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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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nature of improvised music, remain relevant, and come from a perspective unlike almost anyone else’s in contemporary music.

With comparisons to classical processes, Keith Jarrett’s philosophy and music seem to run completely against the grain of that unceasing twentieth-century Schönbergianborne dilemma – the validity of tonal music vs. atonal or so-called “twelve-tone” music. Jarrett’s improvised music circumvents this debate completely, and his musical practices to some degree offer a way out of the conundrum. In a good deal of Jarrett’s improvisations, his solo concerts especially, large portions of his music are fiercely atonal, while others portions are unabashedly tonal. In a way, the two provide balance for one another. However, it is the method by which Jarrett arrives at atonality that, at least for him, validates this approach – Jarrett’s atonality is “earned” organically through a real-life musical process, whereas the music of “atonal composers” is paper-bound, and therefore, perhaps self-consciously “theoretical.” Difficulty in playing both forms As I’ve mentioned, it seems that it is exceedingly rare in modern music for a performer to successfully exist within both the jazz and classical music worlds. Most often, a musician coming from one sphere into the other is not accepted in the new arena; the common knock is that the technical and artistic demands of one musical form are incompatible with those of the other. For instance, whereas many jazz players value a free-wheeling, individually determined instrumental sound and approach to music-making, classical players have more clearly defined models of acceptability. This is only natural; orchestral players and classical soloists are realizing music written by someone else, and thus are bound to satisfy certain expectations and follow specific strictures of style. Jazz players have a greater degree of autonomy over the “music” that they are playing – not only the specific notes, but the rhythms, dynamics, and phrasing – these elements, most of which are pre-scripted (by the composer) in classical music, are created spontaneously during performance by jazz musicians. Additionally, to a certain degree, jazz encourages individualistic musical approaches, and it is generally assumed that jazz players “finding their voice” will determine the specific attributes that make up their own sound and approach. In Jarrett’s words, “Jazz never demands that you work on a particular thing. It’s up to the player to decide whether that’s what they’re going to do.”34 This clearly contrasts with the specificity of classical pedagogical approaches, which seem to lay out a more clearly defined, goal-oriented path for students. Jarrett comments on what he sees as

the necessity of keeping the two forms separate:

If a player gets used to not disappearing into the music completely and starts thinking about the kind of details you have to think about in classical performance, that’s not what you should be doing when you play the blues. Jazz isn’t really as much about the how, as it is the ideas that you’re coming up with.35 On the flip side of course, the technical precision and instrumental mastery demanded in the performance of classical music is not necessarily reflected in jazz, where many players can “get away with” mistakes that wouldn’t pass muster in classical music.

Jarrett, “The ‘insanity’ of doing more than one (musical) thing,” 2.

Jarrett, “The ‘insanity’ of doing more than one (musical) thing,” 2.

One oft-repeated, half-joking, yet telling line in jazz is “If you make a mistake, repeat it, and it’ll sound like you meant it!” Often, innovations in jazz come about as a result of practices that do not adhere to traditional notions of “instrumental mastery.” One of Jarrett’s musical heroes, the maverick saxophonist Ornette Coleman, turned the jazz world on its head in the early 1960s, yet as a saxophonist Coleman was anything but “technically proficient” in the traditional sense. In terms of sheer instrumental technique, Coleman’s contrast with the preeminent alto saxophone virtuoso Charlie Parker, could not be greater.

For as much as it is stressed that jazz and classical music share common musical vocabulary and demand a common sort of dedication, in actuality the two are not only different forms, but require vastly different musical approaches, following distinct methods and philosophies of performance. It seems that it is this factor, rather than mere technical constraints, that actually provides the largest stumbling block to musicians attempting to “cross over.” In typically curt fashion, Jarrett speaks of this difficulty: “I think if someone sat down and looked at the people who play jazz and classical music, it’s almost 100 percent across the board that they don’t really have an individual jazz voice.”36 Public perceptions of jazz vs. “reality” Of course, to many audiences (and fellow musicians), if it “looks and sounds” like jazz, then it must be jazz; however, Jarrett’s aesthetic clearly holds that “real” jazz depends most vitally on developing and maintaining an individual voice in music, aspects of music-making that are for the most part discouraged in classical music. To Jarrett’s mind, those who have not made this journey, so to speak, are not connecting with the true nature of music. He makes pointed criticisms toward musicians who approach jazz from a classical perspective.

