, so they started playing concerts as a trio, Jarrett's third major group as a leader.

In a 1996 interview, Jarrett said that their concert programming is done exactly the same way as the albums. There is no preparation or song list. They decide what to play when they get on stage, choosing from the entire gamut of the Great American Songbook. When they play a song in concert, it is not unusual that right then is the first time they ever played it together.

The trio has since put out quite a few more albums, all outstanding, and the group continues to concertize. In 1995 ECM released yet another Jarrett collection that is certain to be considered a historical milestone, a six-CD set entitled Keith Jarrett At the Blue Note, the complete recordings of a three-night engagement at the club. Critics, fans, and other commentators are now beginning to use expressions like ``best piano trio in history'' to refer to the Jarrett Standards Trio. I can't personally think of a close contender myself, not even any of the legendary Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson trios.

NOTE: Yes, I'll get some argument from Bill Evans fans on that statement, and to be truthful, I'm ambivalent about it myself. However, none of Evans' personnel combinations had the longevity of the Standards Trio, which is now, in late 1999, about to begin its seventeenth year, with no end in sight. The Standards Trio has become Jarrett's preferred performance vehicle.

Overcoming a Crisis

In 1985 Jarrett experienced a personal artistic crisis. Although he loves playing classical music, he found more and more that he didn't relate well to the world of professional classical musicians. The musicians seemed to talk more about the ``notes'' than about the ``music.'' So although he was playing with some of the best musicians and was getting great reviews, he began to feel distant from that world. He also felt frustrated in that he had much to say musically, and the notes he was obligated to play in a classical setting were not saying it for him. It seems he is too much of a composer and improviser to be happy being an interpreter for very long.

One night he played a solo recital in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. He was happy about the music, and comfortable about his playing, since he played music he'd known for twenty years. He gave it his best shot, and it came off beautifully as always. He drove home that night. (He lives on a small farm in New Jersey.) The next day he got a review of the concert from the New York papers, and it was a rave. Whereupon he proceeded to have what amounted to a nervous breakdown. It was a quiet one. For about two weeks he sat on his front porch and stared into space and didn't want to talk to anyone or do anything while he just sorted things out.

Then suddenly one day, in an instant of time, he leaped to his feet and made two simultaneous decisions. The first was that he must accept no more engagements to play live classical music, though he would continue to study it and to record it. The second was that he must go to his studio and begin to play a Pakistani flute. He had the presence of mind to turn on his tape recorder—cheap equipment, just a cassette recorder with overdubbing capability. He worked continuously from morning until night every day for over a month, just playing mostly simple instruments: that flute, tablas, recorders, percussion, glockenspiel, soprano sax, guitar, and even a little piano. He created a total of 26 short tracks of overdubbed music characterized by directness and lack of virtuosity, almost like folk or ethnic music. The experience was cathartic for him, and by means of it he cured himself of his depression.

This collection of recordings was so important to Jarrett personally that rather than mail the tape to Manfred Eicher, which he had no fear about doing with other work, he got on a plane and hand carried it over to Germany, holding it in his lap. Eicher did the best he could to improve the sound using better equipment. Ultimately it was released as a two-CD set called Spirits.

Keyboard Albums on Miscellaneous Instruments

Besides piano Keith Jarrett plays electric organ, pipe organ, electric piano, harpsichord, soprano sax, drums, guitar, trumpet, percussion, folk flutes, recorders, clavichord, marimba, vibes, and a little bit of just about everything else. Some of these secondary instruments he plays superlatively, e.g., the soprano sax.

In 1976 Jarrett went to Ottobeuren Abby in Germany to make a recording on their remarkable pipe organ. In a few hours he created a double album called Hymns Spheres containing some of the most original pipe organ music I've ever heard. Years later he put out another double album called Invocations / The Moth and the Flame. The first record again uses pipe organ, this time with some overdubbing of soprano saxophone. The second record is a solo studio piano album. It's kind of an odd pairing, but the music is wonderful.

Then in 1986 he recorded another double studio album of improvisations, this time entirely on clavichord, called Book of Ways, one of Jarrett's own personal favorites. This has to be heard to be appreciated. Normally a clavichord can barely be heard across a quiet room, but if you mike it very closely, it sounds a little like a lute, very rich in sound. Jarrett takes full advantage of it. I love this album.

Although he played electric instruments in the late sixties and early seventies, Jarrett has played only acoustic instruments since about 1972, and has never been at all interested in computers, MIDI, or electronic instruments.

Fighting Illness

In 1996 a mysterious illness caused Keith Jarrett to stop performing and doing much of anything for an extended period of time. For a long time little was said publicly about the nature of his malady, causing some concerned fans to become gravely concerned, expecting the worst.

Finally it became known, by means of Steve Cloud, Jarrett's manager, that Jarrett has a parasitic bacteria in his system, which causes symptoms of chronic fatigue. To remove the bacteria from the system is a very complicated process. Antibiotics take care of it while it's in the bloodstream. Then it harbors in other parts of the body, activity stirs it back up, and it starts another strain. When the strain is at full force, it causes flu-like symptoms.

