The Köln Concert

January 24th, in 1975 in Köln, Germany, one of the most extraordinary stories in music, and indeed in life, played out.

Seventeen year-old student and part-time promoter Vera Brandes had booked this young African American prodigious pianist, Keith Jarrett, to play a concert after the opera that night.

The audience was high society, and included a couple of world-renowned conductors, many of whom were there to no doubt scoff at the reputation of this hyped-up upstart.

Now Keith Jarrett was very particular about the instrument he played – it had to be a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand. It’s been speculated he was on the autism spectrum, but that’s neither here nor there.

As the story goes, the opera house staff had told the promoter that it was no problem, they had a Bösendorfer there at the hall. As it turns out, it was a rehearsal room piano, undersized and badly out of tune.

When Keith arrived, exhausted, after a five hour drive, in a back brace due to chronic pain and exhaustion from insomnia, to discover the condition of the piano he was meant to play, this renowned perfectionist with perfect pitch was understandably upset, and refused to go on.

You have to imagine that moment. You’ve got 1300 people in a hall, it’s late, they’re waiting to see this black American pianist play his attempt at music in their hallowed establishment, you’ve got a seventeen year-old promoter who has somehow pulled off this coup to get him there, who knows what financial situation she was in, and now he’s saying he won’t play, and fair enough, because the piano is shit and out of tune.

WOW!

So Vera does not back down, and somehow manages to convince him to go on. He finally does, at 11:30pm, so imagine how the audience is feeling, and because much of the piano is unplayable, he goes out there and he starts to improvise. You can hear it. He’s choosing keys. Just feeling his way around with the bits he deems to be tolerable.

And what he produces is nothing short of fucking profound. Truly. I beg you to listen to it. I’m playing it as I write. Lie down on the floor, with a glass of wine, and just listen. You can feel it all. Him, as he opens out, the audience, as they start to realise what a moment they’re a part of, even Vera, standing side of stage, tears streaming down her cheeks.

You don’t need me to tell you that magic can come from adversity, if you have the courage to show up and play, and the spirit to flow with whatever notes are left in tune.

Thank you Keith and Vera, and bravo.

1 thought on “The Köln Concert”

  1. It was, and still is, an incredible performance. It would be great even if the piano had been perfect; in the circumstances it’s nothing short of a miracle.

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