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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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Chapter 11: Jarrett’s Relationship to Transcendentalism Background An intriguing link may be made between the aesthetics of Keith Jarrett and American philosophical history. Of course, much of what Jarrett has to say about individualism has been said before. However, an immediate link might be made between Jarrett’s aesthetics and certain writings of the American Transcendentalists, especially those of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Even the writing of Walt Whitman, in its turbulent narratives of a broadly-defined America, shares something with Jarrett’s all-encompassing dynamism. One could easily imagine Jarrett stating something along the lines of Whitman’s famous quote from Song of Myself, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” Transcendentalist scholar Barbara MacKinnon has articulated these three themes as

central tenets of Transcendentalist thought:

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the capacity of each person to know the truth directly142 3) Keith Jarrett has addressed all three of these issues in his writings. Whether Jarrett himself is familiar with the complete lineage of Transcendentalist thought is not Jan Swafford. Charles Ives: A Life With Music (W.W. Norton, 1996), 293.

important; the point is that Jarrett’s artistic inclinations do not arise from a vacuumstate, his ideas are not new in this country.

Discontent with surrounding circumstances In his 1992 article written for the New York Times, Jarrett references what is perhaps

the classic text on individual voice, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance:

This is a good place to mention that “Do your own thing” came from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who actually said, “Do your thing, and I shall know you.”143 In other words, you reveal yourself to others through what you do. Emerson’s statement was not meant to be a kind of carte blanche to follow our shallowest whims: It’s not about lifestyle or fashion or casual choices. It contains a warning: I will only recognize you if you have your voice; I will not recognize you otherwise.144 Jarrett seems intent on excluding all contemporary music that does not live up to his standard of individual voice. Jarrett is notorious for doling out far more negative than positive criticism regarding the state of modern music making, and this spirit of perpetual discontent with surrounding circumstances falls directly in the spirit of American individualism.

Anti-materialism/emphasis on nature Transcendentalist writers like Thoreau placed great emphasis on establishing what might be deemed a spiritual connection to nature, while renouncing an increasingly material, product-driven society. The timing of this anti-materialistic impulse, coming in the 1830s, foreshadowed by a few dozen years the beginning of the In fact, Jarrett misquotes Emerson here; the original statement, taken from Emerson’s essay SelfReliance, is “Do your work and I shall know you.” (Jarrett, “Categories Aplenty,” Sec. H, p.19.) Industrial Revolution, in which America’s sense of self-worth became increasingly linked to an ever-expanding commercial economy. Thoreau in particular lamented the coming of an age in which machines and new technologies would supplant essential human interaction and communication. In addition, Thoreau frequently chastised the burgeoning American tendency for superfluous communication, for idle chatter when there is no outright need for it. This attitude provides a marked contrast with today’s “information superhighway,” and Keith Jarrett’s writings echo Thoreau’s concern, lamenting the loss of silence perhaps found in less “technological” times. Jarrett’s keenly exhilarative, exhaustive musical questing often seems almost directly scripted from Transcendental philosophy. In his crossstylistic musical samplings, in his denial of the commercial and the material, and most noticeably in his readily acknowledged lusting after musical Deity, the aesthetics and musical practices of Keith Jarrett stand firmly within this tradition.

Not only Jarrett’s writings, but interestingly, his lifestyle apart from music seems influenced by Transcendentalism. Regarding his own New Jersey farm, Jarrett has commented, “One reason I don’t live in a population center is that I only need very few tiny clues to know what is going on. Keeping my own consciousness awake is a full-time job. I don’t need to spend a lot of energy checking out other musicians and knowing what’s ‘in’ or ‘out.’”145 Jarrett’s estate has been described by interviewer Larry Alan Kay as “much closer to Thoreau’s Walden Pond… than to Manhattan. It

