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Jazz Great Keith Jarrett Discusses Living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)

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(Editor’s note: on September 11, 2000, Terry Gross, the host of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, interviewed jazz great Keith Jarrett. What follows is the transcript of the interview.)

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. One of the most famous pianists in jazz, Keith Jarrett, a musician acclaimed for his emotional intensity and his physically energetic, improvised, solo, piano performances, has had to keep his playing to a minimum in the past few years. He’s had chronic fatigue syndrome since 1996. We recorded an interview with him from his home and discussed how his illness has changed his approach to music. We also talked about his childhood in Allentown, Pennsylvania, when he was a piano prodigy. Jarrett says his health is improving, and he estimates that he is now about 70-percent recovered.

Last year, he released a solo album of ballads called “The Melody At Night, With You,” which was recorded at his home. We’ll listen to some of it. And we’ll also preview his new trio CD of standards, called “Whisper Not,” which will be released in October.

Jarrett used to be pretty manic in concert and very obsessive about his

playing. I asked him how those traits have been affected by chronic fatigue syndrome.

Mr. KEITH JARRETT: I had to change everything about my approach before I could even start to play again. And “The Melody At Night, With You” was–is never going to be–there won’t be another recording that’s more important to me, in many ways. But one of them that I can explain easily is that I had not played for a long time. And I didn’t know if I would ever play again. And when you re–it’s something I did since I was three years old. So when I was able to sit at the piano without being sick and play a little bit, there was a way of dealing with economy that is way past anything I can imagine doing when I’m well. It’s hard to describe. It’s almost like the disease made it possible to deal with the skeleton instead of the surface, you know–just the heart of

things, because there was no energy for more than that.

GROSS: What about the mental focus, though, to figure out what the skeleton is–where it is?

MR. JARRETT: That came–comes and goes. And I was already on the therapy that I’m still on at the time. And it was one of the things that was slowly–the connection between my brain and hands was starting to return enough that–and I added kind of a way of thinking about playing that music. I didn’t want to be clever because I didn’t want to get into my old habit patterns. In a way, that’s what an improviser always wants. And, in this case, I was forced to be that way, more than ever. And so I was starting at zero and being born again at the keyboard. And that’s what comes through, I think.

GROSS: I love listening to music, but I find, for instance, if I have a

headache that music loses its appeal to me; that I just can’t focus on it.

MR. JARRETT: Right. And I couldn’t listen to music…

GROSS: Really, mm-hmm.

MR. JARRETT: …for two years at all. I mean–well, what happens to chronic fatigue–I use that term, although I disagree with the title of the disease. But what happens to a person that’s sick is that they can’t even do things they enjoy, in the same way you’re describing the headache. But you don’t have a headache. And that’s really weird for a musician or a music lover. Suddenly, music means absolutely nothing. And I remember sort of philosophically asking myself, and even other musicians, `What really is music? I mean, is it important? Does it matter at all?’ And I was in an existential state that actually–I mean, that would be an appropriate question from that state.

GROSS: So it must have been thrilling when you didn’t have to ask that question anymore; when you just understood why you loved it.

MR. JARRETT: Well, actually, it altered everything about how I perceive music and how I perceive its importance. And it’s not going to change. I mean, when I get 100 percent well, that’s going to be with me because it’s something, I think, you’re given an insight to if you’re compromised in a way that you never get that insight otherwise. You’re too busy being a player.

GROSS: So if I said to you, `Now, Keith Jarrett, what is the importance of; what is the meaning of music?’ What would you say?

MR. JARRETT: I’d say I don’t know. I might have had an answer for you before. I think–I would say I don’t know, and it’s not really important to know.

GROSS: Well, I want to play a track from the album that you were just talking about, “The Melody At Night, With You”–the album in which you first got back to playing after feeling too sick to play.

MR. JARRETT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I thought I’d play, “Be My Love,” because I particularly like it when a composer takes a song that I didn’t think of myself as liking very much and does something wonderful with it. And I just–I really love what you’ve done with this.

MR. JARRETT: Well, can I explain what was going on in my…

GROSS: Please.

