Late in January 1975, a 17-year-old German girl called Vera Brandes walked out onto the stage of the Cologne Opera House. The auditorium was empty. It was lit only by the dim, green glow of the emergency exit sign. This was the most exciting day of Vera’s life. She was the youngest concert promoter in Germany, and she had persuaded the Cologne Opera House to host a late-night concert of jazz from the American musician, Keith Jarrett. 1,400 people were coming. In just a few hours, Jarrett would walk out on the same stage, he’d sit down at the piano and without rehearsal or sheet music, he would begin to play.
But right now, Vera was introducing Keith to the piano in question, and it wasn’t going well. 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.”
There had been a mistake. The opera house had provided the wrong instrument. This one had this harsh, tiny upper register, because all the felt had worn away. The black notes were sticking, the white notes were out of tune, the pedals didn’t work and the piano itself was just too small. It wouldn’t create the volume that would fill a large space such as the Cologne Opera House.
So Keith Jarrett left, only to come back a few hours later after numerous phone calls for piano replacements and after a very drenched Vera…
He stepped out onto the stage of the opera house, sat down at the unplayable piano and began. Within moments it became clear that something magical was happening. Jarrett was 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 was an electrifying performance. It somehow had this peaceful quality, and at the same time it was full of energy, it was dynamic. The audience loved it and audiences all over the world continue to love it because the recording of the Köln Concert is the best-selling piano album in history and the best-selling solo jazz album in history.
Keith Jarrett had been handed a mess. He had embraced that mess, and it soared. But let’s think for a moment about Jarrett’s initial instinct. He didn’t want to play. Of course, I think any of us, in any remotely similar situation, would feel the same way, we’d have the same instinct. We don’t want to be asked to do good work with bad tools. We don’t want to have to overcome unnecessary hurdles. But Jarrett’s instinct was wrong, and thank goodness he changed his mind. And I think our instinct is also wrong. I think we need to gain a bit more appreciation for the unexpected advantages of having to cope with a little mess.
This TED Talk was mind-blowing, I shan’t spoil too much of it for You. 😉 Do take some time to listen to what this amazing amazing story has to share with us. You might learn a thing or two about how pretty flippin’ wonderful a little frustration could actually prove to be.
For those of You interested in having a listen to this magical concert in Köln, here’s a sound recording of it: