Wednesday, August 08, 2007

the audience vs. keithy-poo jarrett

Apparently there’s a little hoopla about Keith Jarrett’s crowd control skills. In response Daniel Biro writes an open letter to chastise Keith Jarrett (via DJA). Like another seemingly trivial story flagged up by On An Overgrown Path, there’s something fascinating going on here.

I’m not questioning whether people were bruised by the incident, but who exactly is upset? It seems that those taking ‘the audience’s side’ are put into a difficult position of simultaneously having to say that each audience member is individually responsible for their actions (“it is a gathering of individuals who are put together by chance…”) while speaking on behalf of ‘the audience’ as a corporate entity.
And why exactly are they upset? Is it, as some are phrasing this incident, a matter of offense, or is Jarrett’s behavior disturbing?
I have (a) complex relationship(s) with ‘my’ audience(s). Not difficult, necessarily, and certainly not unrewarding, but complex. I think we all do, and maybe those that don’t see complexity (or want to wish it away) are hiding behind unwritten rules that may prove fragile at best.

As an artist Jarrett is sublime, but as a person he leaves much to be desired. It was unfortunate that we had to witness the schizophrenia of these two aspects.
There’re discourses and there’re discourses: I’m not so much interested in whether The Keith Jarrett Incident was troubling because it was insulting (the truth of which will no doubt be debated elsewhere), but because it represents a kind of transgression—a boundary violation.
I reserve the right… and I think the privilege is yours to hear us, but I reserve the right….
Jarrett didn’t know his place as far as the audience (or those vocally audience-identified) was concerned. The flip side: the audience didn’t know its place as far as Jarrett was concerned.
MLM points out that the modern concert going culture in the West, emerging from the context of aristocracy, gets inherited by the bourgeoisie—the cultural elite and the economic focus. In this model, the audience embodies the ruling class; the performers, their servants. Is Jarrett’s behavior being perceived by those offended as a revolt by the servant class? As MLM asks: do the aristocrats fear their performing monkey becoming uppity?
When Biro states that “antagonism breeds antagonism” is there an underlying fear of a kind of class warfare mapped onto musical practice? That the ‘ideal’ state of things is that we should all be friends? That (materially expressed) love (“people pay lots of money… to see you play because they love you!”) should be reciprocated?
I see that red light there, and that means you, you, you….
Alarm bells go off when we hear this story: the many is found guilty of, and ‘punished’ for, the actions of a few. We know this injustice all too well in our post-9/11 political paranoia. We smell an abuse of power. We can map this easily: many = the well behaved majority in the audience; the few = the small number of pesky photo junkies.
But who or what does Jarrett stand for in this case? The “sadistic schoolmaster”? The colonial taskmaster? The White House? What exactly is resonating here?
…Tell all these assholes with cameras to turn them fucking off right now.
Once, MET, one of my teachers, was obliged to attend a meeting with wealthy patrons. I suggested that getting drunk, turning up with a half-finished bottle of whisky, and trying to start a fight would make the proceedings less painful, but MET pointed out that they would probably respond, “how wonderful: a real artist!”
We would never have expected ‘gentility’ from Miles Davis, of course. The Davis I witnessed, even mellowed in old age, performed someone from ‘the street’ (conveniently erasing his privileged upbringing), pumped full of a dangerous male, African-American sexuality. If Jarrett’s ethnicity and sexuality were, from a reception standpoint, less veiled and confused we would surely have an easier time.
The ‘unacceptable’ language in question: why should that be a shock? Is it because we all thought we were in the presence of a ‘classical’ musician—a musician with ‘class’—who’s suddenly revealed to be 50 Cent? This is, after all, a performer who famously recorded the Goldberg Variations, whose catalog is sprinkled with classy sounding titles such as The Köln Concert, and who appears on that classy label that boasts “quality… at all levels… [and] has been widely recognized and… has collected many awards”. A label which, nonetheless, is transparent (read: identity-free) and user-friendly (“All that can really be said about ‘ECM sound’… is that the sound that you hear is the sound that we like”).
Who do we expect our performers/artists/musicians to be? And why? And what happens when they don’t perform as expected?


