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Pianist Keith Jarrett On The 'Calling' That Drew Him To Jazz


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. One of the most famous pianists in jazz, Keith Jarrett, a musician acclaimed for his emotionally intense and physically energetic, improvised solo performances, recently revealed he had two strokes in 2018. He can use his right hand, but not his left, and it's unlikely he'll perform in public again. Today, we listen to Terry's 2000 interview with him. But first, let's hear jazz critic Kevin Whitehead's review of Jarrett's new album. It was recorded in 2016 during his last European tour. It's called "Budapest Concert."


KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Keith Jarrett, with a melody so shapely he may have had it in mind before stepping on stage to play one of his celebrated improvised concerts in Budapest in 2016. Now that Jarrett declares he's unlikely to play again, his newly issued "Budapest Concert" inevitably carries a valedictory air. But then, dedicated improvisers often look back, revisiting strategies that have worked for them before. One piece recalls the early Jarrett's reinvented ragtime, a syncopated dialogue for two busy hands.


WHITEHEAD: Keith Jarrett used to play marathon solo suites, long voyages out on the rolling seas. By 2016, his improvisations had grown shorter, like many people's attention spans. Now a piece might explore a single idea or texture.


WHITEHEAD: Starting from scratch a dozen times on stage in Budapest, Keith Jarrett can take a minute to get rolling. Some albums of improvised music discreetly trim away the moments before things click, but Jarrett's concert recordings lay out the whole process. It's worth the wait when his left hand finally settles on the exact Amen gesture that frees his right hand to testify.


WHITEHEAD: That's a good example of how Jarrett singing along with himself can sound self-congratulatory, since the little voice tends to pop up during the really good bits. There are a lot of those - fast, slow, thick or thin, self-consciously beautiful or single-minded and percussive, rather like Cecil Taylor. But then, Keith Jarrett has always reconciled the exploratory and the romantic. He has a way with a melody. His touch can make simple voicings wring deep. One encore is the 1930 ballad, "It's A Lonesome Old Town."


WHITEHEAD: After that melody statement, Jarrett slowly builds his improvisation, arriving here minutes later.


WHITEHEAD: Keith Jarrett explores many moods on his "Budapest Concert." He'll twine one spontaneous motif around another or evoke flamenco guitar and an Islamic prayer call in the same scrambling line. His technique is formidable, but he's grounded. He makes all those notes mean something, a point confirmed by a jubilant blues late in the program.

Jarrett sounds like he could romp on that all day, but it's just one stop along the road. He has many stories to tell.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book, "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Budapest Concert" by Keith Jarrett.

Now let's listen back to Terry's interview with Keith Jarrett, recorded in 2000. At the time, Jarrett was recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome and had released a solo album of ballads called "The Melody At Night With You."


TERRY GROSS: I thought I'd play "Be My Love" because I particularly like it when a composer takes a song that I didn't think of myself as liking very much and does something wonderful with it. And I just - I really love what you've done with this.

KEITH JARRETT: Well, can I explain what was going on in my...

GROSS: Please.

JARRETT: ...Head while I was doing these songs?

GROSS: Please.

JARRETT: That's a good example. You probably know the story that it was meant for release and it was as a Christmas present for my wife. But if you don't, that is the story. I couldn't leave my house, so I - and I couldn't go buy anything or, you know, get a present. So I realized all I had to do was - (laughter) simple sounding, but not so simple - turn on the tape recorder. Luckily, I had set mics up over a long period of time looking for the right spot, looking for the right mics, thinking a little bit ahead after I got sick - that was one of the things I could just do for a few minutes a day - in case I had music that I wanted to record and couldn't leave the house. And so when I started doing it, the songs came to me because of the lyrics. So when I was playing these melodies and songs, I was definitely singing them inside. And I would never have chosen - just as you mentioned your relationship to that song, I would never have even thought of the song. But it popped into my head because of the context I was in. And it was a present. So it became a personal thing to give. And so it got transformed that way, I think.

GROSS: Well, the lyrics are by Sammy Cahn on this. Well, I love what you've done with it. This is Keith Jarrett at the piano, recorded last year, from his CD "The Melody At Night, With You." And the song is "Be My Love."