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was a place one could listen, intently and carefully, to the songs of birds, the buzz of insects, the flow of water in a stream – or to silence itself.”146 Parallels to another American individualist: Charles Ives Strictly in terms of American musical history, another significant connection exists between Transcendentalism and the aesthetics of Keith Jarrett, found in the person of Charles Ives. Though Ives’s aesthetic might on the surface appear to have little to do with jazz, Ives is the figure most frequently associated with American musical individualism, and Jarrett has referred to Ives as possessing the type of individual voice he seeks in his own music.147 Ives’s connections to Emerson and other Transcendentalist writers are well documented; his Concord Sonata includes movements named for Emerson and Thoreau. In terms of musical comparisons between Jarrett and Ives, critic John Rockwell describes Jarrett’s music in terms that could very easily be applied to Ives’s freely-borrowing sound collages.

The effect is of a shifting prism of idioms, few of them less than fifty years old and hence a kind of dream museum of the interchanges between jazz, blues, gospel, old-time pop, hymns and classical music that marked the early days of jazz itself.148 Jarrett and Ives share a similar propensity for providing written statements supporting their music; in Ives’s case, this came in the form of Essays Before a Sonata and other published writings, in Jarrett’s case, these appear primarily through liner notes. In both cases, this impulse seems paradoxical, as both Ives’s and Jarrett’s aesthetic Keith Jarrett, “FI Interview.” Rockwell, 179.

Rockwell, 179.

would seem to indicate that music shouldn’t need explanation. This impulse toward non-musical intellectualism might simply be attributed to the fascination both men held for deeply investigating and reflecting upon the nature of musical creation, as well as their own processes as artists. Ives’s writings on music, and in this case,

Emerson, reveal a valuation of “process” quite similar to Jarrett’s:

A devotion to an end tends to undervalue the means. A power of revelation may make one more concerned about his perception’s of the soul’s nature than the way of their disclosure. Emerson … is a creator whose intensity is consumed more with the substance of his creation than with the manner by which he shows it to others.149 In this passage, Ives places value on process in artistic creation, in opposition to a culture that focuses more attention on finished product. The very circumstances of Ives’s musical creation bear poignant witness to this idea. For a certain period during his life, Ives himself was a man seemingly possessed by his muse. Yet the fact is that a good portion of his works ended up not in concert halls (“product”), but in his cabinet drawer, emphasizing in concrete form Ives’s inclination toward process over results. Apart from the fact that he releases so many albums, Keith Jarrett’s aesthetics follow this tradition. Given the ephemeral nature of improvisation, which seems in its very nature an art form based on process, this dynamic is even more important.

The following words from Jarrett underscore this:

We live in an age in which only results seem to count, not processes. An age of objects and productions, a visual culture of images, television, speechwriters; a culture that thinks it can create security with insurance, lawyers and banks. But life is liquid, not solid; a process, not a result; the present, not the future.150 Charles Ives, Essays Before a Sonata (Norton, 1961), 121.

Keith Jarrett, “Categories Aplenty,” Sec. H, p.19.

Additionally, Jarrett’s very style as a writer seems remarkably similar to that of Charles Ives. In Essays for a Sonata, Ives demonstrates his great love for the ellipsis, for the parenthetical statement, for a stream-of-consciousness, obtuse thought process that seems to mirror Jarrett’s writing, not to mention Jarrett’s unfiltered musical improvisations. The following rather rambling and obtuse discourse, written by Jarrett, could just as easily have come from Ives.

We live in pathetically discontinuous times and lead pathetically discontinuous lives, distanced from each activity by the previous, possibly unrelated, one, and scheduling the next activity simultaneously. In utter contrast, tribal peoples’ activities are a part of (and are determined by) the natural environment that nourished them. Theirs is a continuum of connected actions limited by their care for the life of their world. We are all, in the end, limited by our care. This limit is morality. If this care comes from inside us, it is conscious. If it comes from outside, we are at the disposal of scientific method (in this society). We know no such limits when we proclaim our freedom to do as we please (to do the next thing), and the lack of consciousness (perception) of what our world really is (its center) allows science to become our occupation.151 Liner notes to Changeless.

