The pathbreaking musician reveals the health issues that make it unlikely he will ever again perform in public.
By Nate Chinen
- Oct. 21, 2020
The last time Keith Jarrett performed in public, his relationship with the piano was the least of his concerns. This was at Carnegie Hall in 2017, several weeks into the administration of a divisive new American president.
Mr. Jarrett — one of the most heralded pianists alive, a galvanizing jazz artist who has also recorded a wealth of classical music — opened with an indignant speech on the political situation, and unspooled a relentless commentary throughout the concert. He ended by thanking the audience for bringing him to tears.
He had been scheduled to return to Carnegie the following March for another of the solo recitals that have done the most to create his legend — like the one captured on the recording “Budapest Concert,” to be released on Oct. 30. But that Carnegie performance was abruptly canceled, along with the rest of his concert calendar. At the time, Mr. Jarrett’s longtime record label, ECM, cited unspecified health issues. There has been no official update in the two years since.
But this month Mr. Jarrett, 75, broke the silence, plainly stating what happened to him: a stroke in late February 2018, followed by another one that May. It is unlikely he will ever perform in public again.
“I was paralyzed,” he told The New York Times, speaking by phone from his home in northwest New Jersey. “My left side is still partially paralyzed. I’m able to try to walk with a cane, but it took a long time for that, took a year or more. And I’m not getting around this house at all, really.”
Mr. Jarrett didn’t initially realize how serious his first stroke had been. “It definitely snuck up on me,” he said. But after more symptoms emerged, he was taken to a hospital, where he gradually recovered enough to be discharged. His second stroke happened at home, and he was admitted to a nursing facility.
During his time there, from July 2018 until this past May, he made sporadic use of its piano room, playing some right-handed counterpoint. “I was trying to pretend that I was Bach with one hand,” he said. “But that was just toying with something.” When he tried to play some familiar bebop tunes in his home studio recently, he discovered he had forgotten them.
Mr. Jarrett’s voice is softer and thinner now. But over two roughly hourlong conversations, he was lucid and legible, aside from occasional lapses in memory. He often punctuated a heavy or awkward statement with a laugh like a faint rhythmic exhalation: Ah-ha-ha-ha.
Raised in the Christian Science faith, which espouses an avoidance of medical treatment, Mr. Jarrett has returned to those spiritual moorings — up to a point. “I don’t do the ‘why me’ thing very often,” he said. “Because as a Christian Scientist, I would be expected to say, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan.’ And I was doing that somewhat when I was in the facility. I don’t know if I succeeded, though, because here I am.”
“I don’t know what my future is supposed to be,” he added. “I don’t feel right now like I’m a pianist. That’s all I can say about that.”
After a pause, he reconsidered. “But when I hear two-handed piano music, it’s very frustrating, in a physical way. If I even hear Schubert, or something played softly, that’s enough for me. Because I know that I couldn’t do that. And I’m not expected to recover that. The most I’m expected to recover in my left hand is possibly the ability to hold a cup in it. So it’s not a ‘shoot the piano player’ thing. It’s: I already got shot. Ah-ha-ha-ha.”