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«Title of Document: A DEEP JOY INSIDE IT: THE MUSICAL AESTHETICS OF KEITH JARRETT Jason C. McCool, Master of Arts, 2005 Directed By: Dr. Richard G. ...»

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Jason C. McCool, Master of Arts, 2005

Directed By: Dr. Richard G. King, Associate Professor of

Music, Dept. of Musicology

Keith Jarrett is an American pianist whose music and aesthetics stand out as dynamic, polarizing forces not only in jazz, but within the entire contemporary American musical world. The breadth of Jarrett’s musical activities, crossing jazz, classical, and even “world music” boundaries, is unprecedented, yet his name is rarely mentioned outside of jazz. Aside from one biography and a handful of dissertations, academic writing dealing with Jarrett is scant.

Jarrett’s philosophical justifications for his music offer a rare example of a creative musician unafraid to grapple publicly with self-analysis. His aesthetics fall squarely within the lineage of American musical “individualists,” and this thesis draws comparisons to Charles Ives and American Transcendentalism. Through an examination of Jarrett’s writings and interviews, this thesis examines: 1) the nature of his aesthetics, 2) possible origins of these ideas, and 3) how Jarrett’s music does or does not correspond with his stated philosophies.



By Jason C. McCool Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland, College Park, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts

Advisory Committee:

Professor Richard G. King, Chair Professor Jennifer DeLapp Professor Chris Gekker © Copyright by Jason C. McCool Table of Contents Chapter 1: Introductions/Justifications




Chapter 2: Jarrett’s Importance in Modern Music

Stylistic breadth

Importance/influence in jazz world

ECM aesthetic

Influence in popular music

Chapter 3: Jarrett’s Musical Flexibility

Musical tendencies

Success as classical artist

Tastes in classical music

Classical recording history

Other musicians who have held dual careers

Chapter 4: Jarrett in Jazz

Jarrett’s pedigree/legacy in jazz

Role as jazz spokesperson

Chapter 5: What Jarrett Values About Jazz

Jazz as “organic” music

Jazz as a multiplicity of musical approaches

Chapter 6: Jarrett’s Views on Classical vs. Jazz Processes


Difficulty in playing both forms

Public perceptions of jazz vs. “reality”

Conservatory/preservationist approach to jazz

Music as “object”

Influence of classical music on Jarrett’s music

How Jarrett’s aesthetic allows him to play both forms

Consistent piano sound

Relationship to the piano

Detractors in classical music

Chapter 7: Jarrett’s Views on Interpretation




Other modern interpretations of classical music

ii Classical composers as improvisers

Non-virtuosity as virtue

Improvising in historical context

Chapter 8: Jarrett and Controversy

Chapter 9: Jarrett’s Musical Values

The “natural” and process

Penchant for attracting paradox

Chapter 10: Individuality/Finding A Voice

Individuality in jazz

Lincoln Center/Wynton Marsalis

Jarrett’s “outsider-ness”

Chapter 11: Jarrett’s Relationship to Transcendentalism


Discontent with surrounding circumstances

Anti-materialism/emphasis on nature

Parallels to another American individualist: Charles Ives

Chapter 12: Spiritual Value of Music

Influence of Eastern thought/Gurdjieff

Influence of Transcendentalist Spirituality

Sacredness of musical act

Creativity as spiritual impulse

Jarrett’s physical transcendence

Potential for ecstasy in classical music

Chapter 13: Keith Jarrett’s Music

Outline of career

Keith Jarrett Trio

Solo Concerts

Other performance situations

Chapter 14: Summary


–  –  –

Music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music, while the music lasts. – T.S. Eliot1 Art should exhilarate, and throw down the walls of circumstance on every side, awakening in the beholder the same sense of universal relation and power which the work evinced in the artist, and its highest effect is to make new artists.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson2 Music should be thought of as the desire for an ecstatic relationship to life. Music has to have a deep joy inside it. – Keith Jarrett3 Introduction Perhaps more than any other musician today, pianist Keith Jarrett practices and preaches an expansive and inherently American musical vision. Jarrett’s music touches upon many issues relevant to the creation of contemporary music: the practice of improvisation, the inclusion of folk music in so-called “serious” music, the interconnected (if often stormy) relationship between American jazz and Euro-centric classical music, polemics of “technique vs. inspiration,” and the burdens of tradition and influence. The case of Keith Jarrett provides a dynamic, complex and at times self-contradictory example of a modern American musician intensely grappling with issues of identity and the search for an individual musical voice.

T.S. Eliot. “The Dry Salvages,” from Four Quartets (Harvest Books, 1968), p.44.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays, First Series (Harvard University Press, 1980).

Michael Walsh, “Growing Into the Silence,” Time, 23 October 1995.

Simply put, no other modern American musician covers the amount of musical turf that Keith Jarrett does on such a thrilling, masterful level. His musical flexibility, coupled with his prolific output covering over forty years, is staggering – Jarrett is a tireless music-maker. His singular position as an active, historically significant, and highly respected member of both the classical and the jazz worlds makes him uniquely situated to offer commentary on the state of modern American “art” music.

Very few examples exist of contemporary musicians who maintain credible careers in both fields, and Jarrett’s aesthetic perspectives are informed by his eclecticism. In the jazz world, it often seems that Jarrett relishes his role of elder statesman/aesthetician, as he frequently offers pointed pronouncements and invectives critiquing both the jazz and “non-jazz” worlds. Though this phenomenon occurs more frequently with classical artists (especially composers), rarely does the jazz world offer the case of a vital musician like Jarrett offering up aesthetic “treatises” concurrent with his musical activities. Though his positions are contentious and controversial, Jarrett’s views have proven just as influential on young musicians as has his music. Whether or not one agrees with what Jarrett has to say, it is undeniable that his deep intellectual curiosity – a trait seeming to parallel the intensity of his musical explorations – deserves consideration. Keith Jarrett is a fascinating thinker and an important American musician, but surprisingly, there has been little discussion of him in academic circles.

