Keith Jarrett and the Power of Identity

It shouldn't matter. It really shouldn't matter and I'm a little embarrassed to admit it does. Today I learned legendary jazz pianist Keith Jarrett is white and my head feels light as I navigate disorientation and re-read the words. I hadn't planned to Google Keith Jarrett today but was inspired to learn more about the man who in a very real sense inspired me to love jazz back in the 70s as a teenager living in Germany with my mom and siblings. Prior to hearing Jarrett's music, I'd met black jazz musicians living and performing in Europe through my mom, an elementary school principal in the Department of Defense School System, and her bohemian friends -- some fellow teachers and others just passing through. I'd listen to these musicians jam and they produced sounds very different from those I'd known as a black Catholic in Richmond, VA. I can safely say, my world was devoid of jazz before moving to Europe. It wasn't in our home or other homes I knew. It wasn't in my school or church and I didn't hear it on the radio.

Ironically, given the United States gave birth to jazz, moving to Germany changed all that for me little by little. The white parents of my best friend were jazz lovers and some of the black jazz musicians I met in the early 70s hung out at their home. Folks like Charles Jefferson, a gifted trumpeter from Seattle and Ernie Butler, who played tenor sax, often dropped by and sometimes pulled out their instruments. Charles was married to my music teacher Sueellen and they were the first interracial couple I'd ever laid eyes on. Charles was a "cool cat" -- light-browned skin, slight frame, huge fro, sometimes wearing a dashiki and shades, whose voice sounded as smooth as the tones he made jump from his trumpet. As a budding songwriter, I could not help but be influenced by these new sounds and the folks who made them.

Almost 40 years later, I can't remember how I learned about or got hold of Keith Jarrett's 1975 live jazz piano masterpiece, The Koln Concert, but it was transcendent. I'd never heard anything so beautiful and yet primal, including the grunts and other noises Jarrett made as he played. I was hooked. Jarrett had made this music not far from my home and he looked like he could be Charles Jefferson's brother -- same complexion, same fro. I'm not sure how many times I listened to The Koln Concert in my last 2 years of high school but it was one of the treasures that came with me when I returned to the US for college. The Koln Concert inspired me to explore other Jarrett works and through my college years I came to associate him with other jazz greats like Herbie Hancock -- that rare breed of gifted black musician as comfortable in rock, gospel, R&B and classical. I just assumed Jarrett was black and though largely unconsciously, that fact somehow made him a role model in my efforts to defy genre in the music I write.

Of course my love for Jarrett's music is no less now that I know he's white. But this recent experience reinforces for me how important role models can be in the lives of our youth. Would I still be writing music had I known in the 70s Jarrett was white? I'd like to think so and I'd also like to think I'd be as adventurous with my music. But I don't know, I'll never know. And I guess that's the point.

4 comments

  • Taveus

    Taveus Atlanta

    Keith fooled a lot of us. Not by intent but his look is so Afrocentric . I understand his mom is of Hungarian descent and his father is Scotch-Irish. I wonder if there might be some Black Irish or Romani in his heritage. Not that it matters but ethnicities and race are always topics of interest. Whatever! Keith Jarrett is one of the most talented musicians of the modern era.

    Keith fooled a lot of us. Not by intent but his look is so Afrocentric . I understand his mom is of Hungarian descent and his father is Scotch-Irish. I wonder if there might be some Black Irish or Romani in his heritage. Not that it matters but ethnicities and race are always topics of interest. Whatever! Keith Jarrett is one of the most talented musicians of the modern era.

  • Paula Boggs Band

    Paula Boggs Band

    I agree and thanks for weighing in!

    I agree and thanks for weighing in!

  • Gage

    Gage Springfield, IL

    Thanks for sharing. After all these years I just googles Keith Jarrett's ethnicity and was directed to this site. I just assumed because of the fro he was at least mixed. Powerful post. Makes you think huh? I got a hold of the Koln Concert on cassette in high school.(in the caribbean) Almost 40 years later I'm sitting in my office listening to his music. He is brilliant!

    Thanks for sharing. After all these years I just googles Keith Jarrett's ethnicity and was directed to this site. I just assumed because of the fro he was at least mixed. Powerful post. Makes you think huh? I got a hold of the Koln Concert on cassette in high school.(in the caribbean) Almost 40 years later I'm sitting in my office listening to his music. He is brilliant!

  • Paula Boggs Band

    Paula Boggs Band

    Yes he’s brilliant and thanks so much for commenting‼️

    Yes he’s brilliant and thanks so much for commenting‼️

Add comment