MR. JARRETT: …head while I was doing these songs?

GROSS: Please.

MR. JARRETT: That’s a good example. You probably know the story that it wasn’t meant for release, and it was as a Christmas present for my wife. But if you don’t, that is the story. I couldn’t leave my house, so I–and I couldn’t go buy anything or, you know, get a present. So I realized all I had to do was–simple sounding, but not so simple–turn on the tape recorder. Luckily, I had set mikes up over a long period of time, looking for the right spot; looking for the right mikes; thinking a little bit ahead. After I got sick, that was one of the things I could just do for a few minutes a day in case I had music that I wanted to record and couldn’t leave the house.

And so when I started doing it, the songs came to me because of the lyrics. So when I was playing these melodies and songs, I was definitely singing them inside. And I would never have chosen, just as you mentioned your relationship to that song–I would never have even thought of the song, but it popped into my head because of the context I was in. And it was a present, so it became a personal thing to give. And then so it got transformed that way, I think.

GROSS: Well, the lyrics by Sammy Cahn on this. Well, I love what you’ve done with it. This is Keith Jarrett at the piano, recorded last year from his CD, “The Melody At Night, With You,” and the song is “Be My Love.”

GROSS: That’s Keith Jarrett playing “Be My Love” from his recent CD, “The Melody At Night, With You.” He has a new CD that will be released October 10th, and that’s called “Whisper Not.”

Getting back to “Be My Love,” this is a song, really, associated with Mario Lanza. Did you like his recording of it? Did you ever pay much attention to that?

MR. JARRETT: Oh, I know I’ve heard it–I heard it when I was a kid. No, I never like it at all, probably.

GROSS: Yeah, me neither.

MR. JARRETT: Now there’s so much to say about each song, because of the way the piano–I had had my piano overhauled in a special action–a major change in the action. It gets technical if I try to describe it, but all the things that hap–that were a part of that recording, without one of them, it would have failed. I would have, maybe, had something to give to my wife, but I wouldn’t have listened to it and thought it would translate into everyone’s home.

GROSS: So what you did was change the action on the piano so that you could have a lighter touch and still have the piano resonate?

MR. JARRETT: Well, no. It’s actually more complicated than that. There’s a thing called the breakaway, which is like surface tension on water. Every piano–that’s stock from any company that I know of–has a breakaway. In other words, when you first push the key down, it’s harder, and then it’s not. So if you wanted to play very, very soft, you still would be taking a giant risk because you’d have to press hard first, and then you’d have to let up before you hit the string.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MR. JARRETT: And that’s what every pianist is dealing with all the time. And there–I heard about someone who was able to, using little springs and a whole barrage of ideas, including taking all the parts out of the piano, and weighing them all, and making them exactly the same weigh–every little piece of wood and metal, I guess–all the bushings. Everything had to be the same exact weight first. Then he has a way where that breakaway doesn’t exist, but the action’s the same weight–resistance against your finger. So it’s a more liquid action when you press down. If you want to play loud, you can still play loud, but there’s not that initial snap. You don’t need to snap the key.

So if you listen to “The Melody At Night, With You” on a good system, you notice the dynamic range is pretty wide for a piano recording that sounds so closely miked. And I think that’s a lot to do with that action.

Then, also, I had the–it’s a German Steinway. And I used to–that used to be my favorite of the Steinways. I used to prefer it to the American Steinway. But that started to change in my mind, and I started to dislike the glassy sound of the German instrument, so what I did was I had a different set of hammers that’s often used on the American instruments, put on the German piano. We’re talking about the same piano.

So it had these two major modifications, and it was settling in. It was very green when I recorded that music. And since that recording, it’s gotten worse and worse. In other words, it was meant to happen when it happened. It–you know, pianos actually change a lot over time. And it was at a certain little phase of its newbornness that must have coincided with my newborn relationship to the keyboard.

GROSS: So can you not use it anymore?

MR. JARRETT: Well, I wouldn’t–I’d have to have it worked on to–if I wanted to do any more music like that, I’d have to have it–some attempt made at–I don’t know what. I wouldn’t even know how to explain it to someone–what would make the sound right.

