Sometimes we’re reminded that the power of human creativity can be limited only by human frailty.
One of the most creative musicians of the second half of the 20th century was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania on the day World War Two came to an end in Europe. Keith Jarrett was a piano prodigy almost from the time he was a toddler. He began piano lessons before he was 3 and gave his first full recital when he was 7. After high school he went to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music but left after a year to go to New York City and play. Like so many other great players he did a stint in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers after meeting Blakey at a Monday night jam session at the Village Vanguard in 1964.
Like many jazz players, he put a high premium on improvisation, but was determined to push that as far as possible. In 1973, he began playing totally improvised solo piano concerts. He would approach the piano with no music
and without any preconceived notions as to what he would play when he sat down.
In January, 1975 he walked on stage at the opera house in Cologne, West Germany. That night, tape was rolling. The result was a double album released later that year which became one of the best-selling solo piano albums ever.
I sat down one evening last week and listened to it start to finish. It is a monument to human creativity. One thing that slowly dawns on you is that this was literally a once in a lifetime chance to hear this music live. It did not exist before he walked out on stage and it would never be played again.
Patterns and phrases coalesce before your very ears. Lines of music suddenly take shape. You can hear him catch hold of an idea and work to develop it into something substantive. Other times you can tell he’s trying to move from one idea to another. When they transcribed what he had played, it ran to 80 pages.
As time passed after a performance in February, 2017, his fans wondered when he may play again. But last month in an interview with the New York Times, he reveled that he had had a stroke in February, 2018, and then a second one a few months later. He has been working on rehab since, but his left side is still partially paralyzed. It is unlikely he will ever perform in public again. He ruefully admits that he no longer considers himself a pianist.
Human creativity is a resilient thing echoing through all of history since we first painted on the wall of a cave. The ability to express that creativity on the other hand, as Jarrett’s story illustrates, is sometimes far more fragile than we would like it to be.
(Music source You Tube Keith Jarrett solo piano at Umbria 1974)