For a period of about two and a half years Jarrett was unable to perform. Then finally, in November, 1998, the Standards Trio got together for a performance in Camden, New Jersey, which was reportedly every bit up to Jarrett's usual highest standards. Other concerts have followed since then, but not many, as Jarrett eases back into playing very cautiously, hoping to avoid stimulating a relapse into a debilitating condition. We who love to hear his music certainly wish him a complete and early recovery.

Recent Activity

No doubt the flow of recorded performances from Keith Jarrett will continue for as long as he is healthy. He's at the peak of his creativity, loves to perform, and has an ideal relationship with his recording company, ECM.

During his absence from the concert stage, three albums were released. The first was another outstanding solo concert entitled La Scala. Not long afterward the Standards Trio album Tokyo '96 appeared, another personal favorite of mine.

Next to appear was a two-CD set of several Mozart Piano Concertos, a welcome complement to his earlier similar set. I have not heard this myself, but the reviews have been good.

The most recent CD to be released, in November 1999, was recorded by Jarrett himself at home. It is entitled The Melody, At Night, With You, and represents yet another new direction for Jarrett. It is an album of standard tunes played on solo piano. Every rendition is low-key and intimate in the extreme, focusing on simple presentation of the songs, with Jarrett's unmatchably subtle phrasing and voicings. It's not an album for someone looking for pyrotechnical display. The reviews I have read rank this as some of Jarrett's best work yet.


You are likely to hear almost anything from Keith Jarrett. He is certainly one of the greatest improvisers in the history of jazz, and probably in the whole history of music.

To appreciate his solo performances the listener must be willing to go along for the ride, wherever it takes him. The format of Jarrett's solo concerts is usually two longish halves, about ninety minutes of music interrupted only by an intermission, and usually an encore, sometimes two. Jarrett needs time to work. It may seem remarkable to think that a man can improvise at the peak of inspiration for such long stretches, but it's really not much different from the way classical east Indian music has always been played.

In the course of a single concert you may hear segments of foot-stomping gospel style, melodic ballads, hymn-like open chordal passages, polytonal neoclassicism, heartrending romanticism, minimalism, ostinatos that go on for fifteen minutes, rock and roll, arrhythmic atonality, playing inside the piano, and spectacular virtuosity with exploding cascades of intensely original melody the likes of which has never been matched by any other jazz pianist including even Art Tatum, all normally accompanied by the extreme physical gyrations and unfortunate groaning for which Jarrett has become well-known, and which annoy many listeners. Interestingly, when he plays classical music, the contortions and vocalizations do not happen.

Jarrett has been a classical musician all his life, and has played forms of jazz from cocktail piano to mainstream to hard bop to avant garde. He was a pioneer in jazz-rock fusion, and is considered a progenitor of New Age music, that incredibly bland pulp played by musicians like George Winston and his imitators. Jarrett single-handedly revived and redefined the art of solo jazz piano playing.

Jarrett has done all this with total uncompromising commitment to music as an art form. He loves to play.

Perhaps most remarkable is that being born in 1945 Jarrett is still relatively young. His playing skills have never been better, and his creativity is continuing to mature. He is a disciplined and mentally well-balanced, emotionally controlled, and inwardly happy person who has not fallen victim to the abuses that some lesser persons have. He has no drug or alcohol story to tell. If this world continues and he doesn't meet up with some unexpected misfortune, he still has his best years ahead of him. The recent At the Blue Note set and his recording of Mozart piano concertos verify this is true.

One disappointment was the way his marriage to Margot broke up, though he did try very hard for a long time to work things out, if we believe the account of it given in the Carr biography. He has two sons from that marriage. In the late 70s he began a relationship with Rose Anne Colavito. They are now married, and by all accounts it is a very strong relationship.

To be sure, Jarrett has a few detractors, but so have all the greatest artists in history. I try to ignore critics. But when I read negative comments about Jarrett's music, they haunt me, because I can't really understand why they say some of the things they do. In any case these people are in the minority.

Although Jarrett has never had the kind of popularity enjoyed by successful pop or rock musicians, he has built up a substantial following all over the world and at the same time has earned the admiration of his peers—a very rare duality of recognition. As professionals used to come from long distances and crowd in whenever Art Tatum was playing, or Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Charlie Parker, they do likewise for Jarrett because he is a musician's musician and always has something new and startling to teach alert and astute listeners.

Although Jarrett is not a religious man in the usual sense, despite his upbringing, or more likely because of it, he clearly manifests a spiritual side. For years he was deeply affected by the writings of a mystic named George Gurdjieff.

Whatever his present thinking about such matters, two concluding points are worth noting. Since he was young Jarrett has been uncomfortable with the personal attention, accolades, and fuss that stardom bring. He mentioned this to his mother when he was a child, and she replied to him, as quoted from the Carr biography: ``Tell you what you do; we believe this talent comes from the Creator through you. When somebody praises you, you send the praise back through you to the Creator!'' It seems to me to have been a fine piece of advice.

Finally, the depth of Jarrett's own commitment to his work can be seen in a quote. It happens that there are probably two dozen or more tracks in his recorded output that are all entitled Hymn. One day he commented: ``If I could call everything I did Hymn, it would be appropriate, because that's what they are when they're correct.''

Other Sources of Information about Keith Jarrett

Here is an incomplete list of other information about Keith Jarrett.

Comments on and corrections to this sketch are welcome. Feel free to email me.