GROSS: My guest is Keith Jarrett. His new CD, “Whisper Not,” will be released next month. We’ll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is pianist and composer Keith

Jarrett. Had you ever been in the world of the sick before–before getting CFS?

MR. JARRETT: No, not to that–no, not to any degree that I could say I had a disease. I, you know, had my usual–what most people have–some occasional infections or flus and stuff.

GROSS: What was it like trying to get a diagnosis?

MR. JARRETT: Actually, this is interesting. I was making a call to a man who sold microphones. I was looking for a better mike for recording in my studio here. And on that phone call, he asked me how I was. And I said, `Oh, I’m sick. I’m not very well.’ And he asked me what I thought I had. And he said he had a friend who had been bedridden for almost two years, and she was getting slightly better and I should talk to her ’cause she knew all the research that was being done.

And then I called her because that’s what you do. You don’t get—ettiquette doesn’t enter into this anymore. You–it doesn’t matter. You can call anybody and say, `How do I get out of this?’ And she told me about someone who was conducting a study based on this being an airborne pathogen and a bacterial parasite and was having some great results with muscular–with MS patients…

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MR. JARRETT: …and CFS patients. And I called him; talked to him; got my local doctor to talk to him. And he was blown away by the breadth of this man’s knowledge. And that’s how I got on this program. The interesting thing is the mike I was looking for is the mike that I used for “The Melody At Night, With You.” So not only did my sickness have something to do with the music, but it had something to do with–but the mikes had something to do with my getting well.

GROSS: Let me play another track from your new CD, “Whisper Not,” which will be released October 10th.

MR. JARRETT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So this is a preview. And this is “Bouncin’ With Bud,” the–tell me why you chose “Bouncin’ With Bud,” and what it’s like for you to play this kind of bop tune after being so lacking in energy for so long.

MR. JARRETT: Well, actually, one of the reasons bop came into the process so classically is that when I started rehearsing–we don’t normally have rehearsals, the trio. In fact, we didn’t have any rehearsals till I got sick.

And I wondered how it would work if we played. And every time we

rehearsed–the two or three times we rehearsed, I had an immediate relapse. In fact, some of them were happening while we were playing. I really felt absolutely miserable as a result of rehearsing.

But before we started rehearsing, I had started to play at home for short periods during the day. And I noticed that there were a lot of things I wanted to change for the future, if I were to play with the trio. And some of them had to do with lightness of touch, and nothing to do with how sick I was, exactly, but it came from that–from breaking down and then thinking I might not ever play again, which means all I’ve got is what I’ve recorded up till now. And when I listened to this stuff, I, basically, didn’t like any of it.

But, of course, I was in a not-liking-music place. But I really disliked some of the ways I played. And some of the long introductions I didn’t think were necessary all the time–various things. And one of the things was that I was digging in all the time. And I thought back and realized it probably was from playing in large halls, trying to project–when you’re playing in a large hall, you just, naturally, try to push the sound out to the 3,000 people. And I decided I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to find a way to–if we had to get the sound out there, we’ll just have to deal with the monitor situation somehow.

But I wanted to keep us playing more the way we would play in a club. And to get the lightness I was looking for, I thought, `Let’s just go straight to the bop era, because it’s–there’s a lot of energy in the playing in the bop era, but you don’t have–but it’s not–you’re not crushing the keyboard when you’re playing.” You’re–there’s a certain lightness in music. And I’m–it’s funny to talk about it, when we talk about the recording because that piano was like a Mack truck, so I had to really–no matter how light I wanted to play, I wasn’t playing lightly. But I was still getting the kind of thing I’m talking about.

GROSS: We’ll continue our interview with Keith Jarrett in the second half of the show. Here’s “Bouncin’ With Bud” from Jarrett’s new CD of standards,”Whisper Not.” It features Gary Peacock on bass, Jack Dejohnette, drums. It will be released in October. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

Back with pianist and composer Keith Jarrett. He’s recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome and is playing and recording again, but on a very limited basis. His new trio recording of standards, “Whisper Not,” will be released in October. Before we talk about his childhood, when he was a piano prodigy, let’s listen to his 1999 CD of music by Mozart.

