A pianist always ahead of his time
Few musicians have had the impressive career that Keith Jarrett has had. Since the ‘60s, he’s been consistently successful. Jarrett is known in particular for his fusion of jazz with other genres -- a quality that would influence the likes of Art Blakey and Miles Davis.
Jarrett was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1945. He began piano lessons right before turning 3. Possessed with perfect pitch, he was quickly recognized as a child prodigy. He made his performance debut only two years later, appearing on a local talent TV show. By age 7, he was playing Mozart and Beethoven off memory alone. He continued his classical piano training well into his teens at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
But it was impossible to escape the influence of jazz. Philadelphia was a hotbed of jazz in the ‘50s, fostering the likes of McCoy Tyner and Dizzy Gillespie. (Though Californian Dave Brubeck was a particular inspiration of his.) Jarrett was quickly enamoured with the sound, and began attending jazz bandleader Stan Kenton's music summer camps. So great was his love of jazz, that he reportedly turned down an offer to study classical music in Paris in order to further his jazz studies.
In 1963, Jarrett attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and a year later, he moved to New York City to begin professional work. He started playing at the popular jazz club the Village Vanguard, where Art Blakey heard him and invited him to play with his band The Jazz Messengers. A couple years later, he was noticed by members of the Charles Lloyd Quartet. (It’s debated whether Lloyd himself or his drummer Jack DeJohnette discovered Jarrett first.)
By the mid-’60s, the Charles Lloyd Quartet was one of the biggest jazz acts going. Their 1966 album, Forest Flower, was met with national acclaim. Known for their groovy, rock-and-R&B-fused sound, the Quartet signalled the turn away from bebop and toward jazz fusion. Jarrett embarked on a worldwide tour with the band, making him a household name in jazz and rock circles.
The Quartet broke up in the late ‘60s, but Jarrett’s star kept rising. As a leader of jazz fusion, he was asked by Miles Davis to play piano and organ for his new fusion band. Collaborating alongside fellow pianist Chick Corea, Jarrett continued to expand the idea of jazz, especially in experimenting with an all-electric sound.
Jarrett eventually left Davis in 1971 to focus on his solo career. (He had begun recording as a bandleader in 1967, but his first solo efforts are generally considered almost too experimental.) He signed with the burgeoning label ECM -- formed by his longtime friend Manfred Eicher -- later that year. His first album under ECM was 1972’s Facing You. Facing You was a great departure from both his work with Davis and his previous solo work. He had returned to the acoustic piano and had strayed away from the rock-tinged jazz that was so popular during the decade.
He headed two quartets during the ‘70s: The American Quartet, which featured his bandmates from his earlier solo recordings, and The Belonging Group. With these two quartets, he’d release a string of highly successful albums through ECM -- along with a few from Impulse! Records. The most popular of these albums is The Köln Concert, recorded in 1975, which is still the best-selling solo piano recording in history. During the ‘70s, Jarrett also returned to his classical roots, and composed many longform classical pieces.
Since then, Jarrett has continued to focus on composing jazz and classical works for quartets and solo piano. In 1983, he joined DeJohnette once more for The Standards Trio. They started out with the intention of recording a few jazz standards albums, but ended up becoming a wildly successful touring group, even releasing a few albums of originals.
Though Jarrett continues to work to this day, a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome in 1996 has left him unable to record and produce as much as he used to. He’s received numerous awards for his career, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Polar Music Prize.
From the age of 3, Keith Jarrett has been recognized for his musical talents, and rewarded as such by working with the cream of the crop for over 50 years. A true genius, he’s influenced the likes of Miles Davis and Jack DeJohnette to incorporate different music styles into their sound. From avant garde, electronic jazz fusion to his own jazzy twist on classical pieces, Jarrett is a thoroughly unique jazz master.