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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Keith Jarrett Confronts a Future Without the Piano

Keith Jarrett Confronts a Future Without the Piano

The pathbreaking musician reveals the health issues that make it unlikely he will ever again perform in public.

Daniela Yohannes/ECM Records

The last time Keith Jarrett performed in public, his relationship with the piano was the least of his concerns. This was at Carnegie Hall in 2017, several weeks into the administration of a divisive new American president.

Mr. Jarrett — one of the most heralded pianists alive, a galvanizing jazz artist who has also recorded a wealth of classical music — opened with an indignant speech on the political situation, and unspooled a relentless commentary throughout the concert. He ended by thanking the audience for bringing him to tears.

He had been scheduled to return to Carnegie the following March for another of the solo recitals that have done the most to create his legend — like the one captured on the recording “Budapest Concert,” to be released on Oct. 30. But that Carnegie performance was abruptly canceled, along with the rest of his concert calendar. At the time, Mr. Jarrett’s longtime record label, ECM, cited unspecified health issues. There has been no official update in the two years since.

But this month Mr. Jarrett, 75, broke the silence, plainly stating what happened to him: a stroke in late February 2018, followed by another one that May. It is unlikely he will ever perform in public again.

“I was paralyzed,” he told The New York Times, speaking by phone from his home in northwest New Jersey. “My left side is still partially paralyzed. I’m able to try to walk with a cane, but it took a long time for that, took a year or more. And I’m not getting around this house at all, really.”

Mr. Jarrett didn’t initially realize how serious his first stroke had been. “It definitely snuck up on me,” he said. But after more symptoms emerged, he was taken to a hospital, where he gradually recovered enough to be discharged. His second stroke happened at home, and he was admitted to a nursing facility.

During his time there, from July 2018 until this past May, he made sporadic use of its piano room, playing some right-handed counterpoint. “I was trying to pretend that I was Bach with one hand,” he said. “But that was just toying with something.” When he tried to play some familiar bebop tunes in his home studio recently, he discovered he had forgotten them.

Mr. Jarrett’s voice is softer and thinner now. But over two roughly hourlong conversations, he was lucid and legible, aside from occasional lapses in memory. He often punctuated a heavy or awkward statement with a laugh like a faint rhythmic exhalation: Ah-ha-ha-ha.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Raised in the Christian Science faith, which espouses an avoidance of medical treatment, Mr. Jarrett has returned to those spiritual moorings — up to a point. “I don’t do the ‘why me’ thing very often,” he said. “Because as a Christian Scientist, I would be expected to say, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan.’ And I was doing that somewhat when I was in the facility. I don’t know if I succeeded, though, because here I am.”

“I don’t know what my future is supposed to be,” he added. “I don’t feel right now like I’m a pianist. That’s all I can say about that.”

After a pause, he reconsidered. “But when I hear two-handed piano music, it’s very frustrating, in a physical way. If I even hear Schubert, or something played softly, that’s enough for me. Because I know that I couldn’t do that. And I’m not expected to recover that. The most I’m expected to recover in my left hand is possibly the ability to hold a cup in it. So it’s not a ‘shoot the piano player’ thing. It’s: I already got shot. Ah-ha-ha-ha.”


IF THE PROSPECT of a Keith Jarrett who no longer considers himself a pianist is dumbfounding, it might be because there has scarcely been a time he didn’t. Growing up in Allentown, Pa., he was a prodigy. According to family lore, he was 3 when an aunt indicated a nearby stream and told him to turn its burbling into music — his first piano improvisation.

Broad public awareness caught up with him in the late 1960s, when he was in a zeitgeist-capturing group led by Charles Lloyd, a saxophonist and flutist. The brilliant drummer in that quartet, Jack DeJohnette, then helped Miles Davis push into rock and funk. Mr. Jarrett followed suit, joining an incandescent edition of Davis’s band; in live recordings, his interludes on electric piano cast a spell.

Roberto Polillo/CTSIMAGES

Mr. Jarrett soon hit on something analogous in his own concerts, allowing improvised passages to become the main event. He was a few years into this approach in 1975, when he performed what would become “The Köln Concert” — a sonorous, mesmerizing landmark that still stands as one of the best-selling solo piano albums ever made. It has also been hailed as an object lesson in triumph over adversity, including Mr. Jarrett’s physical pain and exhaustion at the time, and his frustration over an inferior piano.

That sense of overcoming intransigent obstacles is an enduring feature of Mr. Jarrett’s myth. At times over the years, it could even seem that he set up his own roadblocks: turning concerts into trials of herculean intensity, and famously interrupting them to admonish his audience for taking pictures, or for excessive coughing. A New York Times Magazine profile in 1997 bore a wry headline: “The Jazz Martyr.” The following year, Mr. Jarrett announced that he’d been struggling with the consuming and mysterious ailment known as chronic fatigue syndrome.

Binde/Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images

While regaining strength, he recorded a series of songbook ballads in his home studio (later released as the touching, exquisite album “The Melody at Night, With You”). Then he reconvened his longtime trio, a magically cohesive unit with Mr. DeJohnette and the virtuoso bassist Gary Peacock.

