You may have seen this week an excellent but heartbreaking New York Times article, by Nate Chinen, on the legendary pianist Keith Jarrett. In the article we learn that after two strokes, Keith will likely never return to the stage. Now 75, Keith’s last performance was at Carnegie Hall in 2017, and while I had concerns about his silence since then, reading of his health struggles – in what is a very personal interview – was in many ways devastating: another legendary musician silenced and, selfishly, gone was the opportunity to see a legendary performer in action once more.
I was reminded of a letter posted to the jazz board at the University of Toronto several years back, shortly after Stanley Turrentine passed away, by a faculty member at the time. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before; the letter called out students for not getting out to see live music, and especially not getting out to see some of the legendary jazz musicians when they pass through town. I wasn’t a student when I read the letter, but I took it to heart – I knew then (as I do now) that I could still do better to ensure that I experience, in person, the players who represent the history of this incredible music.
I have been lucky to see a number of my favourites over the years. I remember in particular Dizzy Gillespie at Massey Hall; Ella Fitzgerald at Roy Thomson Hall; Oscar Peterson (with Oliver Jones opening) at the Four Seasons Centre. (I had a ticket to see Miles Davis at Massey Hall, but the show was cancelled due to illness, and he never made it back.) But there is only so much time (and so much money) and I can think of too many shows I’ve missed – only to realize too late that there wouldn’t be another.
At the Festival, we do our best to feature jazz legends whenever we can, and sometimes a performance on our stage is the last time a musician comes to the city. There is, of course, no way of knowing, and there are sometimes regrets – we could not have known that Keith Jarret’s 2014 performance at Roy Thomson Hall would be his last in the city. We were in talks a couple of years after to bring him back, but it didn’t work out.
And sometimes, in the quest to find new and exciting, I admit that I forget to look backwards, to be sure to recognize why legendary musicians have become legendary, and to recognize what they did for the art form. I certainly have my go-to artists when I need a reset – a reminder of what makes swing really swing, or of what makes a rhythm section cook, or of what makes an arrangement sing. But it’s (too) often by accident that I’m reminded of the mastery of the masters. This week, for example, while making my way through a playlist, a particularly swinging tune came on – beautiful soloing, absolutely tight rhythm section. A quick check of the credits, and no surprise: it was Kenny Barron with Dave Holland and Jonathan Blake from the recent release Without Deception.
It’s challenging, of course, at the moment, to seek out the legends live and in-person. But we can still be intentional about it, even in the current reality. A few weeks back I committed to watching a livestream from Healdsburg Jazz featuring the trio of Charles Lloyd, Zakir Hussain and Julian Lage. Though of course I would have preferred to be in the same room, the quality was excellent and the mastery of the musicians transcended any technological barriers. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of veteran musicians who have taken advantage of online opportunities to connect, either through performance or conversation, with their audience.
Yes, recordings and books and articles will exist after the artists themselves are gone. But music is meant be experienced live, and so often in a live setting there are extras – comments from the musicians, the on-stage banter, the magic of the final note hanging in the air, or just the thrill of being in the room with a legend (and sharing that with other music lovers) – that cannot be duplicated on tape or on film or on the page. In fact, Keith Jarrett provided just one of those extras at his Roy Thomson Hall concert in 2014: after an audience member sneezed, he turned and said, maybe even with a bit of a smile, “You get one!” And suddenly we all relaxed, and enjoyed the beauty of the moment, and the notes that followed.
What have been some of your most memorable live living legends moments?