Goals This thesis examines the nature of Jarrett’s aesthetic positions and possible origins of these ideas. To these ends, I will also briefly examine selected portions of Jarrett’s oeuvre in order to illustrate the ways that Jarrett’s art might (or might not) be taken to reflect his own aesthetic positions.

Sources Having deliberately sequestered himself away in the rural environs of his onehundred and thirty year old, western New Jersey farm home, Jarrett emerges from his hermitage to give interviews and offer commentary with irregular frequency. For an artist whose identity seems so colored with reclusiveness, however, Jarrett’s penchant for making grand proclamations detailing what he sees as the ills of modern music does seem paradoxical. Yet this is the very type of embodied contradiction that makes Jarrett such an intriguing figure. Perhaps Jarrett’s boldest and most representative written manifesto comes in the form of a 1992 New York Times article, entitled Categories Aplenty, But Where’s the Music?4 This piece concisely distills a wide range of Jarrett’s perspectives, and I will make frequent reference to it. Jarrett also gives interviews to journalists at the rate of about one every two years, often timed, perhaps not coincidentally, with the release of a new album, and material from these sources will be included. There are two recorded interviews with Jarrett publicly available, if difficult to track down. One book exists that deals exclusively with Jarrett and his music, a biography by the British journalist/musician Ian Carr, Keith Jarrett, “Categories Aplenty, but Where’s the Music?” New York Times, 16 August 1992, Sec. H, p. 19.

and this book, written with Jarrett’s aid and consent, contains numerous statements coming directly from Jarrett. Musicologist Gernot Blume has written a dissertation on Jarrett (Musical Practices and Identity Construction in the Work of Keith Jarrett, University of Michigan, 1998), and I also draw from this. Lastly, I employ liner notes from Jarrett’s own recordings; these are an excellent source because Jarrett most frequently lays out his ideas in this context. As my purpose here is not necessarily to study Keith Jarrett’s music, but rather, to objectively examine his aesthetic perspectives and foundations, a large portion of this thesis will necessarily lean upon Jarrett’s own writings and commentary. I should mention, however, that writing about Jarrett “objectively” seems an inherently difficult act, due to the way that Jarrett’s convincing (and rather absolutist) rhetoric tends to color one’s own perspectives.

Chapter 2: Jarrett’s Importance in Modern Music Stylistic breadth What first comes to mind when considering Jarrett the musician is not only his remarkably prolific output, but perhaps more significantly, the sheer stylistic breadth that his recordings encompass. Since 1967, Jarrett has released 70 albums as a leader or soloist; he has also recorded in approximately 20 projects as sideman; by any measure, this is tremendous production. Jarrett’s professional recording career spans almost 40 years, and historically, bridges gaps between 1960s post-Coltrane free jazz, 1970s jazz-rock, and postmodern improvisation. Stylistically, however, Jarrett’s piano playing has incorporated elements from the entirety of jazz history. For instance, his recorded history has proven him just as likely to improvise a stomping, ragtime piece reminiscent of James P. Johnson as he is to offer tight, nimble bebop lines of the sort associated with pianist Bud Powell. Concerning Jarrett’s playing during a 1968 run at Shelly’s Manne Hole in LA, noted jazz critic Leonard Feather observed: “What came out was not much short of a complete history of jazz piano played backwards.”5 What’s more, Jarrett’s recent improvisations often sound closer to 20th-century classical works than anything resembling traditional jazz. There are but a handful of living jazz musicians who have retained an inherently exploratory nature with such longevity and sustained productivity; Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea come to mind. None of these musicians, however, come close to touching Jarrett’s stylistic flexibility, or penchant for controversy. For a Liner notes to Foundations: The Keith Jarrett Anthology, Rhino Records, 1994.

number of reasons, including his insistence on the spiritual value of music making, his unrelenting experimentation, and his absolute dedication to the whims of his muse (often at the risk of alienating his own core audience), Keith Jarrett can conceivably be considered the symbolic heir to John Coltrane.

Importance/influence in jazz world Since the death of Coltrane in 1967, jazz has changed immensely, and during this period of great upheaval, Keith Jarrett has stood as one of the music’s leading figures.

It is impossible to deny the important place Jarrett holds in the jazz world. Scanning media coverage of recent recordings by the Keith Jarrett Trio, one finds weighty phrases such as “Simply put, this is jazz at its best,”6 and “about as good as jazz gets… or has ever gotten”7 – indeed, the stature of this group has become so large that reviewers seem to run out of superlatives. Time classical reviewer Michael Walsh says of Jarrett: “his playing is marked by a clear, crystalline piano sound, a keen musical intelligence and a technique that can handle just about anything a composer throws at him – or he throws at himself.”8 This reputation for greatness has been associated with Jarrett throughout his career. On the album notes for Jarrett’s first professional recording, in 1962, with the college “all-star” band of educator/bandleader Don Jacoby, Jacoby states, “Keith Jarrett at sixteen is the youngest member of the ensemble. His versatility is interesting and typical.

Accompanied by his mother, he auditioned for Berklee by brilliantly executing Los Angeles Times, as quoted on CD promotional sticker.

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