The phrase in the title of this post (“Keithy-poo Jarrett”) is taken from Cecil Taylor (“…I don’t listen to Keithy-poo Jarrett, I’m not particularly interested in that”) quoted in Brian Priestley (1991), ‘florescent stripper’, Wire (issue 82/3, December/January), p. 24.


Andrew said...

Nice analysis.

I agree that the trangressiveness of it is the crux. I'm not sure I agree, though, that that transgressiveness can be explained by the model of "the audience embod[ying] the ruling class; the performers, their servants." And I doubt "Jarrett’s behavior [is] being perceived by those offended as a revolt by the servant class."

For one thing, Biro's letter actually seems pretty mild to me. Yeah, he's pissed, but he's measured in his anger, and he makes sure to remind us that he thinks Jarrett is top notch. (Maybe that bit sticks out for me b/c I've never been a particularly big Jarrett fan.) The letter comes across as more of an intervention than a scolding.

For another, at this point in his career, Jarrett probably has more money than anybody in that particular audience. I don't know for sure, of course, but what about this: at the very least, he's a jazz celebrity (and celebrities are the new aristocracy, as Elton John has demonstrated): he's widely recognized as an "icon" of the jazz scene -- he has "arrived," and I suspect his position in jazz history can't be revoked, certainly not by a festival audience. (Plus I bet he had a pretty sweet green room.) The "class war" model would, I think, be much more applicable if the artist in question were someone up-and-coming, someone still struggling for the audience's "approval." (And actually, from my point of view, the real class issues here can be found in the discrepancy between those who could get in to that festival (club) -- either as performers or audience members -- and those who are, year after year, left out.)

I dunno. I guess I'm interested in this as a psychological and cultural thing (not that those things can be completely separated from class) -- sort of along the lines of what your teacher MET was saying. My theory: we've had this figure of the "tortured genius" floating around in our culture for centuries now. It has been built up to the point where it's instantly recognizeable, even to folks who aren't particularly interested in the arts. Everyone knows Beethoven was a splenetic, difficult madman, blah blah blah. Is it possible that Jarrett, because of insecurity or whatever, is simply putting on a persona here, performing the genius character?

His complaints just seem so forced and trivial and transparent and predictable to me, and I think the audience was probably smart enough to recognize that. I suspect that if I had been in that audience, I would probably have been annoyed too (after I had finished laughing, of course), but not because Jarrett was being uppity. I would probably have been annoyed because he was being so goddammed unimaginative and mediocre in his eccentricity.

But who knows...

howsthatsound said...

maybe i'm desensitized from going to grungier shows in grungier places. but if i was there and a fan of jarrett i'd be laughing, not crying.

are jazz folks always this sensitive?

as for me, i keep my appreciation artist and art separate. i could care less if my idols are assholes.

the improvising guitarist said...

Hey Andrew, thanks for commenting: all your points are well taken.

I agree that we’re stuck with, for better or worse (worse more than better), the Romantic archetype of the artist as ‘tortured genius’. Your’re also right to point out that it’d be silly of me to position Keithy-poo Jarrett as anything less than an affluent member of the jazz elite (Mwanji makes a similar point), and I’d find a reading of this situation with Jarrett as the petulant Beethovenian figure compelling (ironically, none of the major players in this drama really attempt to pull Jarrett down from ‘genius’ status).
And, ask me for my opinion, I’d say Jarrett’s being silly….
I was also probably being unfair in my portrayal of Biro’s letter, but the letter was, at the very least, prescriptive, and that’s interesting. The argument between Jarrett and Biro’s audience isn’t so much against the root problem of the artist-audience model (which I think is what you’re getting at), it’s an argument over who wields (and thus can abuse) power, and who has rights (and can claim victimhood): Jarrett or the audience….

…but I’m trying to get at something parallel to all this.

Some questions: how come some artists get away with ‘antisocial’ behavior? What’s so different about The Keith Jarrett Incident? Context? Certain forms of insult are acceptable? Are certain artists sanctioned?

Thanks again for reading, and thanks for keeping me from slacking in thinking :-)

S, tig

the improvising guitarist said...


