I had several conversations from yesterday’s note about whether or not Obama actually improvised singing “Amazing Grace,” and it made me think about another story where there was a definitive improvisation in the face of an event gone awry. It’s an obscure story, and while it’s about music (shocker, I know), it’s also about how a mess can turn into magic.
Keith Jarrett was already a jazz star by 1975. The acclaimed young pianist from Allentown, PA recorded with the likes of Art Blakey and Miles Davis in the 1960s, and in the 1970s he had started to record and tour solo, often performing completely improvised concerts. Imagine watching Picasso paint or Michael Jordan play pickup basketball. To watch Jarrett was to bear witness to mastery unfold in your presence. One night, where seemingly everything went wrong, Jarrett truly became a legend. The story behind The Köln Concert gives us perspective on the opportunities that can emerge out of the chaos within our own lives and careers.
Touring Europe consists of long trips punctuated by a meal, a performance, and a rest, followed by another long trip to the next destination. Jarrett’s Cologne (aka Köln), Germany stop was arranged by a very ambitious 17-year-old promoter who quickly sold out the 1,400+ person Opera House. The venue had an actual opera performance earlier on the same day, and Jarrett’s show was later than usual. Due to several miscommunications, he arrived on little rest, had only a few bites of a meal after they messed up his dinner reservation, and at the venue, the biggest disaster of them all was the piano.
The piano waiting on the stage was not the piano that Jarrett’s team had requested. Further, it was badly out of tune, it had broken parts (the pedals didn’t work well), and certain notes didn’t work or sound right at all (a number of the black keys stuck, and the higher and lower registers sounded poorly). After assessing the instrument, Jarrett refused to play the concert. Imagine handing Picasso a kindergarten classroom’s art supplies at the end of the year when they were mostly used up and saying, “make something.” Imagine handing Jordan a mini basketball and pointing at a make-shift basket nailed to a wall and saying “show us your stuff.” The conditions weren’t just less than ideal, they were awful.
They scrambled to replace the piano but that turned out to be impossible. Then they scrambled to fix all of the other problems only to realize that they definitely didn’t have enough time to finish the job. It was going to be this piano or nothing. The house was packed, and it was time for a concert or a cancellation. The teenage promoter probably thought his career was over already. Legend has it that Jarrett took a deep breath, turned to the promoter and said, “only because it’s you.” Sometimes pity is all we’re going to get. Jarrett next told his soundman to record the show. If this was going to be as tragic as they thought, they could use the recording to warn other venues of what happens when they mess up their advance instructions. He took the stage, and despite the odds, magic emerged from the mess.
The Köln Concert is widely considered to be one of the most successful jazz recordings of all time. Despite the problems and restrictions the piano created, critics argue that those very limitations were what pushed Jarrett’s improvisation into new territory. If it hadn’t been for the inexperienced promoter, the busted piano, and the “why not try” attitude of Jarrett, the performance – and one of the greatest concerts of all time – never would have happened.
We are likely never going to produce anything as durable as Jarrett’s night in Köln, but we are regularly going to face less than ideal conditions. The lessons are clear: we shouldn’t abandon hope or cancel the show, we should rely on our skills, focus on what we can do with whatever we’ve got, and make the best of the situation at hand. Client problems are messy and nuanced. Instead of worrying about the million things we can’t control, like Jarrett, we should focus on those we can. There’s always the possibility something good can come out of a difficult case. If we’ve invested in our skills, then sometimes it takes allowing ourselves to enter difficult or unpredictable cases to find the truly eye-opening results. There’s a lot of opportunity outside of our comfort zones.
The album still holds up strikingly well. It’s lyrical, meditative, and emotional, and its popularity means it is accessible to even non-Jazz fans (some jazz purists knock it for how accessible it is – ignore them). Knowing the story behind the night only adds to the experience of hearing it. Luck can be good or bad. When we approach the worst case as a cautionary tale and the best case as “who knows where this could go,” the upside can and will occasionally surprise us.