GROSS: Let’s talk a little bit about your early life. You started playing piano when you were awfully young. You were born in Allentown in 1945.

Allentown’s just a couple of hours north of Philadelphia. You started taking piano lessons when you were three, which I think is uncommonly early. Why did your parents get you a teacher at such a young age?

MR. JARRETT: Well, they discovered I had a perfect pitch. So…

GROSS: How’d they discover that?

MR. JARRETT: Well, there was an old, converted player piano. It was just in the house, and I think no one really played it all. And I ended up sitting at the piano, picking out melodies that were coming out of the radio. And I guess they figured it out; that something was going on here, you know. This should–`Either get him away from that instrument or get him a teacher.’

GROSS: A lot of people barely have any memories from the time that they were three years old. Do you have many memories of those very early piano lessons?

MR. JARRETT: Not really. I remember the gate at the top of my piano teacher’s stairway so that, I guess, the little kids she taught wouldn’t fall down the stairs. It’s like–I think I remember that the piano was to the left of the top of the stairs, but I don’t remember anything else.

GROSS: And you don’t remember what you were first taught to play?

MR. JARRETT: Not really, no.

GROSS: Do you remember what you were praised or criticized for by that first teacher?

MR. JARRETT: Nope. No, I don’t. I really don’t. I don’t remember–I’m sure it was a woman, and that’s about all I know. I do remember, however, a few years later when I got my second–I believe it was my second—teacher, who was, of course, a more serious piano teacher. At the point I was at, I guess it was a given that there was something happening here. And they had to try to find someone who took me further.

And I don’t know how old I was, but I do know that I hated this guy. And I do know that now, I believe, he probably gave me the most of any teacher in such a short time. And he did not let me use the pedal. He gave me only Bartok. And I was just a little kid. I mean, Bartok was not particularly pleasant music for a little kid to be learning. And I played the violin at the time—I started to play the violin, and I really liked that, too. And one day he said–and I guess he had a–I think he was German, and he had an accent. He said, `You must choose.’ And I said, `What?’ He said, `You must choose which instrument you play.’ And I said, `Oh, you have to be kidding. I like them both.’ `Well, you have great talent, but you have to put this talent in one instrument.’

And I went home, and I was really upset, and I didn’t know what to do, and he wasn’t going to teach me, you know. So I eventually chose the piano, I guess partially based on the fact that I played it a little longer. But he was right about all the things he taught me. I mean, there’s such a–the pedal is something you can really overuse to the point of covering up what you’re unable to do. He just discipline me in an important way.

GROSS: As you got a little bit older, in your pre-teen and teen years, did playing piano earn you the admiration or the mockery of friends? Friends can sometimes really mock you for being very serious about something.

MR. JARRETT: Yeah. I was a normal kid by the time I was in junior high and high school, which were public schools. I just was a normal kid. I mean, I didn’t want to practice. I went out and wanted to play basketball. If my grandmother wasn’t in the kitchen, I’d move the timer forward that was supposed to go off when I was able to stop practicing, that kind of thing. And she was–she probably knew I was doing it, but she was so kindhearted that she didn’t–you know, she had never…

GROSS: Whose idea was the timer?

MR. JARRETT: Probably my mother’s because she wasn’t home, and so my

grandmother was keeping this two-and-a-half-hour practice schedule, or whatever it was I had at the time.

GROSS: Did you resent having to practice that much?

MR. JARRETT: Well, I did, and then I would say something–or I might say

something about it, and my parents would say, `Well, you know, we don’t have that much money. We’ll sell the piano.’ And I would immediately give up my position because I loved it. I loved doing that. So, I mean, I knew that playing piano was important to me.

GROSS: You know, I think a lot of musicians who started off as prodigies go through a period where they’re really confused about whether they’re staying in music because they love music or whether they’re staying because it’s what they’ve always done and it’s what people have always expected them to do and it’s what adults almost required them to do.


GROSS: And some former prodigies go through a period of rebelling against music and against the discipline that’s been enforced all their lives. Did you go through a period like that ever?

