Keith Jarrett derailed his recent San Francisco show to chastise the audience. Not for talking, or getting up and leaving, or everyone’s favorite pet peeve the ringing cell phone…but for coughing.

According to the great wealth of knowledge, coughing is a reflex, meaning it is a non-voluntary action. I suppose the afflicted audience member(s) could have simply excused themselves from the room; or, realizing they were not well, stayed home. I know that if I had paid $90 for a ticket to the show (an issue for a whole other rant) I would have dragged my ass to the show as long as I was physically able. After all, it was Keith Jarrett. An amazing musician, certainly in the conversation of best pianists of the past 50 years.  From his work with Miles to groundbreaking improvised solo performances to his trios with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, his career has been remarkable in its breadth and excellence. He could quit today and be considered one of the best ever.

Why, then, is he so fragile? So petulant? So incredibly unprofessional? I’ll talk a lot here about fighting the “museumification” of jazz, about keeping this music we love in the night clubs and bars where it initially thrived and not relegating it to stuffy concert halls with high ticket prices and no dance floors. Attitudes like Jarrett’s support the idea that jazz is music for old people to sit and listen to quietly, not a participatory experience. His belief that it is the audience who is privileged to hear such a genius perform rather than his privilege to have an audience at all is alarming and embarrassing to those of us who still view jazz as a living art form, dependent on audiences to fuel the fire.

I doubt Jarrett will ever change his behavior, or his basic belief that people should consider themselves lucky to hear him. I can only hope that more people will follow the organizers of the Umbria Jazz Festival and stop putting up with his crap.


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