Mr. Sensitive befouls paradise

Used to be jazz musicians were U.S.’s best ambassadors. Pianist Keith Jarrett’s prickly reaction to ardent fans’ cellphone photography as his trio walks onstage at the Umbria Jazz Festival — see it on (56 secs) — reverts to another type: ugly American.

For a improviser who flaunts his hyper-sensitivity, Jarrett displays no class at all, turning the air blue upon taking the stage with trio mates Gary Peacock (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums), because ticket holders (according to Dan Ouellette in Down Beat, 4500 people the equivalent of $130 each) clicked away as he approached his instrument. He’d lambasted his Montreal Jazz Fest audience similarly a week or so before, but at Montreal got over his pique and played three encores. Not so at Umbria — though he appeared after formally ending his second set, he had another outburst and announced, “That does it. No encore.”
Jarrett was exciting when he started circa 1966’s Forest Flower, live at the Monterey Jazz Festival, with Charles Lloyd and, yes, DeJohnette, who has accompanied him through many projects. Jarrett was adventurous and competitive when he played with Miles (see him duel with Chick Corea on the video Call It Anything, almost 19 minutes, at the Isle of Wight in 1970). He put out some quirky records (the earliest he has come to disown) and led strong a notable “American quartet” with saxophonist Dewey Redman and bassist Charlie Haden — both also playing with Ornette Coleman at the time — plus drummer Paul Motian. I recommend their Fort Yawuh.
But Jarrett has created a special niche for himself since the release of his first solo acoustic piano album Facing You in 1971, establishing a discipline of spontaneously improvised solo performance which he’s subsequently brought to major halls worldwide, often recorded and issued on ECM Records. His Standards trio with DeJohnette and Peacock also records for ECM, and is a major international jazz attraction.
Among the things Jarrett told his audience at Umbria: “I think the privilege is yours to hear us.” Not necessarily. Carlo Pagnotta, festival artistic director, issued a statement saying “Jarrett, the artist, is sublime, but Jarrett the man is very questionable,” and that the city of Perugia, host to the Umbria fest, “won’t have aything more to do with him. . . (W)e will do without his music.”
Jarrett’s manager responded in a letter reprinted in Italian newspapers that the pianist didn’t mean for Perugia to take his comments so to heart, explaining “He could just as easily have said this in New York or Paris.” Producers and presenters, you’re forewarned.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    Not surprising, considering Jarrett’s hysteria over coughing and recording devices. What was that quote George Wein gave to Ken Burns about Miles protegees who learned from him how to be pains in the ass?
    That said, I still didn’t expect him to come off like such a jerk. Geez.

  2. Dave Smey says

    It’s funny, somebody once told me horrible tales of Jarrett’s backstage behavior – looks like they were pretty accurate.
    That said, the rules of the concert hall have abruptly changed in the last few years, due to the ubiquity of portable devices. Musicians used to be able to expect a total ban on photography, and probably conceived of it in terms of retaining the commercial rights to their image. (The old “I don’t want anybody to make a dime off me” paranoia.)
    At rock shows these days the kids snap away like as if it were a press conference, in an effort to exhaustively document that they were there and post the evidence on the web. The Youtube video is the new concert tee. This trend is certainly questionable, since the photographers are certainly not listening very hard and create an atmosphere of distraction.
    But, Jarrett could have asked nicely. Maybe his manager can coach him on a less assholish way to make the request.

  3. Ken Dryden says

    Just imagine how Keith Jarrett would react if all the picture taking had come mid-performance! Most jazz musicians don’t care, it’s not like these photos are going to be sold, though flash photography ought to be banned outright. I do think that concert venues could do a better job at keeping the camcorders out.
    It’s rather boorish behavior for a professional of Jarrett’s stature…

  4. Howard says

    What interests me is whether and how such behavior impacts on people’s belief in the offender’s music. There are a handful of musicians I don’t listen to because I find their lives, philosophies and/or behavior repulsive – at best to be swayed by the beauty of one of these is to be heartbroken at the gulf between abstraction and reality. I find it disturbing not to be able to reconcile the two, though I have a glimmer of the impossibility.
    In the case of an artist who flaunts their insensibility, I tend to respond (kneejerk) by revoking my suspension of disbelief and my trust in their self-projection, and this leaves their music empty, hollow, not worth my time. Perhaps this is too subjective a reaction for a professional critic to admit to, but I bet most of us have some version of it. The rejection of an artist’s work can be personal, it can be principled, and I suppose the rejector’s reaction can change over time — I can imagine a listener coming to an artist early on, thinking their sound and pose attractive, but falling away when sound and pose no longer reflect the listeners’ circumstances, tastes or biases.
    People who love Keith Jarrett’s music will, I suspect, cut him considerable slack for being hyper-reactive to the annoyance, general rudeness and inattention related to cell-phone use for photographs or video. People who don’t like him will be validated in their opinions. People who sometimes would give him a chance might be turned off, if they hear about it. If they don’t, and they’re swept away by a Keith jarrett performance — are they being deceived? Are they lucky to enjoy the music without taint of the musicians’ flaws? Etc. That’s what I wonder about this sort of episode.

  5. says

    Does Wagner’s anti-semitism make his music less sublime? Or Miles’s (insert one of any number of character flaws)?
    Recordings have the peculiar ability to distance the listener from the performer, which in this case is an advantage. I still think Jarrett’s music is beautiful and I’ll still buy his CDs…but I probably won’t pay to see him live.

  6. from Poland says

    I’ve seen him twice …I love this man – “the heart is where the music is”. No photos during the concert and that would be the best two houres in your life.
    HM: different strokes. . . note that KJ objected to photos taken prior to and after his performance, not during.