If you think about who these people are and take them one by one, they might be curios, but have not really contributed something lasting. You become a musicologist when you become a classical player. You go back to jazz and if you’re a musicologist, then you become like a jazz professor.

That’s OK, but that’s going to probably steal from the transcendent nature of that dive, you know?37 Over the past twenty years, the field of jazz pedagogy has expanded at an exponential rate. Any young jazz student learning the music will find him or herself awash in jazz camps, high school and college competitions, countless jazz instruction manuals and “play-a-long” albums, online tutorials, and a proliferation of jazz studies programs at major music schools. This expansion has resulted in an unprecedented number of young musicians gravitating toward jazz, yet in Jarrett’s view, this expansion has done more harm than good. What worries Jarrett most is how the instructors preach a limited, doctrinal version of jazz, one that can be explained and taught in the same way that chorale part-writing can be taught. In these statements, Jarrett touches upon what makes Jarrett himself such a fascinating figure – in his allknowing absolutism, he practically dares reviewers to find fault with his opinions, yet all the while he retreats into a protected zone of mysticism, where any “theory” dealing with jazz is immediately irrelevant.

Jarrett, “The ‘insanity’ of doing more than one (musical) thing,” 2.


Jazz is probably the only art form whose existence depends on resistance to theories. If someone is an expert on jazz, you can be pretty sure he/she is not a vital jazz musician.38 I don’t know any time when a pseudo educator has been the prominent artist in jazz. I don’t know other professions where the educators are the players at all. And then to hold this position that if you just follow these steps and listen to these records, come on. Jazz is one of the least learnable art forms. Who are we kidding here?39 It’s only ignorant people who think they’re experts. At times, I think nobody should be a teacher and a player. Because part of the education process involves grouping things and organizing things, listening in categories. What this does is polarize the listening. It develops people who listen for this particular thing, not to the music. Listening to see if certain criteria are being met. … When you are concerned with teaching, part of the work is to present an order, a way of looking at something.

Well, [with] all great artists, part of that work is questioning first causes, the beginnings of things. The artist has to be looking outside of that orderly vision, challenging it.40 Jarrett staunchly refuses to allow for “easy labeling” when it comes to jazz,

consistently valuing content over packaging or “image”:

It doesn’t matter how many guys get together and form a band, and how many people are in the audience, and it doesn’t matter how many records they sell. If it’s just competent or talented players playing together in a jazz format, it still isn’t jazz – doesn’t make jazz.41 In his criticism, Jarrett is claiming exclusive authority to dictate what constitutes jazz, criticizing what he sees as a lazy or uneducated public. To the vast majority of the public, “jazz” is perceived to be an instantly recognizable musical style, and therefore is, to some degree, no less laden with burdens of expectation than is classical music.

Public perceptions of “jazz” most often hold this music to be a swing-based, esoteric, Keith Jarrett, “The Virtual Jazz Age.” Jarrett, “Order and Ordeal,” 41.

Ibid, 42.

