Spring 2019

Keith Jarrett, Miscegenation & the Rise of the European Sensibility in Jazz in the 1970s

Gerald Early

In the 1970s, pianist Keith Jarrett emerged as a major albeit controversial innovator in jazz. He succeeded in making completely improvised solo piano music not only critically acclaimed as a fresh way of blending classical and jazz styles but also popular, particularly with young audiences. This essay examines the moment when Jarrett became an international star, the musical and social circumstances of jazz music immediately before his arrival and how he largely unconsciously exploited those circumstances to make his success possible, and what his accomplishments meant during the 1970s for jazz audiences and for American society at large.

Gerald Early, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1997, is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and Editor of The Common Reader at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of A Level Playing Field: African American Athletes and the Republic of Sports (2011), One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture (rev. ed., 2004), and This is Where I Came In: Black America in the 1960s (2003).

By the late 1960s, when pianist Keith Jarrett was establishing his international reputation as a professional jazz musician, jazz itself was facing a crisis. The crisis, for both players and critics, was twofold: First, was jazz technically exhausted? That is to say, after the stylistic innovations of the post–World War II generation of artists–like saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop revolution; Jimmy Smith “squabbling” on the Hammond organ; bandleader Sun Ra, saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, and pianist Cecil Taylor in free, avant-garde jazz music; and Miles Davis and his minions in modal jazz, “freebop,” electric jazz, and jazz-rock–was there anything else that jazz could do? What was left for a saxophonist to achieve after what John Coltrane had done with his instrument? What more could a trumpeter do after Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, and Freddie Hubbard but repeat with variations what these musicians had done? Or as black writers/intellectuals Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray questioned, had jazz even progressed after Duke Ellington? Had not Ellington in fact already done everything that the modernists were claiming was so progressive or free? Since jazz prided itself on the originality of its great soloists, the questions by the end of the 1960s were: Had originality and virtuosity reached its limits in this form of music? Was there anything new to be mined? Was jazz, like so-called classical music, which many felt faced the same problem, dead to its own future, condemned to . . .

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