GROSS: That's Keith Jarrett playing "Be My Love" from his recent CD "The Melody At Night, With You." Getting back to "Be My Love," this is a song really associated with Mario Lanza. Did you like his recording of it? Did you ever pay much attention to that?

JARRETT: Oh, I know. I've heard it. I heard it when I was a kid. No, I never liked it at all, probably.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, me neither.

JARRETT: Now, there's so much to say about each song because of the way the piano - I had had my piano overhauled in a special action - a major change in the action. It gets technical if I try to describe it. But all the things that were a part of that recording, without one of them, it would've failed. I would've maybe had something to give to my wife. But I wouldn't have listened to it and thought it would translate into everyone's home.

GROSS: So what you did was change the action on the piano so that you could have a lighter touch and still have the piano resonate?

JARRETT: Well, no. It's actually more complicated than that. There's a thing called the breakaway, which is like surface tension on water. Every piano that's stock from any company that I know of has a breakaway. In other words, when you first push the key down, it's harder, and then it's not. So if you wanted to play very, very soft, you still would be taking a giant risk because you'd have to press hard first. And then you'd have to let up before you hit the string. And that's what every pianist is dealing with all the time.

And I heard about someone who was able to, using little springs and a whole barrage of ideas, including taking all the parts out of the piano and weighing them all and making them exactly the same weight - every little piece of wood and metal, I guess, all the bushings - everything had to be the same exact weight first. Then he has a way where that breakaway doesn't exist, but the action's the same weight resistance against your finger.

So it's a more - like, a more liquid action when you press down. If you want to play loud, you can still play loud. But there's not that initial snap. You don't need to snap the key. So if you listen to "The Melody At Night, With You" on a good system, you notice the dynamic range is pretty wide for a piano recording that sounds so closely miked. And I think that's a lot to do with that action.

DAVIES: We're listening back to Terry's 2000 interview with jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's interview with Keith Jarrett. He has a new CD recorded in 2016 during his last European tour. He recently revealed that he had two strokes in 2018, which have left him unable to use his left hand. And it's unlikely he'll play in public again. When she spoke with Jarrett in 2000, he was recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome.


GROSS: Let me play another track from your new CD, "Whisper Not." And this is "Bouncin' With Bud." Tell me why you chose "Bouncin' With Bud" and what it's like for you to play this kind of bop tune after being so lacking in energy for so long?

JARRETT: Well, actually, one of the reasons bop came into the process so classically is that when I started rehearsing - we don't normally have rehearsals, the trio. In fact, we didn't have any rehearsals until I got sick. And I wondered how it would work if we played. And every time we rehearsed - the two or three times we rehearsed, I had an immediate relapse. In fact, some of them were happening while we were playing. And I really felt absolutely miserable as a result of rehearsing.

But before we started rehearsing, I had started to play at home for short periods during the day. And I noticed that there were a lot of things I wanted to change for the future if I were to play with the trio. And some of them had to do with lightness of touch - and nothing to do with how sick I was, exactly. But it came from that - from breaking down and then thinking, I might not ever play again, which means all I’ve got is what I’ve recorded up until now. And when I listened to this stuff, I, basically, didn’t like any of it.

But, of course, I was in a not-liking-music place. But I really disliked some of the ways I played, and some of the long introductions I didn’t think were necessary all the time - various things. And one of the things was that I was digging in all the time. And I thought back and realized it probably was from playing in large halls, trying to project. When you're playing in a large hall, you just, naturally, try to push the sound out to the 3,000 people. And I decided I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to find a way to - if we had to get the sound out there, we’ll just have to deal with the monitor situation somehow.

But I wanted to keep us playing more the way we would play in a club. And to get the lightness I was looking for, I thought, let's just go straight to the bop era because it's - there's a lot of energy in the playing in the bop era. But you don’t have - but it's not - you're not crushing the keyboard when you're playing. You're - there's a certain lightness in the music. And it's funny to talk about it when we talk about the recording because that piano was like a Mack truck. So I had to really...

GROSS: (Laughter).

JARRETT: No matter how light I wanted to play, I wasn't playing lightly. But I was still getting the kind of thing I'm talking about.