Jarrett, “The ‘insanity’ of doing more than one (musical) thing,” 10.

historical form, performed predominantly by African-American musicians. The vast majority of training programs for young jazz musicians focus on a historically narrow vision of this music, canonizing 1950s bebop and early 1960s hard bop as the “styles” to learn and recreate, at times verbatim.42 Conveniently left out of this pedagogical system is free jazz. As a historical movement running from the late 1950s to the present, this same music that obsessed John Coltrane in his last years, is certainly as “influential” as bebop. As perhaps the most widely recognized jazz musician

advocating free jazz today, Jarrett defends this musical practice:

People who don’t “understand” free playing (like Wynton Marsalis, Ken Burns, etc.) are not free to see it as an amazingly important part of the true jazz history. Where’s the form? Don’t ask. Don’t think. Don’t anticipate. Just participate. It’s all there somewhere inside. And then suddenly it forms itself.43 Conservatory/preservationist approach to jazz Much of this approach toward “learning jazz” emanates from the conservatory mindset, where preservation and “conservation” are premium goals. Yet to many in the jazz community, including Keith Jarrett, this system encourages an inaccurate, limited view of what jazz constitutes. To Jarrett, “jazz” is not a museum piece fit for study in the academy, but a way of being, an invitation to experience process.

Thomas Conrad describes Jarrett’s way with process:

Jarrett’s primary gift as an improviser is the ability to involve the listener in the creative act as it unfolds (hence the unprecedented popularity of his spontaneous solo piano albums). We think and discover and feel with him.44 As a conservatory-trained jazz musician myself (Eastman School of Music), I can relate personal experiences of being assigned to learn transcriptions of jazz solos “note for note.” Liner notes to Inside/Out, 2000.

Thomas Conrad, DownBeat, December 1995.

Jarrett seems dead-set against the movement to canonize jazz as if it were classical music, feeling that focusing so much energy on dealing with “the past” makes the possibility of creating music in the present moment infinitely more difficult. The following statement provides a marked contrast with preservationist attitudes held by much of jazz academia and trumpeter-educator Wynton Marsalis.

–  –  –

Of course, a rather obvious paradox appears here – if Jarrett is so enthusiastic about making music not occurring in the present “disappear,” why is he such a prolific releaser of his own recordings? One answer may lie in Jarrett’s need to feel appreciated – he is human, and most likely his desire to be recognized outweighs his stated wish for complete non-identification with past performances. This desire appears in bold relief when held up to the re-emergence of jazz in popular culture, and as a vital jazz musician of the 1970s, Jarrett may feel the need to maintain his reputation, not to mention his career as a financially successful musician.

In fact, much of Jarrett’s criticism of the modern jazz world comes as a direct reaction to this so-called “young lions” movement in jazz, beginning in the mid-1980s.

Jarrett, “Order and Ordeal,” 42.

During this time, jazz garnered an unprecedented amount of media coverage;

however, the vast majority of it seemed focused on “up-and-coming” jazz musicians, almost all of whom reflected a neo-conservative, hard-bop approach in their music.

Most notably, during this time, Wynton Marsalis became recognized as a sort of unofficial jazz savior by the national media. As current Artistic Director of Jazz @ Lincoln Center, Marsalis has bankrolled his early attention as a marketable celebrity into a multi-million dollar cultural empire that, at least in Jarrett’s view, perpetuates almost exclusively a conservative, historically centered vision of jazz. Jarrett’s

articulates his issues with this situation:

When time goes on and the imitation is accepted as greater than the original, there’s a severe flaw somewhere. When how you play is more important that whether you’re actually making music, or when how you look sells what you do, then you know we’re behind the older times.47 Of course, no one would argue that increasing overall respect for jazz and jazz musicians is a negative phenomenon. Many important American jazz musicians have led difficult lives marked by hardship and destitution. What Jarrett dislikes, however, is what he feels to be a system that actively encourages an almost disrespectful “imitation” of jazz, a museum-format not in line with what he considers to be the true nature of the jazz process. In this sense, Jarrett appears acutely willing to “let go” of jazz, content to embark on a fresh form unburdened by preconceived historical

notions of correctness. Jarrett comments on this danger of “over-respecting”:

If the guys who did the stuff that we know who are forever great, if those guys didn’t need the kind of respect that you’re talking about to do what they did, then I don’t see [how] it has any role to play at all. It reminds me Ibid.

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