Chapter 12: Spiritual Value of Music Influence of Eastern thought/Gurdjieff Jarrett finds inspiration in Eastern thought, having studied intensively the writings of the Armenian mystic philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff, as well as the popular philosopher Kahlil Gibran. Gurdjieff (1877-1949) was a traveling priest and physician who in an attempt to discover “universal truth,” drew on many traditions of esoteric spirituality.

Gurdjieff wrote a good deal about the creative process, and thus, his aesthetics have appealed to artists. In the following excerpt from his book Views From the Real

World, Gurdjieff expresses his valuation of process and artistic purpose:

For us art is not an aim but a means. Ancient art has a certain inner content. In the past, art served the same purpose as is served today by books – the purpose of preserving and transmitting certain knowledge. In ancient times they did not write books but expressed knowledge in works of art. … For example, to understand a book written in English, it is necessary to know English. I am speaking not of fantasy but of mathematical, non-subjective art. A modern painter may believe in and feel his art, but you see it subjectively: one person likes it, another dislikes it. It is a case of feeling, of like and dislike. But ancient art was not for liking. Everyone who read understood. Now, this purpose of art is entirely forgotten.

A similar attitude regarding the purpose of artistic creation underscores much of Jarrett’s aesthetics. Jarrett values the potential for spiritual connection that music provides as much as any other factor, and he has made reference to the “tribal language” that his trio keeps alive. Jarrett echoes Gurdjieff in his liner notes to


Art exists as a reminder. All true art is a reminder of forgotten, or soonto-be-forgotten relationships, whether it be God and man, man and woman, earth and humanity.152 If you were to recite a story that you learned from someone’s voice speaking it to you, to me, there’s more learning being done there than there is from learning it from the written word, and I think that goes for how I feel about music. Music is more than the notes, more than the spaces between the notes, and more than anything anybody can write on paper no matter what notation they use.153 Influence of Transcendentalist Spirituality Jarrett’s afore-mentioned “the individual voice, present to itself” of course points directly to Transcendental philosophy, which held that the only method of reaching God was going through the deep process of an inner search. Emerson’s Self-Reliance begins with the quote “Do not seek for things outside yourself.” In Jarrett’s case, it seems that this shamanistic quest for spiritual truth happens to find its manifestation in musical form. This aspect of Jarrett’s aesthetic aligns him most closely with John Coltrane, who in the last years of his life was obsessed with reaching God through his music. Additional ties to this distinctly Emersonian sphere of “art as spiritual practice” are demonstrated in overt references to individuality and spirituality appearing not only in Jarrett’s writings, but also song titles on recordings. (e.g., “Personal Mountains,” “Ecstasy,” and “Oasis.”) Sacredness of musical act In a manner that seems remarkably out-of-fashion in modern technological times, Jarrett often feels the need to guard the sacredness of musical creation. Jarrett Liner notes to Spirits (ECM 1333/34, 1986).

Carr, Keith Jarrett, 66.

describes his own musical process more in terms of acute spiritual practice, eschewing the technical. The following quotes, when taken in the context of his massive and diverse musical output, shed light on Jarrett’s spiritual intentions.

If I could call everything I did “Hymn,” it would be appropriate because that’s what they are when they’re correct.154 I used to tell my students, “You have to play like it’s the last time you’ll ever play. You have to feel like it means everything to you.”155 [My music reflects] a state of surrender to an ongoing harmony in the universe that exists with or without us.156 To me, normal communication is mystical communication. The most effective communication between members of a band is not the kind of communication you can describe, so you would say that’s mystical.157 Creativity as spiritual impulse Throughout his career, Jarrett has consistently described the act of creation in spiritual terms. In the liner notes to his 1973 triple album Solo Concerts, Jarrett articulates the following philosophy.

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