Keith Jarrett, Umbria, and the Jazz Image

Perugia, home of Umbria Jazz. Photograph by Benjamin Cawthra.

Perugia, home of Umbria Jazz. Photograph by Benjamin Cawthra.

Big news in the jazz world is that American pianist Keith Jarrett and his trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette will be returning to Umbria Jazz this summer. This qualifies as news because when Jarrett last played Perugia in 2007, an ugly incident involving Jarrett’s denunciation of the audience led to his banishment from the festival.

Time changes everything. Italy is in financial straits and Umbria Jazz 2012 was a pared-down affair. The fortieth anniversary of one of the world’s great music festivals is upon us, and as Jarrett is perhaps the most popular serious musician in Europe, making amends seems like a good idea. It is also the thirtieth anniversary of Jarrett’s “Standards Trio,” so the stars have aligned for a riconcilazione.

Umbria Jazz had been quite serious about leaving Jarrett outside the gates after the 2007 incident. His profanity-laden speech, given before the trio had played a note, condemned concert photography in the strongest terms. “No more photographs,” Jarrett said. “If we see any more lights I reserve the right . . . to stop playing and leave the goddamn city.” He left before the encore and the city made sure he would not be coming back. It was later revealed that the red light that had so bothered Jarrett as he walked onstage belonged to the soundboard. “I can understand everything, even being obsessed about the cameras,” Umbria Jazz organizer Carlo Pagnatta said in 2007, “but you cannot insult an audience and even an entire city because of a few flashes.”

The last time I heard Jarrett live was a couple of years later at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. At that solo show, he denounced photography in less incendiary terms, but when he feinted toward someone who seemingly had dared to point a phone in his direction, I could not be sure that he wasn’t about to turn the front row into a mosh pit.

This touchiness is born of several elements, no doubt. Many performers understandably do not want either the distraction of flashes or their images “taken” and distributed without their consent. Nor do they want their performances recorded illegally, though some have found that concert taping by their fans extends their base of support. But Jarrett has a particular notion about audiences. While most musicians have at least given lip service to the idea that it is their privilege to be able to play for an audience (it need hardly be mentioned that they make a living thereby), Jarrett believes that the privilege is that of the audience to be in the presence of greatness. Jarrett is indeed one of the world’s great musicians. He’s quite aware of it and not afraid to say so. This was a component of his Perugia tirade. The Italians, proud of their own good taste, did not stand for being lectured on their home turf.

Keith Jarrett, Standards, Vol. 1 (ECM)

Keith Jarrett, Standards, Vol. 1 (ECM)

So the prodigal, who first played Umbria Jazz in 1974, will return, the city gates open, this summer. And no doubt there will be strongly worded announcements about photography made before the set. Perhaps Jarrett, now 67, has had a chance to think about his mode of verbal expression as well. In Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz, I examine the relationship of jazz musicians to photography and to audiences. A former employer of Jarrett, Miles Davis, famously gave audiences the silent treatment (“What am I supposed to do? Get up there and say, ‘And for our next number we will play the ever popular . . .?’ If they don’t know what it is, what difference does make?”) and audiences sometimes felt insulted when he turned away from them or left the stage after a solo. For Davis and others in the bebop generation, playing “Uncle Tom” for an audience broke a racial and aesthetic code of honor. While Ralph Ellison felt that white audiences were looking for the jazzman’s putdown as part of the act, Davis’s relationship with the camera was quite different. Well aware of his image, he was an apt subject his whole career. His ability to project serious artistic intent and varying modes of masculinity kept photographers enthralled for decades.

So Davis made the cameras work for him. And the camera work that photographers of jazz performed advanced arguments about art and equality in American society. But there are two additional factors that make for differing circumstances in the Jarrett case. First, what photographer Chuck Stewart once called today’s “permissive technology” encourages amateur photography in non-controlled settings. Three thousand people at Umbria Jazz, and all of them with cell phones. Jarrett has every reason to be uncomfortable performing amid the possibility that he is under photographic assault and not professional care.

Second, Jarrett is not black, as he has strongly reminded readers and listeners. Photography does not hold the possibility of racial advancement in this case, and in a world radically changed from Davis’s prime at the height the civil rights movement, its ability to move the equality needle is perhaps diminished. Or perhaps we believe that the sheer ubiquity of images and their profligate dissemination does equality’s work in a messy yet subtle way. In any case, Jarrett clearly has felt that photography has more to take than to give.

Keith Jarrett, Radiance (ECM)

Keith Jarrett, Radiance (ECM)

Jarrett’s longtime label, ECM, has rarely featured either the pianist or others on its roster in album art, a marked contrast to Blue Note and other labels who used photography to promote the artist. Landscapes and abstractions, black and white or color, have predominated, with simple sans serif fonts for the lettering. Some of the records have been as unadorned as the old “tombstones” of 78s. As I argue in Blue Notes, ECM imagery has been about music as a state of mind rather than social statement, a inward turning that seems of a piece with its ascendancy in the 1970s and its locale in Europe, long a haven for jazz musicians looking for acceptance and gigs they can’t get in America as well as for European artists bringing intriguing new elements into the music and expanding its tonal reach. Jarrett as performer seems to exist in one of these landscapes—those contemplative, sometimes stark photographs invariably absent people. His performance is his state of mind, the audience privy by invitation only and on good behavior. Competing images are not only unwelcome, but not tolerated to the extent that the performance will terminate. What cause such a position advances will perhaps be on the minds of those who travel to Perugia for a jazz concert on an Umbrian summer’s evening.

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2 thoughts on “Keith Jarrett, Umbria, and the Jazz Image

  1. Venky Ramakrishna PhD says:

    You greatness in any walk of life comes from your humility not arrogance. Miles Davis, Howling Wolf and many others were great but lacked the goodness and respect for their audiences, much less their own band members. Keith will be forgotten soon and I hope his pending Jazz Masters award in Jan. 2014 will be revoked.

    • Have to respectfully disagree, Vensky. I think Davis’s attitude was misunderstood (I discuss this in Chapter 3 of my book). I believe Jarrett will not be forgotten, and he certainly deserves the Jazz Masters award. How he finds a way forward in terms of live festival performance given this situation, though, is not entirely clear to me.

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