MR. JARRETT: No. Nope. No, I think I had a calling, and I think I knew that from the time I have any memories, you know. No, I didn’t go through that. I just would have rather been out playing basketball, you know. I thought, `I could get this practicing in some other time.’

GROSS: Your parents divorced when you were 11. Did that interfere with your ability to focus on music?

MR. JARRETT: I think it made me more ferociously focused on music. One

phenomenal thing about being a musician and, in particular, I guess, playing an instrument that doesn’t need other instruments to play with, like a piano or a guitar, is that you can change any mental state or emotional state you’re in into music. And it’s a transformative thing. And, I mean, I learned that—I guess I learned that a very, very young age. If I was angry, I’d go play the piano, and I might not play angry music. But everything is energy, and you can change the direction those arrows are pointing. It’s just that you have to use the energy somehow. And when I sometimes talk to my sons, who are both musicians and want to be, you know, in music, that’s about the best thing I can

say about music; that it’s for the player, you know. It’s a way of knowing where you’re at and what you’re feeling.

GROSS: My guest is Keith Jarrett. We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: Let’s get back to our interview with pianist and composer Keith Jarrett.

His new CD, “Whisper Not,” will be released in October. When we left off, we were talking about his childhood when he was a classical prodigy. I asked him how he realized he wanted to play jazz.

MR. JARRETT: Well, when I heard jazz in Allentown in my early teens, probably 12, 13, and I heard–let’s see, I think I heard Andre Previn because, you know, Allentown was not a center of jazz culture. I think the Woolworth’s that I got these records from probably made–the buyer made a mistake and bought a couple jazz albums they didn’t intend to, and he lucked out. And, actually, they were mostly people like Andre Previn.

And then I heard Oscar Peterson, then I heard, oh, Brubeck live in Allentown. And when I was in the audience, I remember listening and saying, `This is really great, but there’s more to do.’ Now I was a kid, you know, and I’m thinking, `There’s just–he’s not doing everything that you could do in this situation,’ you know. So I already knew something was–you know, that I was going to contribute something, I guess.

And I heard Basie live a couple times. That was great. And I actually sat in with Stan Kenton when he had that giant band. And then a lot of experiences I had that probably I couldn’t trade for any other kind of learning experience.

GROSS: You went to New York, scuffled there for a while…


GROSS: …eventually started to get noticed. Then you started playing with Charles Lloyd and, after that, went with Miles Davis. Apparently, he invited you to join his band several times before you accepted. Why did you turn down Miles Davis?

MR. JARRETT: I said no to Miles because I had work for my trio, and I was in the middle of setting up tours with the trio. And I remember telling him that if there’s a break in my schedule with my trio, that I would be happy to play with his group and I would–I want to. But I’m not sure if he was–had already gone electric. He probably had. And that was another thing that was easy to say no to. It wasn’t that attractive from that point of view.

If my memory serves me, when the trio came back from Europe, Miles had said, `Well, whenever you feel like it, just come down and play. And, you know, it doesn’t matter, just come down wherever we’re playing and sit in with the band and play.’ And so that’s what eventually happened. I think it was Philadelphia.

GROSS: You played electric piano with Miles’ band.

MR. JARRETT: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: Did you…

MR. JARRETT: I wouldn’t have played that electric piano with anybody else.

GROSS: Is that because he used it better or because you could put up with it because you were playing with Miles Davis?

MR. JARRETT: I heard that band–the previous band, before it went totally electric–before it went more electric with Tony Williams and Wayne and Herbie–Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock–and maybe Dave Holland, maybe Ron Carter. I can’t remember. But when I heard them play, Miles would play these beautiful short solos, then he’d go to the bar. Then the rest of the band would do their thing. And when I listened to everyone else in the band, it sounded like they were trying so hard to be themselves.

