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The story of the imperfect piano

In 1975, Vera Brandes invited Keith Jarrett, an American Jazz pianist, to play at the opera house in Cologne.

Keith accepted and specified he would need a Bösendorfer grand piano - a particular piano with a unique character.

Keith and his work were hugely popular. He was already considered one of the best solo jazz pianists of all time.

He was also a notorious perfectionist. Keith was known to give out cough lollies before a concert to prevent coughing. If someone did cough, he would sometimes stop playing altogether and storm off the stage. 

On the day of his Cologne performance, Keith drove the four hours from Zurich to Cologne. He arrived with back pain but entered the opera house, keen to see the grand piano. What he found was a Bösendorfer piano, but not a Bösendorfer grand piano. It was much smaller, in poor shape and out of tune. 

Keith was livid. ‘You brought me all the way here for this? I’m not going to play this piano,’ he fumed. ‘I’m going back to my hotel. My back is in agony.’

So he went outside, into the rain, and got in his car. Vera ran after him. ‘Please, Keith, please play this concert. I’ve got 1,300 people coming to this opera house tonight to hear you play,' she pleaded through his open window.

After some time, she finally convinced him. Engineers set to work on the piano, trying to tune it and make it playable. They got it to an acceptable state, but it was still far below Keith’s usual standard.

Manfred Eicher, a sound engineer, was asked by Keith to record the performance, thinking it would become a cautionary tale for future promoters.

At 11:30pm, the Köln Concert started. Some 1,300 people were in the audience.

Throughout the recording, you can hear Keith groaning. He was working hard, in pain, having to do things he wouldn’t normally, to get the sound he wanted.

His record company released the recording as an album. It became the best selling solo album in jazz.


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