Their first comeback concert, in 1998, recently surfaced on record, joining a voluminous discography. It captures a spirit of joyous reunion not only for Mr. Jarrett and his trio partners but also between a performing artist and his public. He titled that album “After the Fall”; ECM released it in March 2018, unwittingly around the time of his first stroke.

Loss has shrouded Mr. Jarrett’s musical circle of late. Mr. Peacock died last month, at 85. Jon Christensen, the drummer in Mr. Jarrett’s influential European quartet of the 1970s, died earlier this year. Mr. Jarrett also led a groundbreaking American quartet in the ’70s, and its other members — the saxophonist Dewey Redman, the bassist Charlie Haden, the drummer Paul Motian, all major figures in modern jazz — have passed on, too.

Faced with these and other difficult truths, Mr. Jarrett hasn’t exactly found solace in music, as he once would have. But he derives satisfaction from some recordings of his final European solo tour. He directed ECM to release the tour’s closing concert last year, as “Munich 2016.” He’s even more enthusiastic about the tour opener, “Budapest Concert,” which he briefly considered calling “The Gold Standard.”


AS HE BEGINS to come to terms with his body of work as a settled fact, Mr. Jarrett doesn’t hesitate to plant a flag.

“I feel like I’m the John Coltrane of piano players,” he said, citing the saxophonist who transformed the language and spirit of jazz in the 1960s. “Everybody that played the horn after he did was showing how much they owed to him. But it wasn’t their music. It was just an imitative thing.”

Of course, imitation — even of oneself — is anathema to the pure, blank-slate invention Mr. Jarrett still claims as his method. “I don’t have an idea of what I’m going to play, any time before a concert,” he said. “If I have a musical idea, I say no to it.” (Describing this process, he still favors the present tense.)

Beyond his own creative resources, the conditions of every concert are unique: the characteristics of the piano, the sound in the hall, the mood of the audience, even the feel of a city. Mr. Jarrett had performed in Budapest four times before his 2016 concert at the Bela Bartok National Concert Hall, feeling an affinity he ascribes to personal factors: His maternal grandmother was Hungarian, and he played Bartok’s music from an early age.

“I felt like I had some reason to be close to the culture,” he said.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The embrace of folkloric music by Bartok and other Hungarian composers further nudged Mr. Jarrett toward a dark quality — “a kind of existential sadness, let’s say, a deepness” — powerfully present in the concert’s first half. The second half, as admirers of “The Köln Concert” will appreciate, features a few of Mr. Jarrett’s most ravishing on-the-spot compositions. Those ballads, like “Part V” and “Part VII,” spark against briskly atonal or boppish pieces, gradually building the case for a mature expression that might not have been possible earlier in his career.

Part of that evolution has to do with the structure of Mr. Jarrett’s solo concerts, which used to unfold in long, unbroken arcs but now involve a collection of discrete pieces, with breaks for applause. Often the overarching form of these more recent concerts is only apparent after the fact. But Budapest was an exception.

“I saw this one while I was in it, which is why I chose that as the best concert on that entire tour,” Mr. Jarrett said. “I mean, I knew it. I knew something was happening.”

The crucial factor, he acknowledged, was an uncommonly receptive audience. “Some audiences seem to applaud more when there’s something crazy going on,” he said. “I don’t know why, but I wasn’t looking at that in Budapest.”

Given that Mr. Jarrett has made all but a small portion of his recorded output in front of an audience, his cantankerous reputation might best be understood as the turbulent side of a codependent relationship. He put the matter most succinctly during a Carnegie Hall solo concert in 2015, when he announced, “Here’s the big deal that nobody seems to realize: I could not do it without you.”

Norman Seeff

As he renegotiates his bond with the piano, Mr. Jarrett faces the likelihood of that other relationship — the one with the public — coming to an end.

“Right now, I can’t even talk about this,” he said when the issue came up, and laughed his deflective laugh. “That’s what I feel about it.”

And while the magnificent achievement of “Budapest Concert” is a source of pride, it’s not hard to see how it could also register as a cosmic taunt.

“I can only play with my right hand, and it’s not convincing me anymore,” Mr. Jarrett said. “I even have dreams where I am as messed up as I really am — so I’ve found myself trying to play in my dreams, but it’s just like real life.”

Keith Jarrett Confronts a Future Without the Piano

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Stanley Crouch, combative writer, intellectual and authority on jazz, dies at 74

Stanley Crouch, combative writer, intellectual and authority on jazz, dies at 74

Stanley Crouch in 2013.
Stanley Crouch in 2013. (Brad Barket/Getty Images)

“Stanley Crouch, a cultural critic whose contrarian and trenchant writings exploring music, politics, race and literature made him a prominent and often controversial figure in American arts and letters, died Sept. 16 at a New York hospital. He was 74.

Mr. Crouch was an actor, playwright, jazz drummer and college professor — without benefit of a college degree — before he emerged in the late 1970s as one of the country’s most original, contentious and (sometimes literally) combative writers.

