What Keith Jarrett’s »Köln Concert« Teaches Us About Dealing With Obstacles

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The story of the Köln Concert is a tale of two people working together against all odds to create something remarkable. It is a story about fighting adversity when there is no remote possibility of success.

The two actors in this play – that actually happened in Cologne on January 24, 1975 – are Keith Jarrett and Vera Brandes. Keith Jarrett is a pianist and composer from Allentown, Pennsylvania. He was invited by Vera Brandes to play a concert at the Cologne opera when she was only 17 years old – Germany’s youngest concert promoter at that time. The Cologne opera was the city’s biggest venue back then, and Keith was keen to play the first jazz concert that had ever happened on that stage. At 10:30 pm – the only time the Opera house was willing to give to an underage girl and her dream of a Keith Jarrett concert in Cologne.

People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them. George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Warren’s Profession

So, you need a piano to play a concert?

Keith drove together with Manfred Eicher, the founder of the record label ECM, from Zurich in Switzerland to Cologne in Germany in an old Renault, a 570 km trip, that took over five hours. Keith had back pains for days and had to wear a brace. That had already caused him several sleepless nights in a row. Initially, he didn’t want to play on this day at all because he intended to perform only every other day during his tour. And now he knew why.

Vera managed to get a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial, the one that Keith had requested. However, the opera house staff picked the wrong piano, a tiny Bösendorfer Baby Grand, because they weren’t able to find the big one (which was there, but hidden where no one could find it). When Vera, Keith, and Manfred arrived, they weren’t able to see the piano correctly because the only lights came from green exit lamps. So, Keith sat down at this baby grand and started playing.

It was devastating. Keith went over to Vera and told her he couldn’t play on this piano. Equipped with perfect pitch, Keith knew immediately that this piano was not only out of tune, but couldn’t possibly be tuned and fixed until the concert. It was in abject condition and, therefore, only used for rehearsals, which they didn’t know at that time. And he went to the hotel, intending to cancel the whole concert.

Vera did everything she could to solve this problem. And after phoning everyone she could get her hands on, the father of a classmate promised her a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial, the real one. But suddenly, the piano tuner arrived and overheard what Vera was planning. He strongly advised against her plans if she couldn’t afford to buy such an expensive piano herself. Because if she would move that piano without the necessary equipment in a hurry through a rainstorm, not only Keith Jarrett wouldn’t be able to play on it, no one would ever again be able to.

Tuning, tuning, and no pasta

So the piano tuner went to work and spent several hours to fix this miserable baby grand, at least to a level where it would sound halfway decent to an untrained ear.

Meanwhile, Vera booked a table at an Italian restaurant. And if that wasn’t already enough adversity for one day, the waiters mixed up their orders and they’d get to eat last. Which ultimately meant that Keith was barely able to eat a few bites before having to leave.

The piano was still a mess, albeit playable. It was thin in the upper registers, less than resonant in the bass, and had malfunctioning sustain pedals. But the recording equipment was already set up, the audience soon to arrive, and Keith had promised it to Vera. So he played, no matter what.

Keith had to make up for the piano’s inadequacies throughout the entire concert. He played ostinatos with his left hand to make the piano sound more resonant in the bass. He had to play really hard, physically hard, so the people on the balconies could hear the piano. After all, it was a baby grand, which was not supposed to be played on the large stage of an opera house.

Chiming in anyway

The first few notes of Keith playing (unconsciously) resembled the chimes you could hear in the lobby, telling you that the concert was about to start. If you listen to the recording carefully, you can hear the laughter of people recognizing the chimes.

The music Keith played was not only jazz; it was a lot more. It dove into classical, reminiscing Debussy, into gospel chords and rhythms, into folk and Latin and country. It sounded almost like a pop song in places.

Keith Jarrett – Köln Concert (Album Cover, ECM)

The record they had produced at this evening of adversity violated almost every rule of commercial music. Keith Jarrett improvised the whole concert, there was no score. It flowed freely through the genres without structure. The opening track is 26 minutes long, the second one 15 minutes, and the third one 18 minutes – way too long for radio airplay. Even the last one at 7 minutes wouldn’t be to most radio stations' liking.

The bittersweet sensation of just letting go

And yet it is the best-selling piano album and the best-selling jazz solo album of all time.

What had happened? It seems that after the odds were stacked against Keith in almost every way imaginable, he just decided to let it go. To just play, release his frustrations that had accumulated over the past days. He played in a way that resonated with the audience. And apparently with him, because during the concert, you can hear him scream of joy several times. He would later say that these were the moments when he felt the presence of endless possibilities, immaculately illustrated by the photo on the album cover.

Especially in our professional lives, we seek perfect circumstances. We prepare more than necessary, and we hurry to get everything right so we can deliver our perfect performance. But it never happens. Even if everything seems perfect, we aren’t — the ideal circumstances acting as an antidote to our intentions.

From Keith, and from Vera, we can learn that circumstances often don’t matter. Instead, they happen to provide us with the relieve of letting go. When we can’t make it perfect anymore, we can just as well make the best out of it.

And that can, with a little luck, be the most beautiful thing people have ever experienced.