Keith Jarrett, Dammit. {Reprise}

Silence, please.

A little ditty from 2010…

On March 19, 2010 I was at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco for Keith Jarrett’s solo performance, which got a little, shall we say, out of hand. Anyone who knows me well knows seeing KJ perform live is the closest I get to going to church in terms of catching spirit and downright (upright?) transcending. Along with Toni Morrison and Savion Glover, Jarrett is a part of my personal Holy Trinity—three artists who in my opinion cannot be topped in their respective fields. In honor of the fact that I just belatedly and quite accidentally (hallelujah) discovered his upcoming May 2nd performance at Davies—and grabbed two box seats—herewith a “reprint” of my day-after report from the frontlines of that strange but ultimately sublime 2010 night.

Keith Jarrett and the sound engineer he flew in from Switzerland for last night’s solo concert at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco may not have gotten the clean, fully realized recording they’d hoped for, but the audience most certainly got more than we’d bargained for.

Jarrett, the consummate maestro/diva — notorious for stepping away from the piano and crossing the stage to the standing mic to make beef with his audiences over their various misdeeds — was incensed early on by what proved to be the incessant audience coughing that plagued the first half+ of his performance. In a series of quips turned barbs turned reprimands turned all-out heckling match, Jarrett variously told us:

(1) [In response to the first loud cough that landed between keystrokes] “That was well placed. That could be a royalty.” [Laughter.]

(2) [In response to the domino-effect series of coughs that followed] “Oh, now there’s gonna be a contagion!” [More laughter.]

And as the coughing seemed to become self-perpetuating:

(3) “It’s amazing how many people get colds at my concerts.” [Nervous laughter.]

(4) “Somehow I’ve managed to play hundreds of concerts without coughing. I don’t know how I’ve done it.” [Awkward laughter.]

A genuinely bewildered Jarrett stood at the mic grasping at theoretical connections between the words “soft” (as in playing the piano softly, which seemed to stimulate audience coughing) and “cough.” Then, starting back to the piano, he turned on his heel and returned to the mic to propose a connection between the words “mucus” and “music” (as in, we have to get them both out).

But the most dramatic moment in this battle of coughing vs. concert took place when Jarrett, soldiering on despite the seemingly hopeless hack fest of his audience, was compelled to truncate a new composition due to the non-stop and highly audible interruptions. This was the only number whose conclusion saw Jarrett simply hang his head over the keyboard as the audience applauded, in lieu of his customary stand & bow routine between numbers. Subsequently, he strode to the mic and stated, “That was not the ending I wanted.” He then expressed nostalgia for the sanctity of his home studio, where he typically prepares for live performances sans “intrusions,” and said his only audience that really understood the import of relative silence during a live recording had been in Yokohama.

SFJazz founder Randall Kline announced at the top of the show that the piano was not being amplified despite the two floor stand mics that were trained on it; those, he said, were present strictly to record the performance. This was one of three live solo gigs Jarrett will perform in 2010, and the other two preceded San Francisco. The Davies performance had its chance to be on a live KJ disc, but the relentless coughing spoiled it. It seemed the technical gravity of Jarrett recording himself did not register with some members of the SF audience at all. An occasional cough is understandable, but the tag-team coughing was over the top last night, and not just because Jarrett kept heeding it. Blame it on the perfect eve of Spring and possible early onset hay fever if you will, but please people! Contain yourselves!

When Jarrett made an explicit attempt to say so, several obnoxious men in the nose-bleed section eventually yelled out such gems as “Play!” “Why don’t you just play!” and “Play something!” as though commanding a trained monkey. I paid top dollar for my ticket just like everyone else in the place, but I found the audience’s heckling of the artist absolutely inexcusable. In turn, the maestro told us he felt something strange was going on in San Francisco, and that he was reminded of an unruly European audience he once faced who “hated Americans.” I was disheartened to see Jarrett disrespected on the Davies stage. He is a known nitpicker, and his griping is part of his shtick. But he was in rare form — namely, a jaunty mood — when he took the stage last night. The constant coughing took him right down.

At the height of the dust-up, after a few audience interventions in his defense, Jarrett said he would only play “loud” for the remainder of the show so as to dampen the coughing. He returned to the piano and began banging away (Important note: Keith Jarrett banging away at the piano is nothing to sneeze [or cough] at), but soon got up, resumed the mic, and said, “No, I won’t.” He then retook the piano, hesitated briefly, and asked, “To the people who are yelling ‘Play,’ what are you requesting I play?” This set off a riot of requests that was answered by a brilliant rendition of “Summertime.” The audience loved it and Jarrett soon returned to form, letting go the precious proposition of recording live before this rowdy crowd and simply delivering a little bit of everything in his repertoire — a brilliant sampler that may not make a concert release but left even the most aggrieved audience members sated. He was, in the end, the consummate professional, despite a few grumbles overheard on the way out and on Twitter.

It was interesting to note that while Jarrett returned for not one, not two, not three, not four, but FIVE encores, the coughing virtually ceased. When he reappeared for encore number ~three, someone yelled out, “You like us! You really like us!” At that, he was disarmed, and by the fourth encore he seemed truly moved by the love in the room. Those of us who remained until the end were truly moved as well, by his thoroughgoing mastery. It was a breathtaking resolution after the audience briefly ran amok.

Originally published on my blog March 20, 2010. {As of this publication there is no Keith Jarrett tag on Medium. Boo.}