Dancing on the Edge: Keith Jarrett on Music & Art

Years before I moved to Santa Fe, where I eventually became Stereophile's copyeditor, assistant editor, and first music editor, I lived in Boston, Massachusetts. There, I'd spent a year as the in-house typesetter, copyeditor, and book-review editor of East West Journal, an eclectic monthly magazine devoted to nutrition, spirituality, cooking, gardening, conservation, and other subjects. Two years after I'd left EWJ, managing editor Meg Seaker called to ask if I wanted to interview Keith Jarrett for the magazine.

On March 20, 1981, Meg and I and EWJ's art director, Merridee Shaw, met with Jarrett in his suite at the Ritz, on the eve of his Bach's Birthday Concert at the Boston Opera House. We spoke for three hours. I was to edit the resulting 40-page transcript down to a publishable length, but the task was beyond my then-rudimentary editing skills. Meg and EWJ's other editors took over, did a heroic job of editing, and the interview was published in the October 1981 issue.

Jarrett seemed eager to talk about the subjects raised, and did so articulately. As the piece was to be published in a magazine devoted to spirituality and nutrition, we had a lot of latitude to discuss things in ways most music publications, and certainly most jazz magazines, might have been leery of. Jarrett talked in some depth not only about what he does in his wholly improvised solo concerts, but also about the role of the artist in society and the natures of creativity and art, not as ends in themselves but as tools for living and growing. The result constitutes a deeply thoughtful essay on creativity itself.

Jarrett's concert the following night, March 21, celebrated the 296th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. Set up onstage from left to right (as I recall) in front of the backdrop for the Boston Opera's production of Verdi's Rigoletto were a concert grand, a clavichord, and a harpsichord. Throughout the evening, Jarrett went back and forth among the three keyboards as the spirit moved him. I've heard nothing like it before or since. At what seemed the end of the concert, Jarrett walked up to the mike and asked, sardonically, "Any requests?" Much laughter. "Happy Birthday!" someone shouted. More laughter, including Jarrett's own. But he then raised a finger, cocked his head to one side, walked to the harpsichord, sat down, and began improvising an amazingly Bach-like suite—prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, menuet, gigue, perhaps a gavotte—each movement a set of variations on "Happy Birthday," all in what sounded like echt baroque style.

This tour de force of virtuosic musical wit and creativity seemed almost too delightful to be true. The concert wasn't recorded, but I did save a copy of the poster (see image above), however battered and cropped by time and ill usage in a dusty series of basements, attics, garages, crawl spaces, moving vans, and friends' borrowed pickups.

Here, after 38 years in journalistic limbo, and beginning with Meg Seaker's original introduction, is an interview that perhaps is even more timely for 2019 than it was for 1981. I hope you enjoy it. I thank the former publisher of East West Journal, Leonard Jacobs, and Stereophile, for making possible the reprinting of this interview.—Richard Lehnert

Dancing on the Edge: Keith Jarrett on Music & Art
This article was first published in the October 1981 issue of East West Journal.

Keith Jarrett, thirty-six, has been playing the piano since the age of three. In 1966 he joined saxophonist Charles Lloyd's group and toured Europe extensively.

After two years with Miles Davis in the early seventies, he left to form his own quartet. Since then he has recorded quartet music, his own orchestral creations, and improvisational, solo piano performances. These last are noted for their eclectic mix of classical, baroque, country, blues, and boogie influences as well as their brilliant technique and sheer beauty.

Because he is reluctant to give interviews, feeling that his music speaks for itself, the press has characterized Jarrett as a reclusive, moody genius. Because he has reprimanded audiences for coughing, talking, and taking pictures, he has been described as an intense and eccentric performer.

Last spring we met with Jarrett for several hours while he was in Boston for a solo concert in celebration of Bach's birthday. During our conversation we found him to be relaxed and accessible, though perhaps a little abstract. Using metaphorical expressions he spoke of the responsibility of the artist to "dance on the edge" and of declining audience sensitivity. He also discussed his unique and complex improvisational technique, which has won him the acclaim of critics and the almost fanatical devotion of a large, international following.—Meg Seaker

EAST WEST JOURNAL: What do you see as your primary responsibility as an artist?

Jarrett: If you're clear you can't give something to someone who is cloudy. You can only give your clarity, but the only person who can receive it will be a clear person. Clarity will be too much of a shock to a cloudy person, and then you may even do some harm. Dylan said that "beauty is a razor's edge." That to me is exactly what it is. You have to just keep dancing on the razor's edge. To me that's my primary responsibility as an artist.

EWJ: Can you describe what it means to "dance on the edge"?