I admire your ability to keep the artist and art separate, but I, for one, am, for better or worse (again, for worse more than better), embedded in this culture that consumes art as autobiography (the birthplace of the ‘tortured genius’). It’s all fiction of course, but I find that I do care if my idols (saints on a pedestal) are assholes… unfortunately.

Thanks for the writing.

S, tig

jinx said...

tig in response to howsthatsound: it's probably a good job kj wasn't your idol.

My knowledge of Beethoven isn't as good as it should be, but a lot of the genius mythology stuff is created after a composer's existence - it doesn't necessarily reflect the reception of the composer at the time she or he lived. So, Josquin was turned into a genius, and at a conference session today I heard of a late 19th century Spanish musicologist who made some regular guy into a 'genius' - many hundreds of years after he'd died an obscure nobody. That is, as Andrew acknowledges, genius is a construct. It doesn't actually exist.

Call me stubborn, but I'm not so quick to let go of my class analysis. I suppose it depends where you come from, but in my home country class doesn't depend on how much you earn. If you're a prole and you win millions on the lottery, you're just a millionaire prole. (Wasn't there a Harry Enfield sketch of Wayne and Waynetta after winning the lottery? A butler collected their pizza delivery, and they had gold plated 'thrones' (euphemism) in front of the telly.) If you're the first son of Lord such-and-such, your family might be absolutely broke, but you're still a member of the upper classes, the aristocracy. Under those circumstances, KJ is a very wealthy, very successful musician - but he's still 'just' a musician.

I'm not sure celebrities are exactly the new aristocracy in quite the way you suggest: sure, they mingle, they might be close friends (Elton John & Diana Spencer), but are they family?

I certainly need to think about that some more.

peter breslin said...

Hey- Taylor uses the -ypoo suffix rather liberally. Hanging out with him a few years ago after a ripping trio show with Albey Balgochian and Jackson Krall in Albuquerque, Mr. Taylor also referred to Ornette as "Ornette-y poo." Then there was "The Mean Devil," "The Beast," "The Professor" and a few other nicknames....folks might be able to guess who the referents are.

as for the questions raised here, I will reread and ponder. Great stuff as always.


the improvising guitarist said...

Okay, PB, I give up: who is “The Beast”?


the improvising guitarist said...

I think you’ve hit it, jinx: the way you frame these ideas makes a lot of sense to me.
There, for example, is a relationship between gender / race / sexuality and privilege, but you can’t directly infer one from the other. In a similar way there’s a relationship between class and economics, but one doesn’t map directly onto the other. Thus “Lord such-and-such” can continue to perform aristocracy while economically doing worse financially than the local used car salesman, and every president since Nixon can assume ‘middle America’ despite their socio-economic status.
In this context, it doesn’t matter whether the audience’s reaction to Jarrett is appropriate given Jarrett’s ‘real-world wealth’, they were willing to interact with Jarret on the grounds that he was supposed (morally bound?) to be the servant.

Thanks for writing!

S, tig

Andrew said...

Hey again peeps:

Very interesting to watch this discussion evolve (both here and elsewhere in the blogosphere). I wonder why this latest outburst touched off such a nerve? (Cuz as a lot of people are pointing out, antagonizing the audience is nothing new in Jarrett-land.)

On the question of class: jinx is right, of course, that one can be impoverished and still technically be a member of the aristocracy. (This is more of an observable phenomenon in Europe, I would guess.) But if we want to use "class" as a metaphor to describe the power dynamic between an artist and his/her audience, then I think the question of money is actually pretty relevant, because money and power are closely related most of the time.

(To put this a slightly different way: even the "true" blue-blooded aristocratic families were "nouveau rich" at some point a long long time ago.)

I can imagine that there might have been some folks at the festival in question who might have been incensed that a lowly musician would have dared to confront them in this way. But I suspect many more of the audience members were simply flummoxed.

To push the genius thing a little further, I think part of what's going on here is a wrangling over the question of what music is, and what it's for. Jarrett seems to be focusing on it as a precious artifact -- and I mean "precious" in every sense (it's valuable and scarce aesthetically, yes, but it's also pretentious, and it's also so fragile that a single lousy flash bulb can destroy it). The audience, on the other hand, may have been after something a little more robust.

peter breslin said...

Hi- a day late and a dollar short..."The Beast" refers to Betty Carter.