Much has been written recently about Keith Jarrett’s propensity for losing his temper with audiences following an incident during a solo concert at Carnegie Hall. It was Patrick Jarenwattananon at A Blog Supreme and Anthony Dean-Harris who first got my grey cells twitching on this subject.
Now I wasn’t at the concert in question so I can’t comment on this particular outburst and but Keith Jarrett’s unwillingness to tolerate any noise from coughing and photograph taking is legendary. What I have found very interesting is that many in the blogosphere share Anthony’s view that Mr. Jarrett’s behaviour is unprofessional and that this is automatically a bad thing.
The arguments about Keith Jarrett’s attitude to noise made by audiences and the way he reacts to it will go and on and on and it’s not really what I want to get into in this post. My instinct says that Jarrett is well known for this kind of behaviour and if it’s not something that you’re prepared to put up with then simply don’t pay to go and see him – ‘You pays your money and you takes your choice’, as the old saying goes.
What I do want to talk about though, is the idea of ‘professionalism’ and how it impacts the way musicians approach their music making. I found it particularly noteworthy that many of Jarrett’s detractors were also musicians, and it was their criticism of Keith as ‘unprofessional’ that I found fascinating. In a nutshell, what the criticism says is that a musician or artist performing for an audience, particularly if that audience has paid, is automatically beholden to that audience. In other words, they’ve paid, so you owe it to them to conform to their expectations.
What’s interesting is how this distorts the relationship between the musician and his music. Those who are advocating the kind of professionalism that would involve ignoring distractions and interruptions from the audience seem to be taking the view that because the audience has paid to attend the performance, you have an obligation to attempt to make the best of whatever situation you are performing in. If noise from the audience is distracting you, then you should simply try and ignore it and get on with it as best you can.
To the ‘professional’ in this situation, the priority of the performance is not to create art, it is to please the audience – even if its behaviour is preventing you from creating the best music you are capable of.
It would be interesting to note at what point those who call Jarrett unprofessional would agree that he would be justified in stopping a performance. A bit of coughing and a few camera clicks seem to be all it takes for him to down tools at the moment, and many comments seem to think that is insufficient provocation for stopping playing. But what if a mobile phone had gone off – would they then think his behaviour was justified. No? How about 3 or 4 phones going off, one after the other? How about if those 3 or 4 phones were answered and their owners started conducting conversations whilst the trio were playing? How about then?
I think that if several mobile phones were going off, or people were conducting actual phone conversations in the concert hall, nobody would be calling Keith unprofessional for stopping playing. As a result, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that stopping playing due to distractions is universally acceptable – it’s just that those who criticised Keith Jarrett’s behaviour felt that the distractions couldn’t be considered severe enough to warrant that cause of action.
When world-famous musicians play venues like Carnegie Hall, if two members of the audience start having a very loud conversation, most people would not be surprised if the performance was stopped and the people chastised. However, if the same people were having the same conversation in front of artists playing in a club, it is less likely to happen. If those same people were having the same conversation in front of musicians at a function then most people would be amazed if the performance were stopped and think they were acting totally inappropriately.
And yet, theoretically, it could be the same people playing the same music. Granted, Keith Jarrett probably doesn’t play too many weddings these days but there are very talented jazz performers who often find themselves regularly playing in both formal concert situations and in more ‘background music’ situations due to the swings and roundabouts of life as a working musician.
What I find significant about this debate in a wider sense is that it reminds us it is almost never the performer who sets the terms on which his music is to be performed. Instead, it is the venue or audience who gets to decide under what circumstances music will be created and consumed. What’s even more significant is that we all seem to buy into this idea and, as musicians and artists, accept it as the natural way of the world. We totally buy into the idea that is appropriate for other people to decide the context in which our music is played and received. Not only do we buy into it, but it is so deeply ingrained that when somebody challenges this idea, as Keith Jarrett regularly does, we feel justified in criticising him for it.
The idea of being ‘professional’ essentially means that we subjugate our artistry to people who have the money to book us. It means that if somebody is paying you to play, then you are obligated to put up with a certain amount of crap because that payment entitles the person paying to control your art. If musicians were always treated really well everywhere they went, if every time they played there was a respectful and completely silent audience, the very notion of professionalism would most likely not even exist. When we talk about professionalism in this context, what we are essentially talking about is the ability of musicians to put up with crap and keep playing.