He was a bare-knuckled literary provocateur — erudite, fearless, sometimes reckless, in the view of his critics — while reveling in his often truculent takedowns, often of works by other African American artists and intellectuals.

Mr. Crouch was a passionate champion of jazz as perhaps the pinnacle of artistic expression in this country and was just as ardent in denouncing rap music as “either an infantile self-celebration or anarchic glamorization of criminal behavior.”

His bold declarations escalated to a fistfight with another writer at the Village Voice, prompting Mr. Crouch’s firing from the weekly newspaper in 1988, reportedly after similar bullying incidents.

He also wrote for the New York Daily News, the Root, the Daily Beast and the New Republic, among other outlets, and was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. He published a novel and an acclaimed biography of saxophonist Charlie Parker and published learned essays on writers Thomas Mann, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow.

After leading an avant-garde group as a drummer in his earlier years, Mr. Crouch became a jazz classicist over time and was a close friend and intellectual mentor of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, with whom he helped launch Jazz at Lincoln Center, a performance venue and influential jazz repertory group.

Together, Mr. Crouch and Marsalis were the standard-bearers of a 1980s movement that rejected electronic jazz fusion and called for a return to the musical traditions embodied by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and other jazz innovators. Mr. Crouch was a featured commentator in Ken Burns’s 10-part documentary series on jazz in 2000 and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2019.

He praised the beauty of trumpeter Miles Davis’s music from the 1950s and 1960s, but when Davis adopted a rock-influenced style in the 1970s, Mr. Crouch condemned the move as a betrayal of near-apocalyptic dimensions. He called it “perhaps the essential failure of contemporary Negro culture: its mock-democratic idea that the elites, too, should like it down in the gutter.”

“Gone is the elegant and exigent Afro-American authenticity of the likes of Ellington, at ease in the alley as well as the palace,” Mr. Crouch wrote in a memorable 1990 essay in the New Republic, “replaced by a youth culture vulgarity that vandalizes the sweep and substance of Afro-American life.”

He applied his aesthetic views more broadly to social concerns and what he saw as a widespread acceptance of loutish behavior and underachievement.

“The cult of ethnic authenticity often mistakes the lowest common denominator for an ideal,” he wrote in the essay on Davis. “In this climate, obnoxious, vulgar, and anti-social behavior has been confused with black authenticity.”

Mr. Crouch — who preferred the terms Negro, Black American and Afro-American to “African American” — was just as harsh toward other revered Black artists. When Toni Morrison received the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature, he did not join in the ovation.

“She has a certain skill, but she has no serious artistic vision or real artistic integrity,” he told The Washington Post. “ ‘Beloved’ was a fraud. It gave a fake vision of the slave trade, it didn’t deal with the complicity of Africans, and it moved the males into the wings.”

In essays and interviews, Mr. Crouch called filmmaker Spike Lee “a middle-class would-be street Negro,” whose films reflected “fantasy” versions of Black communities and “the fundamental shallowness that you get from a propagandist.”

Mr. Crouch believed that the civil rights movement was aspiring to a “complex vision of universal humanism” and cultural understanding before it was “hijacked by radicals.” He called Malcolm X the “chief black heckler of the civil rights movement” and was withering toward Louis Farrakhan, dismissing the Nation of Islam leader as “our most highly respected racist and all-purpose lunatic.”

Even when onetime friends deserted him, Mr. Crouch did not moderate his outspoken views.

“I admire the brother’s candor,” writer and scholar Cornel West told the New Yorker in 1995, “but his abrasive style is so alienating that it tends to reinforce the polarization. The low points, like the attacks on Toni Morrison, gain more attention. His brilliant jazz criticism is overshadowed.”

Others said Mr. Crouch was nothing more than a clever mouthpiece for White conservatives, particularly when he complained of crime-ridden neighborhoods and “a cult of victimization.”

“I’ve been applauded by black bus drivers, subway drivers, mechanics, various people who have come up to me and said, ‘I’m sure glad somebody is saying it,’ ” Mr. Crouch told the New York Times in 1993. “That’s enough for me. I don’t care what some trickle-down Negro Marxist says.”

In the 1960s, when Mr. Crouch came of age, he was part of the emerging Black Arts movement, championed by poet and activist Amiri Baraka. It was a sometimes militant effort to create art, music and political strength within the African American community, separate from the dominant White culture.

Mr. Crouch joined a Los Angeles theatrical group led by Jayne Cortez, a major figure in the Black Arts movement, and wrote defiant poetry and plays. By the early 1970s, he was growing disaffected with the black nationalist movement.

“Race pride is something that I’m not unacquainted with,” he told Newsday in 1990. “But that’s different from racism, and a lot of people in the cultural nationalist movement are hard-core anti-white racists. And to me, racism is antithetical to the Afro-American tradition.”

Mr. Crouch became increasingly drawn to the writings of Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man,” a landmark novel about African American life, and especially Albert Murray. Murray was a novelist and essayist, and his 1970 book “The Omni-Americans” used jazz to demonstrate how African American achievement is at the heart of American civilization.“