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.

9 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‼️

  • Michael Brickley
    Michael Brickley Ronkonkoma LIRR
    Same here. Seeing him recently, playing Danny Boy on YouTube, I questioned my assumption of a mixed race man and googled. Saw your blog post. Race should never matter become recently I prayed about race relations and heard a voice responding, “it’s not about black race, white race or asian race. It’s about the human race.” AMEN

    Same here. Seeing him recently, playing Danny Boy on YouTube, I questioned my assumption of a mixed race man and googled. Saw your blog post. Race should never matter become recently I prayed about race relations and heard a voice responding, “it’s not about black race, white race or asian race. It’s about the human race.” AMEN

  • Paula Boggs Band
    Paula Boggs Band
    When it comes to Jarrett I don’t care what his race is...he’s great!

    When it comes to Jarrett I don’t care what his race is...he’s great!

  • Urla
    Urla San Jose, CA
    I just watched Rick Beato talking about albums (not CDs!) that everyone should listen to on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HZTYpSuhAc). One of the albums was Keith Jarrett. I decided to look him up because I had heard my uncle--a jazz buff--talk about him. On the Wikipedia page, there is a picture of Jarrett from the late 1970s/early 1980s that clearly, I thought, showed he was Black. But once I read the ethnicity of his parents, I had to look for more pictures, and found one of him a few years ago. I am sure that the picture on the Wiki page was taken during a period in which many whites were using perms to get that curly effect, or an afro-centric look with the hair. I wonder if he felt he needed to do that to get his "street cred" in the world of jazz?

    I just watched Rick Beato talking about albums (not CDs!) that everyone should listen to on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HZTYpSuhAc). One of the albums was Keith Jarrett. I decided to look him up because I had heard my uncle--a jazz buff--talk about him. On the Wikipedia page, there is a picture of Jarrett from the late 1970s/early 1980s that clearly, I thought, showed he was Black. But once I read the ethnicity of his parents, I had to look for more pictures, and found one of him a few years ago. I am sure that the picture on the Wiki page was taken during a period in which many whites were using perms to get that curly effect, or an afro-centric look with the hair. I wonder if he felt he needed to do that to get his "street cred" in the world of jazz?

  • Urla
    Urla San Jose, CA
    He's white, not that it particularly matters. And here's the interview to prove it. GROSS: In the '70s, I think a lot of your fans debated with each other whether you were black or white. MR. JARRETT: Yeah. Well, you know, at the same Heidelberg festival, there were some black musicians, or black audience members, trying to disrupt my performance because they claimed it wasn't black music. And, of course, it wasn't. One reason was that I wasn't black. But this was a jazz festival. They were claiming not only was it not black music, but it wasn't jazz and it shouldn't be at this festival. And this was, I guess, during the time when, you know, the Black Muslim thing was pretty big. And I went backstage afterwards, and I was rather heartbroken because I thought, `Gee, these are fellow musicians or, like, people who like music, and why are they doing this?' And I was just sitting alone in my dressing room probably very upset, and a man and his daughter knocked on--a man knocked on the door, blacker than any of the guys who were trying to disrupt the stuff on stage, who was actually from central Africa. And he and his daughter came back and said, `Mr. Jarrett, we just want to say that that was so beautiful.' And I thought, `OK. Well, this is going to be just a political problem for me. It isn't the music, it's just the politics.' GROSS: Did you think that a lot of people assumed you were African-American because your hair was really curly and looks like an Afro? MR. JARRETT: Yeah. And a friend of my ex-wife's was arguing with me and her that I had to be black, no matter what I said. And once Ornette, backstage, said something... GROSS: This is Ornette Coleman? MR. JARRETT: Yeah, Ornette Coleman. One of the earliest times I was in the same room with him, he said something like, `Man, you've got to be black. You just have to be black.' I said, `I know. I know. I'm working on it. I'm...' GROSS: Well, do you think that that worked in your favor? MR. JARRETT: Well, it didn't hurt, you know. I don't think it hurt to be—when I get that kind of feedback from the actual players, who I've felt were partly my inspirations, who happened to be black, yeah. I mean, it's great. It's a compliment. Full interview (which is great) available here: Jazz Great Keith Jarrett Discusses Living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)

    He's white, not that it particularly matters. And here's the interview to prove it.

    GROSS: In the '70s, I think a lot of your fans debated with each other whether you were black or white.

    MR. JARRETT: Yeah. Well, you know, at the same Heidelberg festival, there were some black musicians, or black audience members, trying to disrupt my performance because they claimed it wasn't black music. And, of course, it wasn't. One reason was that I wasn't black. But this was a jazz festival. They were claiming not only was it not black music, but it wasn't jazz and it shouldn't be at this festival. And this was, I guess, during the time when, you know, the Black Muslim thing was pretty big.

    And I went backstage afterwards, and I was rather heartbroken because I
    thought, `Gee, these are fellow musicians or, like, people who like music, and why are they doing this?' And I was just sitting alone in my dressing room probably very upset, and a man and his daughter knocked on--a man knocked on the door, blacker than any of the guys who were trying to disrupt the stuff on stage, who was actually from central Africa. And he and his daughter came back and said, `Mr. Jarrett, we just want to say that that was so beautiful.' And I thought, `OK. Well, this is going to be just a political problem for me. It isn't the music, it's just the politics.'

    GROSS: Did you think that a lot of people assumed you were African-American because your hair was really curly and looks like an Afro?

    MR. JARRETT: Yeah. And a friend of my ex-wife's was arguing with me and her that I had to be black, no matter what I said. And once Ornette, backstage, said something...

    GROSS: This is Ornette Coleman?

    MR. JARRETT: Yeah, Ornette Coleman. One of the earliest times I was in the same room with him, he said something like, `Man, you've got to be black. You just have to be black.' I said, `I know. I know. I'm working on it. I'm...'

    GROSS: Well, do you think that that worked in your favor?

    MR. JARRETT: Well, it didn't hurt, you know. I don't think it hurt to be—when I get that kind of feedback from the actual players, who I've felt were partly my inspirations, who happened to be black, yeah. I mean, it's great. It's a compliment.

    Full interview (which is great) available here: Jazz Great Keith Jarrett Discusses Living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)

  • Paula Boggs Band
    Paula Boggs Band
    Keith Jarrett is a wonderful example of what it means to be an “ally.” Thanks for your post!

    Keith Jarrett is a wonderful example of what it means to be an “ally.” Thanks for your post!

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