Jarrett: I have to remain so much on the earth, so grounded—more than I know my inclination would be—if it were just me I were concerned about.

EWJ: You're in this world, but part of another world too?

Jarrett: The edge is knowing it. The edge is when you are not here and you know it, but you have to be here on time, with the flow, without any attitudes that you know you should have if you wanted to be cool.

EWJ: Two different things are going on at one time and both are true.

Jarrett: But in this case you know which one is the bigger truth. You love the earth and there's something that needs to be done. You know that no one else is doing what you do. In my case, I don't know anyone who does what I do. So if I don't do it, who's going to do it? I think I can say without fear that this is the first political solo concert tour I've ever done in my life. Political in the sense that it has a purpose beyond its normal purpose; I never had the feeling before that I had to go. Now I feel that I can't be so flippant about it, that rather than do less than I should, I have to do more, even if it hurts.

EWJ: You once mentioned elsewhere that death hovers around quite a bit at a solo concert. Do you feel like you're in more danger as you become more sensitive?

Jarrett: Yes, but the danger is greater when you want to remain on the edge. Everything that helps you to stabilize yourself anchors you in this dance, keeps you from flowing. The danger of that is it's crystallizing, like wanting to make a liquid into a solid, so that you know where it is, and it won't go into the next room. You solidify—you take it with you and put it down on the table. Everyone crystallizes, but the earlier you do it, the less you are alive. And as soon as you're crystallized it's not life anymore. It's an attitude toward life. You're not living. You're putting your one stake down; instead of your two feet on the razor you have a third thing: your attitude toward what's around this edge and how to deal with it. You decide how to deal with life. Then, if you're an artist, all you portray is your way of living. And it could be real hip, depending on the time, or it could be considered very avant-garde, or it could simply be where your anchor goes down—it's just a slightly different place, making a different angle.

EWJ: How have you kept yourself from crystallizing?

Jarrett: I think you have to be completely without mercy with yourself. You can't say something like, "I did this yesterday before I played the concert, and the concert was great! Therefore, I should do that again." Anything that creates a pattern creates an anchor. First it's conscious and then it's unconscious. When it's unconscious, it isn't only an anchor, it's a habit.

EWJ: Then you're at the mercy of it. And if you don't do it . . .

Jarrett: It's something everyone does at times. But for me the difference is—no matter what the beneficial effect of the thing—I cannot allow it to take the place of the dance. So it's the only way that the music is going to keep coming out. The music is dancing more than I am. I have to keep up with it by not having an anchor, so the music can take me somewhere. And that's where death comes in. You're choosing to be blown around in the wind. It's bad to be blown around in the wind if you don't know it. Then it's very important to have some center of gravity. In art that would be a style, the way you want yourself to sound. You've got your own sound—your own way of playing. But then you've got to throw it away and be blown around. That's where real art begins, and for most people, they've never even thought of that. They'd say, "Who would recognize what I was playing?" But why are people so concerned with being recognized?

EWJ: We all tend to want to define ourselves and have that kind of stability. Were there any specific events that helped you to be more aware of it?

Jarrett: There were definite large-scale events that took place very quickly, but it was going on very gradually also. I just learned. I may have successfully reversed some kinds of thinking that aren't helpful—for example, that what is desirable is to eliminate stress from your life. If you eliminate stress from your life you eliminate life from your life. Of course, the stress that people are under now is another thing.

For a while when I was playing things on the piano that were rather boring to half the audience, the only thing that changed in the playing was the timbre of the sound. I asked people during intermission what they experienced during this section, people I knew very well and people I didn't know at all, people that were sitting close, and people who were sitting far in the back. I had been sure when I was playing it that I should stop because it was too subtle, that what I was hearing I was tricking myself into hearing because of how small the change really was. And every single person I asked told me exactly what had gone on. One said, "Well, I don't know, I liked it in the beginning, then I got bored, then I got mad at myself, then it started getting incredible," and all that was changing from the technical point of view were little tiny things inside the notes. What those people achieved was seeing smaller and smaller changes in things until they actually were in them. They were really listening.

Most of the time people see only the gross changes in things. If someone comes into the room, they know it, but if someone has a certain scent on, they don't know it. Coughing is becoming an epidemic in concerts. One television writer wrote that it was because of television because when you watch television you can make any sound you want, and if you are upset or nervous, you can go out, walk around, come back, watch the rest of the show, or fall asleep. So now when people get bored they are less and less able to go further with it. So they cough. At one concert I had asked people to cough all at once and then be quiet. The next day I opened a newspaper expecting to see the usual "Mr. Jarrett does it again! He was crude and irresponsible toward the people who pay money to go to his concerts," but instead a reviewer wrote that what I said was exactly right.

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