Keith Jarrett - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


Pianist and composer Keith Jarrett has written that “for me, music has always been the expression of a greater feeling than music...something that is too powerful to make notes out of. But somehow a musician must try anyway.” Jarrett does much more than just try. A dazzling improviser, imaginative composer, and important bandleader, Jarrett has been at the forefront of the creative improvised music scene since his early days in the Charles Lloyd quartet in the Sixties. As a sometimes controversial figure whose work encompasses jazz, classical, gospel, blues and ethnic folk musics, Jarrett is an innovator who has achieved what he’s described as the “one overriding characteristic shared by all the great jazz pianists: individuality.” While his harsh public comments about pianos and audiences, the sometimes forceful vocalizations that accompany his playing, and his occasionally sarcastic published commentaries on the state of jazz have all inspired strong reactions over the years, it’s the music that will endure.


Keith Jarrett was born on May 8, 1945, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he and his four brothers were raised by their mother after the collapse of their parent’s marriage (His brother Scott is a singer and guitarist who recorded one album, Without Rhyme Or Reason [1980 Arista], featuring Keith on two tracks.). Jarrett was a child prodigy with perfect pitch who started on the piano at the age of three. He gave his first recital when he was just seven. Already improvising and composing, he began formal composition training at fifteen. Jarrett spent a year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, working after school with a trio as a cocktail pianist. By his own account, he lost that gig when he reached inside the piano to strum the strings. In 1964, he moved to New York, where he struggled to get a start. Discovered by drummer Art Blakey at a Monday night jam session at the Village Vanguard, Jarrett briefly joined the Jazz Messengers. He appeared on one Blakey album, Buttercorn Lady (1966 Limelight), recorded live in California.


Jarrett had met saxophonist Charles Lloyd back in Boston. When Lloyd decided to put together a new quartet, he contacted Jarrett, who joined him in early 1966. The Lloyd quartet with Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Cecil McBee on bass, later replaced by Ron McClure, proved to be an immensely successful unit that spent the next several years touring the world. The group also recorded a popular series of albums for Atlantic beginning with Dream Weaver (1966), recorded just before the first European tour, and including dates recorded live at the Monterey Jazz Festival, Forest Flower (1966), at the Fillmore in San Francisco (Love-In, 1967) and In The Soviet Union (1967).


Jarrett started his own trio in early 1967, while still with Lloyd, connecting with Charlie Haden on bass and Paul Motian on drums. For the next two years, he combined work in the Lloyd group with his own projects, sharing producer George Avakian. In addition to the trio releases Life Between the Exit Signs (1967 Vortex) and Somewhere Before (1968 Vortex), Jarrett also recorded Restoration Ruin (1968 Vortex), on which he sang and overdubbed all the instruments. In 1969, Jarrett and DeJohnette found out how little they were being paid compared to what Lloyd was earning, and both left the group.


Jarrett’s next career move, joining Miles Davis’ fusion group in May 1970, was a surprise to those who were aware of his general disdain for electronic instruments. The controversy about his tenure in the Davis band has persisted, although in his liner notes for the issue of The Cellar Door Sessions - 1970 (2005 Columbia/Legacy) Jarrett wrote that “I don’t find myself confused at all” regarding what Davis was trying to do with his music. In a comment that could just as easily apply to his own musical experiments, Jarrett adds that “[Davis] wanted what he always wanted: to forge new ways of ‘coming at’ things.”


Jarrett managed to keep the trio going during his stay in the Davis band. They didn’t record again until 1971, by which time saxophonist Dewey Redman had been recruited to make it a quartet. In a series of four sessions that July, the quartet recorded their three Atlantic albums The Mourning Of a Star, El Juicio, and Birth. While on tour with the Davis group in California that spring, he and DeJohnette had taken some time to record a duo session for release on the then-new ECM label. Ruta and Daitya (1971) was just the first of Jarrett’s many projects for the label, an association that continues to the present.


