We're celebrating Keith Jarrett's 70th Birthday with the republication of this October 2003 Genius Guide to Jazz article.
A recent AAJ poll reveals that if you were to ask the average American to name the most influential living jazz pianist, 89.4% of them would giggle like a schoolgirl because the word "pianist" sounds naughty when you say it out loud.
Keith Jarrett, considered by virtually the entire cast of The Sopranos
(except for Jamie-Lynn "Meadow" Sigler) to be the most important living jazz pianist, was born on May 8, 1945, in Allentown, Pennsylvania. His mustache was born on July 12, 1971, in Altoona. Determined early on to be a musician, he (Keith, not the mustache) took up the piano at the age of three and was declared a prodigy by the sort of people who have time to dwell on that sort of thing. As for the rest of us, we have to go to work.
And so did Keith, rigorously devoting himself to the study of classical theory, which is the supposition that music composed by long-dead Europeans could still get women "in the mood." The theory was finally proved in 1979 with the movie 10
, showing that Ravel's "Bolero" could get the elfin Dudley Moore in with the still-hot Bo Derek. The theory held true two years later with Arthur
, when Christopher Cross? appalling pop tune "Arthur's Theme (The Best That You Can Do)" netted Moore the increasingly creepy Liza Minnelli. By the age of 15, and the full-bore onset of adolescence, he was studying classical composition and had already mastered a wide variety of clothing fasteners common to early sixties fashion.
Planning on heading to France to study under Nadia "The Parisian Pedagogue" Boulanger, well-known (by who? I've never heard of her) piano instructor, Keith abruptly decided to go to Boston's Berklee School of Music and concentrate on jazz. A wise decision, in my opinion. Even in that more innocent time, it was still not a good idea to go traipsing halfway around the world to study under someone just because they have a fancy French-sounding name. He left Berklee after a year, following a dispute with cafeteria officials over their definition of Pigs in a Blanket.
Performing around Boston for a short time, mostly because traffic was so gridlocked he had no choice, he soon fell victim to the allure of the Big Apple. Once in New York, Keith joined Art Blakey
and the Jazz Messengers just long enough to help them defeat the Modern Jazz Quartet
in a 4-man bobsled race held at Lake Placid to decide which group got first dibs on Miles Davis
' leftovers. He then joined the Charles Lloyd
Quartet (after accidentally joining the Harold Lloyd Quartet and wondering why the rest of the guys were wearing straw boaters and round glasses). Here, he gained not only valuable experience, but international exposure (which was at that time still just a misdemeanor).
Leaving Lloyd in 1969 he soon formed his own group with the great bassist Charlie Haden
and drummer Paul Motian
(insert your own "My Favorite Motian" joke here). He later added saxophonist Dewey Redman, who had made his fortune in the chewing tobacco business before deciding to pursue his true love. And when she wasn't available, he turned to jazz.
Which is all well and good.
As a new decade dawned, and the specter of Seventies "fashion" hung in the air, Keith sat in for a while with Miles Davis while trying to stave off his inevitable Afro. This lead to a deal with Columbia, which produced the album Expectations
. His contract with CBS was abruptly cancelled two weeks later, however, when rumors of his international exposure reached the label's scandal-wary execs. Undaunted, he found a home at the ECM label in Germany, where they seem to be more tolerant if Teutonic tourists stuffed into Speedos are anything to go by.
ECM?s Manfred Eicher persuaded Keith to record albums of solo piano, beginning with Facing You
, because of the prevalent European perception that whenever Americans get together in groups they tend to open either a military base or a McDonald's. When the album was a hit, Keith followed it with a monolithic triple album that would establish him as a major voice in jazz but never seriously challenge Chief Wilson's single season record of 36 triples set in 1912.