The Köln Concert

I have listened to the recording hundreds of times. It was the music that kept me calm and focused as I wrote a book. While I knew “The Köln Concert” was the best-selling piano album of all time, I only recently heard the fascinating story of what happened the day of the concert. How it almost never happened, and how a critical mistake shaped the music.

When I was in Köln last weekend, I made a trip just to see where it all took place.

Keith Jarrett playing the Köln Concert

Arriving at the Opera House

It was a Friday in late January, 1975. The concert was scheduled to start at 11:30pm, after an opera. Despite the late hour and that it would be the first-ever jazz concert at the Opera House, the concert was sold out, and 1400 tickets had been sold. Jarrett was 29 years old.

He arrived at the opera house late in the afternoon after a long drive. Suffering from back problems, he had to wear a brace. He was led into the auditorium by the concert promoter, Vera Brandes, who was just 17 years old. She had specified “a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano” to be used for the performance. However, the opera house staff mistakenly selected a much smaller Bösendorfer piano that was backstage.

“The piano they had was intended for rehearsals only and was in poor condition and required several hours of tuning and adjusting to make it playable. The instrument was tinny and thin in the upper registers and weak in the bass register, and the pedals did not work properly.”

A young woman’s plea

Tim Harford, in his TED talk, describes Jarrett’s reaction:

“Jarrett looked to the instrument a little warily, played a few notes, walked around it, played a few more notes, muttered something to his producer. Then the producer came over to Vera and said ... ‘If you don't get a new piano, Keith can't play.’"

Keith went outside and sat in his car, while Brandes scrambled to find a solution. But there wasn’t enough time to get another piano delivered to the hall. The concert was just hours away.

“So she went outside and she stood there in the rain, talking to Keith Jarrett, begging him not to cancel the concert. And he looked out of his car at this bedraggled, rain-drenched German teenager, took pity on her, and said, ‘Never forget ... only for you.’”

Playing with constraints

Because the piano was small and because certain registers didn’t have the right sound, Jarrett played differently.

“Avoiding those upper registers, he was sticking to the middle tones of the keyboard, which gave the piece a soothing, ambient quality. But also, because the piano was so quiet, he had to set up these rumbling, repetitive riffs in the bass. And he stood up twisting, pounding down on the keys, desperately trying to create enough volume to reach the people in the back row.

It's an electrifying performance. It somehow has this peaceful quality, and at the same time it's full of energy, it's dynamic. And the audience loved it.”

I still listen to the Köln Concert when I write, but it has a different effect on me since I heard this story. I see the creative act less as striving for perfection - as if you could even define that - than as making the most of what you have, using it in novel ways. When life hands you a bad piano, you can choose to walk away, or you can try to make art.