GROSS: You were born in Allentown in 1945. Allentown's just a couple of hours north of Philadelphia. You started taking lessons, piano lessons, when you were 3, which, I think, is uncommonly early. Why did your parents get you a teacher at such a young age?

JARRETT: Well, they discovered I had perfect pitch. So...

GROSS: How'd they discover that?

JARRETT: Well, there was an old, converted player piano, was just in the house. And I think no one really played it all. And I ended up sitting at the piano, picking out melodies that were coming out of the radio. And I guess they figured it out, that something was going on here, you know? This should - either get him away from that instrument or (laughter) get him a teacher.

GROSS: A lot of people barely have any memories from the time that they were 3 years old. Do you have many memories of those very early piano lessons?

JARRETT: Not really. I remember the gate at the top of my piano teacher's stairway so that, I guess, the little kid she taught wouldn't fall down the stairs. It's like - I think I remember that the piano was to the left of the top of the stairs. But I don’t remember anything else.

GROSS: And you don't remember what you were first taught to play?

JARRETT: Not really, no.

DAVIES: Keith Jarrett recorded in 2000. His new CD, "Budapest Concert," was recorded in 2016 during his last European tour. He recently revealed that two strokes in 2018 left him unable to use his left hand. And it's unlikely he'll perform in public again. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. And later, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Ammonite," starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening back to Terry's interview recorded 20 years ago with Keith Jarrett, one of the most heralded jazz pianists alive. His new CD "Budapest Concert" was recorded in 2016 during his last European tour. He recently revealed that he had two strokes in 2018 and no longer has the use of his left hand. He'll probably not perform in public again. Jarrett was a piano prodigy who started playing at the age of 3. Terry asked him about his early piano lessons.


GROSS: Do you remember what you were praised or criticized for by that first teacher?

JARRETT: Nope, nope. I don't. I really don't. The - my - I don't remember - I'm sure she was - I'm sure it was a woman, and that's about all I know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JARRETT: I do remember, however, a few years later when I got my second - I believe it was my second teacher, who was of course a more serious piano teacher. At the point I was at, I guess, it was a given that there was something happening here. And they had to try to find someone who took me further. And I don't know how old I was, but I do know that I hated this guy, and I do know that now, I believe, he probably gave me the most of any teacher in such a short time.

And he did not let me use the pedal. He gave me only Bartok. And I was just a little kid. I mean, Bartok was not particularly pleasant music (laughter) for a little kid to be learning. And I played the violin at the time. I started to play the violin, and I really liked that, too. And one day he said - I guess he had a - I think he was German, and he had an accent. He said, you must choose. And I said, what? He said, you must choose which instrument you play. I said, oh, you have to be kidding. I like them both. Well, you have great talent, but you have to put this talent in one instrument.

And I went home. And I was really upset, and I didn't know what to do. And he wasn't going to teach me, you know. So I eventually chose the piano, I guess, partially based on the fact that I'd played it a little longer. But he was right about all the things he taught me. I mean, there's such a - the pedal is something you can really overuse to the point of covering up what you're unable to do. He just disciplined me in an important way.

GROSS: As you got a little bit older in your preteen and teen years, did playing piano earn you the admiration or the mockery of friends? Friends can sometimes really mock you for being very serious about something.

JARRETT: Yeah. I was a normal kid. By the time I was in junior high and high school, which were public schools, I just was a normal kid. I mean, I didn't want to practice. I went out and wanted to play basketball. I - if my grandmother wasn't in the kitchen, I'd move the timer forward that was supposed to go off when I was able to stop practicing, that kind of thing. And she was - she probably knew I was doing it, but she was so kindhearted that she didn't - you know, she didn't ever - (laughter).

GROSS: Whose idea was the timer?

JARRETT: Probably my mother's 'cause she wasn't home, and so my grandmother was keeping this 2-1/2-hour practice schedule or whatever it was I had at the time.

GROSS: Did you resent having to practice that much?

JARRETT: Well, I did. And then I would say something - or I might say something about it, and my parents would say, well, you know, we don't have that much money; we'll sell the piano. And I would immediately give up my position because I was - I loved it. I loved doing that. So, I mean, I knew that playing piano was important to me.