Furthermore, whenever we demonstrate professionalism and carry on regardless, we do so because our immediate need for the money being paid overcomes our desire to perform in circumstances conducive to making art. What jazz musician hasn’t been on a gig were he felt like packing up and going home, but bit his lip because he needed the money? We’ve all been there; we’ve all been treated like dirt and put up with it because there are bills that need to be paid. Even if we aren’t desperate for that particular fee from that particular gig, we’re terrified of getting a bad reputation and losing future work.
But Keith Jarrett isn’t. Here’s my take on what I understand to be his thought process:
‘I am an artist and I choose to make my art only in circumstances that I find suitable. I don’t accept that being paid for a performance means that I have to compromise my artistry due to that fact and I will approach each performance in the way that I see fit. If I find that the behaviour of the audience is preventing me from making the best art I can, I’m going to stop trying to make it. My obligation is to my art, not to the people who pay for it. My priority is to make the best art I can, not to entertain the audience on their terms.
I don’t feel obliged to try and muddle through distractions and interruptions in the creative process because the audience might assume my job is to try to please them. I don’t care whether I get paid or not. I don’t care if I upset people and they don’t buy any more records or come to any more concerts. If they won’t let me make my art on my terms then I will walk away right now. These are the terms under which I am prepared to perform and if people can’t get on board with it then I’ll just stop.
I believe my art has value and I believe that it is worth paying for. However, I also believe that as an artist, I have the right to specify the conditions in which I will make that art. The fact that somebody is paying me to perform, does not give them the right to dictate those conditions and I will always prioritise the quality of the music above pleasing the crowd. Take it or leave it.
Say what you want about Keith Jarrett, but you can’t deny that he takes himself as an artist and his music-making very seriously indeed – to the point where he would much rather upset people than compromise what he considers to be essential to his art. I can understand why that upsets some of the general public, but I am a little confused about why other musicians find that so reprehensible.
My girlfriend will tell you that I have been at several plays and concerts recently where I have been incandescently angry about the amount of noise and coughing that goes on in a modern auditorium or theatre. If that’s distracting to me as a listener or watcher, what on earth must it be doing to the people on stage? It seems to me that it is becoming increasingly the norm to have coughing going on throughout any performance – it’s a modern cultural thing.
Of course it's unrealistic to expect that nobody in a large audience will have a a cold, particularly in January in New York, yet my own personal experience tells me generally that coughing during performances of all kinds has become less of a behavioural taboo and has therefore gradually increased over time.
In the past, people would have suffered great personal discomfort to try to avoid making a noise in an auditorium to avoid being seen as rude, whereas today they feel entitled to clear their throats so their own personal comfort is not impinged. As a result I'm sure that 15 years ago, there was nowhere near the amount of coughing that goes on today and it's definitely getting out of hand - and this is coming from a guy who has played plenty of gigs where he can hardly hear the rest of the band due to the noise in the room!
Now that's just a personal opinion based on my experience and I wouldn't necessarily expect anybody to agree without any empirical evidence to support my assertion. However, if we remove the cause of the distraction away from the discussion, I believe there is an interesting point for all musicians to consider before condemning Keith Jarrett's behaviour.
Clearly Jarrett's tolerance to distractions is lower than many other musicians, but here we have an artist standing up and saying to the world that he’s not going to compromise or pander to anyone for the sake of money. How many of us would love to be in a position where we can do that? The fact that we may not have the resources or the courage to walk off the bandstand whenever we feel our music is being compromised doesn’t mean that we should hate it when Jarrett does. If anything, we should be glad that there is a musician out there who is prepared to challenge the belief that money can automatically subjugate and dictate art.
Next time you tell yourself you’re being ‘professional’ when you put up with a load of crap at a gig, ask yourself if that’s really anything to be proud of. The reality is that if you believed in your music as much as Keith Jarrett believes in his, then you would behave in exactly the same way - even if it would require the distractions to be a bit more intrusive before you drew the line.
Chances are the fact that you won’t get up and walk off the bandstand has more to do with the fact you don’t really believe that your music warrants the full respect and attention of an audience than your belief an inherent worthiness or nobility in ‘professionalism’. Deep down, you don’t really believe that your art has enough value to allow you to dictate the circumstances .
Calling yourself a ‘professional’ is simply your way of letting them screw your art for money and still allow yourself to look in the mirror the next day.
Undeniably, Keith Jarrett can be a bit of a drama queen about it sometimes, but perhaps if we started to believe in ourselves and our music as strongly as he does, the way live music is created and received in this world would be very, very different. I wish more of us were like him, not fewer: I wish I had the courage to be more like him.
Until next time...