Saturday, March 20, 2010

The prima donna

There is this hilarious story about pianist Keith Jarrett being a prima donna in San Francisco.

I remember once he was a prima donna at Artpark too, when he played that great old Artpark Jazz Festival. He kept stopping and hitting the same note on the piano over and over, quizzically, critically. There was nothing wrong with that note.

Walking out of Artpark that day, my friend Diane and I were laughing about that, and all these Keith Jarrett fans turned and gave us stink-eye. They will put up with anything.

Finicky jazz musicians are not always as entertaining as they think they are. Especially when you have shelled out for tickets, their behavior is not fun. Once I shelled out money to go hear Branford Marsalis. This was years ago and though the tickets were not astronomical, I didn't have much money. I always remember how Branford thought he was being cute, wandering constantly off stage so he could check the score on a basketball game. Boring! And annoying. And furthermore it's been done, you know?

Branford played a short concert. The whole event lasted an hour and a half, as I recall. And he spent most of it backstage. Wow, I was mad. At least now if something like that happens I get to vent in the paper.

More recently there was a time I had to interview Wynton Marsalis. I could make no sense out of what the guy said. He kept murmuring stuff and giggling and just plain acting like a jerk. This is a guy in his 40s. I did not know what his problem was.

I mean, if you do not want to talk to the press, don't talk to the press, OK? I would have been fine with that.

Classical music, I am telling you, it gets you spoiled. There are some princesses in the classical world but not like in jazz.

Jazzers can be real jerks.


  1. I have to completely disagree with you and the merits of your article. First off, I think that using the term "jazzer" is a completely derogatory term. Jazz musicians as a whole get offended hearing that. It refers to a time when conservatories/musicians didn't consider jazz as a "legit" form of music.

    Secondly, you reference THREE jazz musicians in your article as a basis for calling jazzers jerks. Keith Jarrett can obviously be over the top in his presentation of his music, but the actual content of what he plays is quite extraordinary. We all recognize that he has an ego and an attitude, but we recognize more what he has done for the progression of jazz piano.

    Wynton Marsalis? You think he's a jerk? Have you spent MORE than 5 minutes with him? He's a brilliant man, and has done more for the accessibility of jazz than anybody alive right now. He's also one of the nicest people I have personally ever met. He's a brilliant musician and human being. Jerk is hardly the word I would use to describe him.

    Being a patron of classical music, have you ever been in an orchestra? Seen how it works? Interacted with the people in one? Do you play an instrument? Ever played in a jazz group? Understand how it works? Or do you just write about them?

    I'm glad that as a reference for stereotyping a whole group of musicians, you used THREE people. That's great journalism. I'll be passing this article off to every sensible musician I know. I hope you get responses just like mine. The last thing we need in this world is ANOTHER music snob.

  2. Yes, it's quite true that Keith Jarrett has an incredibly inflated opinion of himself and his trio, and commits some rather undesirable antics at performances. Yes, the Marsalis brothers also have large egos, but my friend above is also correct in that behind these egos lies artistic brilliance. I count Keith Jarrett as my first real obsession as a pianist, back when I was in high school, the one who helped open my eyes to a whole new way of approaching improvisation. Granted, it can sometimes be incredibly difficult to overlook the many distracting quirks and idiosyncrasies of these personalities, especially when one expects such high-quality creations from them. But I maintain that it can be done, that it is possible to ignore these things if you tell yourself you can!! Please, please I beg you, as someone with one foot yet still in school and one foot in the professional field, do not lump all of us jazz musicians together under the umbrella of egotists. And please, give these guys another chance. Ultimately, it's about the music, after all, no matter what ANYONE says. (Have you ever read the book "A Romance on Three Legs" by Katie Hafner? It recounts the story of one Glenn Gould and his search for the perfect piano...surely his, shall we call them, sensitivities to instrumental preference at least rival those snobberies exhibited by Jarrett? I myself can at least empathize with them to some degree. While I cannot count myself as skilled a pianist as either of these two, I know what it can be like if one note has a slightly slower action than others around it!) In any case, I digress a bit, but please at least take what I have to say to heart! Thanks!

  3. Anonymous: I have to say, as an outsider looking in to this...*you're* the one coming across as a snob. The entire tenor, and substance, of your response is: we "little people" simply aren't bright enough to understand the "auteur." But you keep that little fantasy world of yours does provide a measure of amusement to us poor, benighted, "little people."

  4. Have you even read my comment? You think *I* come across as the snob? I'm merely saying why I think it's wrong to stereotype a whole group of musicians across the WORLD by using three people as judgement. How is that snobbery? You know what? I think all journalists can be jerks- I've met two of them and didn't like them at all!

  5. Gentlemen, gentlemen! I wish I could have interceded earlier. (Some of us have to work.)

    Anonymous, it's funny you asked, I was actually in a jazz band. We are all in bands in Buffalo at one time or another. I played piano in this jazz band for about four years and you would never guess what song I really loved playing: "Lucky Southern." By Keith Jarrett!