GROSS: You know, I think a lot of musicians who started off as prodigies go through a period where they're really confused about whether they're staying in music because they love music or whether they're staying in music 'cause it's what they've always done and it's what people have always expected them to do and it's what adults almost required them to do.


GROSS: And some former prodigies go through a period of rebelling against music and against the discipline that's been enforced all their lives. Did you go through a period like that ever?

JARRETT: No. No. No, I think I had a calling, and I think I knew that from the time I have any memories, you know. No, I didn't go through that. I just would have rather been out playing basketball, you know. I didn't see - I thought I could get this practicing in some other time (laughter).

GROSS: Your parents divorced when you were 11. Did that interfere with your ability to focus on music?

JARRETT: I think it made me more ferociously focused on music. One phenomenal thing about being a musician and, in particular, I guess, playing an instrument that doesn't need other instruments to play with, like a piano or guitar, is that you can change any mental state or emotional state you're in into music. And it's a transformative thing.

And, I mean, I learned that - I guess I learned that at a very, very young age. If I was angry, I'd go play the piano. And I might not play angry music, but everything is energy. And it - you can change the direction those arrows are pointing. It's just that you have to use the energy somehow. And when I sometimes talk to my sons, who are both musicians and want to be, you know, in music, that's about the best thing I can say about music, that it's for the player, you know. It's a way of knowing where you're at and what you're feeling.

DAVIES: Keith Jarrett speaking with Terry Gross in 2000. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, recorded in 2000. He has a new CD titled "Budapest Concert," recorded during his 2016 European tour. He recently revealed that he had two strokes in 2018 and is no longer able to use his left hand and will probably not perform in public again. Jarrett was a child prodigy at the piano, playing classical music. She asked him how he realized he wanted to play jazz.


JARRETT: Well, when I heard jazz in Allentown in my early teens - probably 12, 13 - and I heard - let's see. I think I heard Andre Previn because, you know, Allentown was not a center of jazz culture (laughter). I think the Woolworths (ph) that I got these records from probably made - the buyer made a mistake and bought a couple jazz albums they...

GROSS: (Laughter).

JARRETT: ...Didn't intend to. And he lucked out, and actually, they were mostly people like Andre Previn. And then I heard Oscar Peterson. Then I heard - oh, I heard Brubeck live in Allentown. And I remember when I was in the audience, I remember listening and saying, this is really great, but there's more to do. Now, I was a kid, you know, and I'm thinking there's just - he's not doing everything that you could do in this situation. So I already knew something was - you know, that I was going to contribute something, I guess.

And I heard Basie live a couple times. That was great. And I actually sat in with Stan Kenton when he had that giant band. And there's a lot of experiences I had that probably I couldn't trade for any other kind of learning experience.

GROSS: You went to New York, scuffled there for a while.


GROSS: Eventually started to get noticed. Then you started playing with Charles Lloyd and after that went with Miles Davis. Apparently, he invited you to join his band several times before you accepted. Why did you turn down Miles Davis?

JARRETT: I said no to Miles because I had work for my trio, and I was in the middle of setting up tours with the trio. And I remember telling him that if there's a break in my schedule with the trio, that I would be happy to play with the group, with his group. And I would - I want to, but - I'm not sure if he was - had already gone electric. He probably had. And that was another thing that was easy to say no to. It wasn't that attractive from that point of view.

If my memory serves me, when the trio came back from Europe, Miles had said, well, whenever you feel like it, just come down and play. And, you know, it doesn't matter - you just come down wherever we're playing and sit in with the band and play. And so that's what eventually happened. I think it was Philadelphia.

GROSS: You played electric piano with Miles' band.

JARRETT: Right, yeah.

GROSS: Did you...

JARRETT: I wouldn't have played that electric piano with anybody else (laughter).

GROSS: Is that because he used it better or because you could put up with it because you were playing with Miles Davis?

JARRETT: I heard that band - the previous band, before it went totally electric - before it went more electric, with Tony Williams and Wayne and Herbie - Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock. And maybe Dave Holland, maybe Ron Carter. I can't remember. But when I heard them play, Miles would play this - these beautiful short solos. Then he'd go to the bar. Then the rest of the band would do their thing.

