Skip to content

Before he was famous

Fifty years ago Keith Jarrett wandered into the Fleet Street office of the Melody Maker, unannounced. He’d stayed on in London after playing with Miles Davis at the Isle of Wight and now he was looking for someone to interview him. I’d seen that performance from close quarters, and I was familiar with his work as the pianist in the Charles Lloyd Quartet — a band famous for taking jazz to the hippie audience — between 1966-68. So I told him that although it was a Monday morning and we were all busy chasing up news stories, I was happy to talk. I sat him down and took out my notebook and pen.

That interview came to mind the other day while I was writing about the revelation that health problems may have ended his performing career. So I searched for the cutting and found that — although it wasn’t what you’d call an in-depth piece — his words captured the thoughts of a man who was clearly ambitious but at that stage had no idea of what would begin happening to him a couple of years later. And what he said about his attitude to live performance is interesting in the light of his subsequent reputation for demanding the highest standards of audience etiquette.

That morning in London, his immediate priority was to let it be known that he was looking for work. He had his own European trio, and so far they’d played in Scandinavia, Belgium and Ireland. In the UK, however, no luck so far. “I’ve always found it difficult to get work in this country,” he told me. “Ronnie Scott’s expressed some interest, but they told me they’re booked up until March and I’ll probably be going home to the States for the winter.”

His European trio, he said, featured the bassist Gus Nemeth, formerly with Bernard Peiffer, and the drummer Bob Ventrelo. In America his trio was completed by Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. “Charlie’s working with Ornette Coleman and Paul’s gone with Arlo Guthrie, so I couldn’t bring them over.”

The lukewarm response from Ronnie’s reflected the fact that none of Jarrett’s three albums for the Vortex label, an Atlantic subsidiary, had been released in Britain. “They tell me that my albums don’t sell,” he said, “but how do they expect them to sell if people can’t buy them?”

Life Between the Exit Signs and Somewhere Before were trio sessions with Haden and Motian, while Restoration Ruin struck out in a different direction, featuring him singing and playing a variety of instruments, including guitar, harmonica and tambourine, sometimes with a string quartet. He was also now playing soprano saxophone and flute with his groups.

“I don’t think I’m getting away from jazz,” he said, “but I’m not as narrow. I don’t think about it, but if I believed I was playing jazz all the time, half my repertoire wouldn’t exist. There are a lot of variables in the group. Sometimes we play free for a whole set, and then sometimes we’ll play nothing but tunes. When I sing, it’s not like ordinary singing. It’s more like chanting, I guess.

“I haven’t been successful in getting people to let me record on soprano or flute. They say the audience thinks of me as a pianist, and they don’t want to hear me playing a horn. In fact I feel more like a drummer, although I don’t play drums with the group. I can really lose myself on drums, and my playing on other instruments relates either to my singing or my drumming — for instance, I try to make the piano sing, although it’s really a percussion instrument. I get a great feeling when I use it as percussion, but it’s too easy.

“I’m trying to make the soprano sound like a voice. That’s a big challenge, to push yourself through that little reed. I have no formal training on soprano, and that’s why I enjoy it so much. I’m not glued to making voicings by putting notes together like I am on the piano.”

Returning to the theme of getting work, he observed that although Europe was better than the scene at home, he could see it deteriorating. “Most of the places, even the Golden Circle in Stockholm, are turning into discotheques. The people sit there, half-listening to you and waiting for the records to come on. People still come up to me and ask me to play ‘Sombrero Sam’ and some of the other things I did with Charles (Lloyd), but I tell them that’s part of another era. The music we play is much more elusive than Charles’s, but people come in expecting to hear me play the old things. Audiences haven’t heard me properly until now because I’ve always been trying to escape from the groups I’ve been in. That made me play well, just to escape, and it’s much harder now I’m on my own.

“Wherever we go, the audiences have a need. If they’re talking, they may have to be shocked out of it, or caressed out of it, if they’re listening and expecting to be given something else, That’s what I’m struggling with, and it should make the music good.

“If everything is perfect, if the piano is in tune, if everyone is sitting quiet and expectant and all the audience are Keith Jarrett fans, then I don’t feel the need to play. It’s the worst possible situation. If the audience know that they like the group, it doesn’t matter what you play. It’s like someone giving a lecture when the audience knows what he’s going to say. That’s why I don’t play piano when I’m by myself. I couldn’t tell myself anything I don’t already know. So when I’m alone I play soprano or guitar, and I can still surprise myself on those instruments.”

As I started to close my notebook, he said that if he’d followed everybody’s suggestions, he would probably have achieved commercial success already. “But I’d be in a situation that would be too perfect, and when you’ve got nothing to bother about, you don’t say anything.” And off he went into the London streets, 25 years old and looking for work, with million-selling albums and packed concert halls still the faintest of lights behind a far horizon.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Adam Glasser #

    More fascinating context thank you Richard. Is it possible to look up Melody Maker pieces online? So much great writing I remember. In particular a comment Keith Jarrett made in an interview with you (or was it Karl Dallas who reviewed the April 1977 Theatre Royal Drury Lane Solo Concert). Jarrett made a remark which has never left my memory – to the effect of when an improviser plays a note or a phrase” to what extent does he actually mean those notes at that particular moment?” One of the best definitions of improvising with total intention in the present….