    I did not mean to imply that all jazz musicians are jerks. I have known some wonderful jazz musicians. But there is a brand of ego you find among jazz musicians that you do not find among classical musicians, in my experience, which, I have to say, is vast. I could give you a lot of other examples. I wrote about only three here because this was just a Web log post and I try to keep them short. Maybe I will do a follow-up post!

    One thing that is funny: Musicians across the board can surprise you. Here I had always heard Wynton Marsalis was this great guy, and he was a jerk to me. Maybe he was having a bad day, who knows. (I wrote a nice story about him anyway. It was no big deal.) On the other hand I remember calling Max Roach, and for some reason I thought he was going to have this attitude, and he was the greatest guy, just the greatest. You cannot tell. That is true in classical music too. So maybe we agree on that.

    In any case thank you for your comments and for slogging through what I wrote!

  6. And Christopher... you are a musician, right? This is another goofy law I have come to recognize as an interviewer: The greatest musicians are usually the best people to interact with. If anyone gives me a problem it is usually the jerk playing the corner bar. (Wynton M. was the exception. And he wasn't really a big problem or anything. I just could not make sense out of him.)

    It's funny you mention the Katie Hafner book about Gould. I did read it. I loved it. She actually wrote a comment a while ago on the Web log ... I will have to look up where. Anyway, you're right about Glenn Gould's idiosyncrasies and fussiness about pianos. But I can't remember hearing of any time when he came out on stage and was overbearing and patronizing toward the venue and the audience. Jarrett's behavior shows a lack of respect to the audience that I find deplorable. I am just thinking out loud here but the very act of a musician's bowing to an audience indicates that there is this mutual respect there. It is a beautiful dynamic when you think about it. It does not sound to me as if Jarrett's listeners deserved the treatment he gave them. The audience is not dirt.

    p.s. May I compliment you on your extreme politeness? You are a pleasure to argue with!

  7. And Retired Maj., thank you for coming to my defense! So nice of you!

  8. I thank you for your reply, but I still believe the ego bit is seen MUCH more in classical musicians- which is one of the reasons I chose to not go into classical music as a profession. I think on the contrary, jazz musicians are some of the most laid back, down to earth people that I have come across. Ego can be confidence, which may be the case. But I see a lot of ego in classical music that stems from insecurity.

  9. Ms. Goldman,

    Have you considered interacting with some of the fine jazz musicians who are in Buffalo and documenting your experiences in a follow-up post?

    While there are jerks in jazz, classical, and all other musical genres (and let's face it, all walks of life), there are also wonderful human beings and musicians who aren't as widely known as they should be.

    For example, trumpeter Tim Clarke and bassist Wayne Moose are excellent local jazz musicians who are also kind, humble individuals (and there are many others). I, for one, would much rather read about positive experiences with musicians of any stripe than read complaints about the few who give many a bad reputation.

  10. Anonymous (you should come up with a handle so I can quit calling you that and we can keep straight who you are) ... thanks for your civility! I do disagree with you on the ego. I think it is way more prevalent among jazz musicians. Back when I took jazz piano lessons, my teacher thought so too. I would meet a jazz musician or interview him, and my teacher -- who was in his 20s, as I was -- would immediately ask: "Attitude?" By the way he thought Wynton Marsalis was a jerk too. I guess it just depends what mood these people are in.

    Again, I'm not saying every jazz musician is a jerk, or even that most of them are. But I could name you a bunch of jazz musicians who were jerks to me, and with classical musicians, it is so rare. You can call the greatest pianist or cellist or conductor or the odds are that he or she will be great to you. You mention the insecurity -- that has crossed my mind too. I think these great classical musicians are secure in themselves and have nothing to prove and that is why they are so generous and forthcoming. And as I said, it has spoiled me somewhat. When I run across a jazz musician with an attitude, I find myself thinking, I do not have to take this.

    Other Anonymous (or same one? I don't know if you are the same person?) you might be new in town or do not read the paper but I actually write for The Buffalo News and I have interviewed and "interacted" with tons of jazz musicians over the years, both local and famous. And again I'm not saying they are jerks. They are wonderful people. I think if they even saw this discussion going they would crack up.

  11. Mary said, "I think if they even saw this discussion going they would crack up."

    I know I did!

  12. Mary..i think Wynton was just playin with you. sometimes he just goofs around y'know. maybe it had to do with your questions..or maybe he thought you cute:) he is definately not a jerk..that is a hurtful thing to say, esp when its not true! now i know nothing about jazz..but i can tell you something about the man...he is the nicest, kindest man i know and like anonymous say..he's a brilliant man and has done more for jazz than anyone ever has! he is also the best father to his kids.i do hope you can do another interview with him Mary..and write more positive things about him. the man really deserves it!!! please.