And when I listened to everyone else in the band, it sounded like they were trying so hard to be themselves. And I thought, you know, if I had to guess why Miles was leaving the stage for so long, it might be something to do with what was happening when he wasn't playing. It was just a very vague feeling that I had that he actually was waiting for somebody he could stay on stage for longer, playing and listening. Everyone was playing like they were in a little box. Herbie was in his little box. And they all sounded like they could be in soundproof booths, that they weren't really listening to each other that much.

And that's - I think that was the day I thought, well, when I have a free - when I have free time and I'm not doing my music with the trio or whatever I might be doing, I want to play with this man because he still sounds the best.

GROSS: Well, you certainly pioneered the solo piano concert, which eventually really caught on and spread to other instruments as well. What was it like in the early days, being alone out there on the stage and improvising on your own?

JARRETT: It started out maybe as a result of recording "Facing You." I can't remember. But it started out, I remember, at the Heidelberg Jazz Festival, where I was supposedly - I wasn't very well known, I guess. And I came out and did a solo thing. And it was tunes, but they - but I started to connect them somehow. Like, I'd have these transitional parts that connected everything. And then that somehow just moved slowly into the expanded solo concert, where there are no songs whatsoever and everything is improvised on the spot.

I don't know. Someone once sent me a note from the audience that's saying, you must be awfully alone. You must feel awfully alone or something like that. And I realized when I read that that that was true. It is a terribly - it's a lonely thing to do. I mean, you're not even bringing material along for companionship (laughter).

GROSS: Right, right.

JARRETT: So it was sort of - I wish I could think of a word. But it was sort of like having a seance with the audience. So it wasn't all that lonely in the midst of it. But as a rule, the mechanism of doing it, traveling alone and, you know, just going up there on an empty stage with a piano - I guess if I thought about it, it would have scared the hell out of me. But I didn't think much about it other than it was a challenge.

GROSS: In the '70s, I think a lot of your fans debated with each other whether you were Black or white (laughter).

JARRETT: Yeah. Well, you know, at the same Heidelberg Festival, there were some Black musicians or Black audience members trying to disrupt my performance because they claimed it wasn't Black music. And of course it wasn't. One reason was I wasn't Black. But this was a jazz festival. They were claiming not only was it not Black music, but it wasn't jazz and it shouldn't be at this festival.

And these were - this was, I guess, during the time when, you know, the Black Muslim thing was pretty big. And I went backstage afterwards, and I was rather heartbroken because I thought, gee, these are fellow musicians or, like, people who like music, and why are they doing this? And I was just sitting alone in my dressing room, probably very upset, and a man and his daughter knocked on - a man knocked on the door who was actually from Central Africa. And he and his daughter came back in and said, Mr. Jarrett, we just want to say that that was so beautiful (laughter). And I thought, OK, well, this is going to be just a political problem for me. It isn't the music; it's just the politics.

GROSS: Do you think that a lot of people assumed you were African American because your hair was really curly and look like an afro?

JARRETT: Yeah. And a friend of my ex-wife's was arguing with me and her that I had to be Black no matter what I said.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JARRETT: And once Ornette backstage said something...

GROSS: This is Ornette Coleman?

JARRETT: Yeah, Ornette Coleman. One of the earliest times I was in the same room with him, he said something like, man, you got to be Black (laughter). You just have to be Black.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JARRETT: I said, I know, I know. I'm working on it.


GROSS: Do you think that that worked in your favor?

JARRETT: Well, it didn't hurt, you know? I don't think it hurt to be - when I get that kind of feedback from the actual players who I felt were partly my inspirations, who happen to be Black, yeah. I mean, it's great. It's a compliment.

GROSS: Well, Keith Jarrett, thank you so much for spending some time with us.

JARRETT: Well, thank you very much for the interest.

DAVIES: Keith Jarrett, recorded 20 years ago. He has a new CD, "Budapest Concert," recorded in 2016 during his last European tour. He recently revealed that he will not likely perform in public again after two strokes in 2018 left him unable to use his left hand.

Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Ammonite," starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS SONG, "IF I WERE A BELL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.