And I thought, `You know, if I had to guess why Miles was leaving the stage for so long, it might be something to do with what was happening when he wasn’t playing.’ It was just a very vague feeling that I had that he actually was waiting for somebody he could stay on stage for longer, playing and listening. Everyone was playing like they were in a little box. Herbie was in his little box. And they all sounded like they could be in soundproofed booths; that they weren’t really listening to each other that much. And I think that was the day I thought, `Well, when I have free time and I’m not doing my music with the trio, or whatever I might be doing, I want to play with this man because he

still sounds the best.’

GROSS: Keith Jarrett is my guest. You certainly pioneered the solo piano concert, which eventually really caught on and spread to other instruments as well. What was it like in the early days being alone out there on the stage and improvising on your own?

MR. JARRETT: It started out maybe as a result of recording “Facing You.” I can’t remember. But it started out, I remember, at the Heidelberg Jazz Festival(ph), where I was supposedly–I wasn’t very well-known, I guess. And I came out and did a solo thing. And it was tunes, but I started to connect them somehow. Like, I’d have these transitional parts that connected everything. And then that somehow just moved slowly into the expanded solo concert, where there are no songs whatsoever and everything is improvised on the spot.

I don’t know. Someone once sent me a note from the audience that saying, `You must be awfully alone. You must feel awfully alone,’ or something like that. And I realized, when I read that, that that was true. It is a terribly a lonely thing to do. I mean, you’re not even bringing material along for companionship.

GROSS: Right. Right.

MR. JARRETT: So it was a sort of–I wish I could think of a word, but it was sort of like having a seance with the audience. So it wasn’t all that lonely in the midst of it. But as a rule, the mechanism of doing it, traveling alone and, you know, just going up there on an empty stage with a piano–I guess if I thought about it, it would have scared the hell out of me. But I didn’t think much about it other than it was a challenge.

GROSS: In the ’70s, I think a lot of your fans debated with each other whether you were black or white.

MR. JARRETT: Yeah. Well, you know, at the same Heidelberg festival, there were some black musicians, or black audience members, trying to disrupt my performance because they claimed it wasn’t black music. And, of course, it wasn’t. One reason was that I wasn’t black. But this was a jazz festival. They were claiming not only was it not black music, but it wasn’t jazz and it shouldn’t be at this festival. And this was, I guess, during the time when, you know, the Black Muslim thing was pretty big.

And I went backstage afterwards, and I was rather heartbroken because I

thought, `Gee, these are fellow musicians or, like, people who like music, and why are they doing this?’ And I was just sitting alone in my dressing room probably very upset, and a man and his daughter knocked on–a man knocked on the door, blacker than any of the guys who were trying to disrupt the stuff on stage, who was actually from central Africa. And he and his daughter came back and said, `Mr. Jarrett, we just want to say that that was so beautiful.’ And I thought, `OK. Well, this is going to be just a political problem for me. It isn’t the music, it’s just the politics.’

GROSS: Did you think that a lot of people assumed you were African-American because your hair was really curly and looks like an Afro?

MR. JARRETT: Yeah. And a friend of my ex-wife’s was arguing with me and her that I had to be black, no matter what I said. And once Ornette, backstage, said something…

GROSS: This is Ornette Coleman?

MR. JARRETT: Yeah, Ornette Coleman. One of the earliest times I was in the same room with him, he said something like, `Man, you’ve got to be black. You just have to be black.’ I said, `I know. I know. I’m working on it. I’m…’

GROSS: Well, do you think that that worked in your favor?

MR. JARRETT: Well, it didn’t hurt, you know. I don’t think it hurt to be—when I get that kind of feedback from the actual players, who I’ve felt were partly my inspirations, who happened to be black, yeah. I mean, it’s great. It’s a compliment.

GROSS: Before we let you go, I’m wondering, what are you planning for this year? What kind of schedule are you committing to?

MR. JARRETT: I just about completed my schedule for the year. I did some concerts in Europe, and then there’s about four more concerts and that’s it.

GROSS: Well, Keith Jarrett, I’m really glad you’re playing again and recording again. And thank you so much for spending some time with us.

MR. JARRETT: Well, thank you very much for the interest.

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One thought on “Jazz Great Keith Jarrett Discusses Living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)”

  1. annaviva says:

    Does anyone know who the doc is that Keith is crediting for getting better?

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