Now a bona fide jazz star, Jarrett left the Davis group in late 1971, following a European tour and an appearance at Lincoln Center at the end of November. His first solo piano album, Facing You (1971 ECM), was recorded in Oslo while on tour. In April 1972, his quartet recorded their sole Columbia release, a double-album set called Expectations. For this ambitious project, the group was enlarged on various songs with brass or string sections, guitarist Sam Brown, and percussionist Airto Moreira. For its 1999 Legacy reissue, Jarrett wrote that he thought of this album as “a coherent, intentional path, and the statement is the thing in its entirety.” He also notes that two weeks after the album was released, he was dropped from the label.


In February 1973, Jarrett and the quartet, plus Danny Johnson on percussion, were booked at the Village Vanguard in New York, where they recorded Fort Yawuh, the first album under Jarrett’s new Impulse contract. The same month, he recorded his first classically oriented release for ECM, In The Light, a collection of eight disparate works in a variety of formats. The first of his freely improvised solo performances to be issued, Solo Concerts Bremen/Lausanne (ECM), comes from shows in March and July 1973.


The group with Redman, Haden, and Motian, was known as Jarrett’s “American” quartet to distinguish it from his “European” quartet with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Palle Danielson, and drummer Jon Christensen. The “American” group went on to record a total of eight albums for Impulse until the band dissolved amid growing discord. Jarrett has characterized the quartet as both “difficult” and “amazing.” Their final studio sessions came in September, 1977. All of Jarrett’s Impulse albums have been collected in a pair of boxed sets. The Impulse Years, 1973-1974 (1997 Impulse) and Mysteries: The Impulse Years, 1975-1976 (1996 GRP/Impulse) were compiled along with previously unissued material by Ed Michel, producer of many of the original recordings.


Alongside the “American” quartet , the “European” group recorded a series of albums for ECM, commencing with Belonging (1974 ECM). That band ended with the flourish of a double album recorded live at the Vanguard, Nude Ants (1979 ECM). There were also solo concerts, notably The Köln Concert (1975 ECM). one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, and the Sun Bear Concerts (1976 ECM),a 10-LP boxed set of Japanese concert performances. Jarrett also occasionally worked as a sideman for recording projects in the Seventies. His first collaboration with DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock, his current trio companions, was on Peacock’s Tales Of Another (1977 ECM). When Jarrett wasn’t occupied with a jazz project, he was occupied with projects as disparate as composing (Denis Russell Davies conducted his “Ritual” for ECM in 1977), playing with the Syracuse Symphony (The Celestial Hawk, 1980 ECM), or recording the sacred hymns of G.I. Gurdjieff (1980 ECM).


In 1983, Jarrett teamed with DeJohnette and Peacock in a trio initially designed to focus on the popular standards that had formed the core of small band jazz, a repertoire likely to be similar to that which Jarrett drew upon when he played after hours in Boston. Standards, Volume 1 was followed shortly by Standards, Volume 2 and an album of original material, Changes, all recorded in January 1983 for ECM. The trio continued to work through the early Nineties. Their record projects included the release of the 6-CD set At The Blue Note - The Complete Recordings (1994 ECM). While concerts and studio dates with the trio dominate the decade, Jarrett continued with special projects like the home-recorded overdubbing project Spirits (1985 ECM), which includes Jarrett playing violin, guitar, and tablas, and Book Of Ways (1986 ECM), a solo clavichord album. He continued to play solo concerts, though less and less often.


In 1996, Jarrett was struck with a serious case of chronic fatigue syndrome, and forced to cancel all his engagements. Although the possibility existed that he would never play again, Jarrett’s health improved gradually over the next few years. He reemerged with The Melody At Night, With You (1999 ECM), a collection of straight-forward readings of well-known songs, recorded in his home studio. By the summer of 1999, Jarrett felt well enough to go back out on the road with Peacock and DeJohnette. The trio picked up where they left off with Whisper Not (2000 ECM), recorded live in Paris. In the 21st century, Jarrett has continued on a limited basis to perform both with the trio and as a solo pianist.


Among his many honors, Jarrett was the sole recipient of the Polar Music Prize in 2003. He was officially voted into the Down Beat Hall of Fame in the 73rd Annual Readers Poll in 2008. The year also marked the re-release of the three Standards albums as well as two DVDs of the trio performing in Japan. A new ECM release from the trio is due in January 2009.

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