    October 26, 2020
    • Bryan Jones #

      As a player, and having struggled to find my way around and out of the pitfalls which greeted me in my pursuit of a career in this profession, I appreciated reading about KJ’s experience as a young player when his focus on achieving success was blurred by, what reads as, a kind of egotism which gave him license to ignore the realities of the path he had chosen at the time. As to his current, and most likely permanent health issues, I’m reminded of a story about Bill Evans, who, after injecting cocaine into his left arm lost the use of it on the eve of a week long gig at the Vanguard. He played the entire week using only his right hand to the amazement of several piano players who showed up.

      October 27, 2020
  2. Graham Pogson #

    Very interesting interview. Jarrett produced many brilliant albums, both solo and with his trio, and his legacy is assured. My only reservations were his voicings, which often irritated, and his insistence on total silence from the audience. People were too scared to cough. It reminds me of a concert I saw by the guitarist John Williams last year. Several minutes into one number, a member of the audience briefly coughed. Instead of continuing, Williams stopped, told him off, and started again. I felt really sorry for the poor chap.

    October 27, 2020
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Correction … it’s not Jarret’s ‘ voicings ‘ ( inversions ) that irritated you … its his Chord Substitutions .

      Which by inference means …. every George Russel influenced musician under the sun’s substitutions must ‘ irritate ‘ you … including just about every ECM musician … etc

      Suggestion … find a copy of George Russel’s ” Chromatic Lydian Concepts ” .. or if thats too technical …. grab a copy of the new Bio by one of AAJ’s writers

      In as far as his demand for silence . Trust me mate .. if all of us ‘ serious ‘ musicians had the cache , power and reputation to make such demands … we ALL would . Without hesitation !

      October 27, 2020
  3. Bill White #

    Fascinating. And thank you again for another illuminating, Blue Moment.
    I was at the Charles Lloyd date in London (1967?) which I think was Jarrett’s first U.K. appearance and I remember there was quite a ‘buzz’ around him. A couple of things from Melody Maker I recall: one was an enthusiastic endorsement of KJ by pianist, Pat Smythe and an interview where the tag line was a quote from Jarrett about want to get a ‘scream’ from the piano. With reference to the trouble he was having finding work for and audience response to, his trio: I remember some time after, also in the Melody Maker, reading that Keith Emerson said he had recently seen the group in NYC and there were only five or six people in the venue and one of those was the bass player’s wife. How things changed!

    October 27, 2020
  4. Chris Walsh #

    Interesting to hear him talk about his soprano playing. The great Sam Newsome really rates him as a soprano player, not so much because of his technique but because he has his own distinctive voice. One of the first things that crossed my mind when I heard about his latest health problems was, could someone “Roland Kirk” a soprano so that he could play it one-handed? Maybe he will return to composition.

    October 27, 2020
  5. GuitarSlinger #

    Keith may not of been famous in Europe and the UK back then …. but here in the US … with his time with Miles … and releases such as ” Death and the Flower ” etc et al … he was already a legend in the making .

    And yes .. Keith was a helluva soprano sax player … as well as …. one seriously kick___ guitar player ( check out his ECM release the name of which escapes me )

    October 27, 2020
    • The piece was written in 1970. ‘Death and the Flower’ was recorded in 1974 and released in 1975. In 1970 Nesuhi Ertegun was about to drop KJ from Atlantic because he hated ‘Restoration Ruin’ so much. So not quite ‘a legend in the making’ at that time.

      October 27, 2020
      • GuitarSlinger #

        Errr .. Richard … with all due respect … who was living here in the US when Jarret was on the rise .. seeing it all first hand ? Errr … that’d be me . Not to mention all the press Jarret was getting at the time form the likes of Downbeat etc as well as the attention he was getting from every jazz focused conservatory in the US .( he was by 1970 a common subject of conversation and adulation amounts us all nationwide )

        Suffice it to say Richard …Jarret’s tenure with Miles alone garnered him the attention y’all seem of of missed out on .

        But …. as a small source of comfort … it was Jarret being picked upon by ECM ( Germany ) and ultimately the ” Koln Concerts” that led to …

        Jarret’s SUPERSTARDOM

        October 27, 2020
      • GuitarSlinger #

        By the way Richard … for all of the Ertegun’s multiple successes … nobody in the business would ever say they didn’t make a fair share of major league ( bleep ) ups along the way as well . Jarret being one of them

        Not to mention … more often than not in the ‘ Fine ‘ arts …. one’s legend and reputation races ahead and most often exceeds one’s financial gains

        October 27, 2020
    • GuitarSlinger #

      The album in question … ” No End ” on ECM …. where Jarrret out Jerry’s Jerry Garcia himself … on guitar

      October 27, 2020
  6. Fantastic article. Keith never ceases to surprise, and thanks to you we know how he felt at 25 years old.

    October 27, 2020
  7. Thomas Vieth #

    I chanced upon this interesting article. Do you happen to have a newsletter?

    October 28, 2020
  8. Carmelo Rios #

    God bless him one of a kind

    October 28, 2020
  9. George McFetridge #

    The 1970 cellar door recordings are all I need of KJ.

    November 8, 2020

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: