His career started with Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis. Since the early 1970s he has enjoyed a great deal of success in both classical music and jazz, as a group leader and a solo performer. His improvisation technique combines not only jazz, but also other forms of music, especially classical, gospel, blues and ethnic folk music.
In 2003 he received the Polar Music Prize, being the first (and to this day only) recipient not sharing the prize with anyone else.
Following his graduation from Emmaus High School in 1963, Jarrett moved from Allentown to Boston, Massachusetts, where he attended the Berklee College of Music and played cocktail piano. Jarrett then moved to New York City, where he played at the renowned Village Vanguard club.
In New York, Art Blakey hired him to play with his Jazz Messengers band, and he subsequently became a member of the Charles Lloyd Quartet (a group which included Jack DeJohnette, a frequent musical partner throughout Jarrett's career). The Lloyd quartet's 1966 album Forest Flower was one of the most successful jazz recordings of the late 1960s. Jarrett also started to record as a leader at this time, in a trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. Jarrett's first album as a leader, Life Between The Exit Signs (1967), appeared around this time on the Vortex label, to be followed by Restoration Ruin (1968), which is easily the most bizarre entry in the Jarrett catalog. Not only does Jarrett barely touch the piano, he plays all the other instruments on what is essentially a folk-rock album, and even does all the singing. Another trio album with Haden and Motian followed later in 1968, this one recorded live for the Atlantic label and called Somewhere Before.
Officially released Miles Davis recordings on which Jarrett appeared:
The group's recordings include:
The last two albums, both recorded for Impulse!, primarily feature the compositions of the other band members, as opposed to Jarrett's own which dominate the previous albums.
Jarrett's compositions and the strong musical identities of the group members gave this group a very distinctive sound. The group's music was an interesting and exciting amalgam of free jazz, straight-ahead post-bop, gospel music, and exotic Middle-Eastern-sounding improvisations.
In the mid and late 1970s Jarrett led a "European Quartet" concurrently with the above discussed "American Quartet", which was recorded by ECM. This combo consisted of saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Palle Danielsson, and drummer Jon Christensen.
Albums recorded by this group include:
This ensemble played music in a similar style to that of the American Quartet, but with many of the avant-garde and "Americana" elements replaced by the European folk influences that characterized ECM artists of the time.
The studio albums are modestly successful entries in the Jarrett catalog, but in 1973, Jarrett also began playing totally improvised solo concerts, and it is the voluminous recordings of these concerts that have made him one of the best-selling jazz artists in history. Albums recorded at these concerts include:
Jarrett has commented that his best performances were during the times where he had the least amount of preconception of what he was going to play at the next moment. A possibly apocryphal account of one such performance had Jarrett staring at the piano for several minutes without playing; as the audience grew increasingly uncomfortable, one member shouted to Jarrett, "D sharp!", to which the pianist responded, "Thank you!," and launched into an improvisation at speed.
Another of his solo concerts, Dark Intervals (1987, Tokyo), has less of a freeform improvisation feel to it due to the brevity of the pieces. Sounding more like a set of short compositions, these pieces are nonetheless entirely improvised. In addition to the shorter form, they lack the 'jazzy' feel associated with the above concerts.
Following the release of the album Gaucho by the US jazz/rock band Steely Dan in 1980, he became involved in a legal wrangle over the title track. Originally intended as a tribute to Jarrett, the song was credited only to Fagen and Becker. Jarrett insisted, however, that the track used a part of his composition "Long As You Know You're Living Yours," and threatened legal action. Becker and Fagen were then forced to add his name to the credits and to include him in future royalties.
In the late 1990s, Jarrett was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and was confined to his home for long periods of time. It was during this period that he recorded The Melody at Night, With You, a solo piano record consisting of jazz standards presented with very little of the reinterpretation in which he usually engages. The album had originally been a Christmas Day gift to his wife.
By 2000, he had returned to touring, both solo and with the Standards Trio. Two 2002 solo concerts in Japan, Jarrett's first solo piano concerts following his illness, were released on the 2005 CD Radiance (a complete concert in Osaka, and excerpts from one in Tokyo), and the 2006 DVD Tokyo Solo (the entire Tokyo performance). In contrast with previous concerts (which were generally a pair of 30-40 minute continuous improvisations), the 2002 concerts consist of a linked series of shorter improvisations (some as short as a minute and a half, a few of fifteen or twenty minutes).
In September 2005 at Carnegie Hall Jarrett performed his first solo concert in North America in more than ten years, released a year later as a double CD set (The Carnegie Hall Concert).
The trio has recorded numerous live and studio albums consisting primarily of jazz repertory material. They each list Ahmad Jamal as a major influence in their musical development for both his use of melodical and multi-tonal lines. They are:
The trio has also released videos of performances in Japan, which are available on DVD, including:
The Jarrett/Peacock/DeJohnette trio has also produced recordings that consist largely of challenging original material, most notably 1987's Changeless. (These recordings are noted above.) Several of the standards albums contain an original track or two, some attributed to Jarrett but mostly group improvisations. The live recordings Inside Out and Always Let Me Go (both released in 2001) marked a renewed interest by the trio in wholly improvised free jazz. By this point in their history, the musical communication among these three men had become all but telepathic, and their group improvisations frequently take on a complexity that sounds almost composed. The Standards Trio undertakes frequent world tours of recital halls (the only venues in which Jarrett, a notorious stickler for acoustic sound, will play these days) and is one of the few truly lucrative jazz groups to play both "straight-ahead" (as opposed to smooth) and free jazz.
A related recording, At the Deer Head Inn (1992), is a live album of standards recorded with Paul Motian replacing DeJohnette, at the venue in Jarrett's hometown where he had his first employment as a jazz pianist. It was the first time Jarrett and Motian had played together since the demise of the American quartet sixteen years earlier, and also reunited the drummer and bassist who had backed Bill Evans on his album Trio 64 (1963).
1973's In The Light album consists of short pieces for solo piano, strings, and various chamber ensembles, including a string quartet, a brass quintet, and a piece for cellos and trombones. This collection demonstrates a young composer's affinity for a variety of classical styles, with varying degrees of success.
Luminessence (1974) and Arbour Zena (1975) both combine composed pieces for strings with improvising jazz musicians, including Jan Garbarek and Charlie Haden. The strings here have a moody, contemplative feel that is characteristic of the "ECM sound" of the 1970s, and is also particularly well-suited to Garbarek's keening saxophone improvisations. From an academic standpoint, these compositions are dismissed by many classical music aficionados as lightweight, but Jarrett appeared to be working more towards a synthesis between composed and improvised music at this time, rather than the production of formal classical works. From this point on, however, his classical work would adhere to more conventional disciplines.
Ritual (1977) is a composed solo piano piece recorded by Dennis Russell Davies that is somewhat reminiscent of Jarrett's own solo piano recordings.
The Celestial Hawk (1980) is a piece for orchestra, percussion, and piano that Jarrett performed and recorded with the Syracuse Symphony under Christopher Keene. This piece is the largest and longest of Jarrett's efforts as a classical composer.
Bridge of Light (1993) is the last recording of classical compositions to appear under Jarrett's name. The album contains three pieces written for a soloist with orchestra, and one for violin and piano. The pieces date from 1984 and 1990.
In 1995 the record label Music Masters Jazz released a CD on which one track featured Jarrett performing the exquisite solo piano part in Lousadzak, a 17-minute piano concerto by American composer Alan Hovhaness. The conductor was Dennis Russell Davies. Most of Jarrett's classical recordings are of older repertoire, but Jarrett may have been introduced to this modern work by his one-time manager George Avakian, who was a friend of the composer.
In addition to his classical work as a composer, Jarrett has also performed and recorded classical music for ECM's New Series since the mid-1980s, including the following:
In 2004, Jarrett was awarded the Léonie Sonning Music Prize. The prestigious award usually associated with classical musicians and composers has only previously been given to one other jazz musician — Miles Davis. The first person to receive the award was Igor Stravinsky in 1959.
There are several compilations and collections covering various aspects of Jarrett's career:
After leaving Miles Davis, Jarrett did not often work as a sideman, but he did appear on a few other musician's albums, including the following:
Jarrett is notoriously intolerant of audience noise, including coughing and other involuntary sounds, especially during solo improvised performances. He feels that extraneous noise affects his musical inspiration. As a result, cough drops are routinely supplied to Jarrett's audiences in cold weather, and he has even been known to stop playing and lead the crowd in a "group cough." This intolerance was made clear during a concert on October 31, 2006, at the restored Salle Pleyel in Paris. After making an impassioned plea to the audience to stop coughing, Jarrett walked out of the concert during the first half, refusing at first to continue, although he did subsequently return to the stage to finish the first half, and also the second. A further solo concert three days later went undisturbed, following an official announcement beforehand urging the audience to minimize extraneous noise. In 2007, at a concert in Perugia, angered by photographers, Jarrett insulted the audience: 'I do not speak Italian, so those of you who speak English, can tell those assholes with cameras to turn them fucking off. Of course the privelege is yours to hear us, but me, Gary and Jack reserve the right to stop and leave the goddamn city'. This caused the organizers of Umbria Jazz Festival to declare that they will never invite him again.
He is also extremely protective over the quality of recordings of his concerts. In 1992, a trio concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London was temporarily stopped as Jarrett thought he had identified someone in the audience with a recording device. It turned out to be a light on the mixing desk and the concert resumed after an apology.
Jarrett has been known for many years to be strongly opposed to electronic instruments and equipment. His liner notes for the 1973 album Solo Concerts: Bremen / Lausanne state: "I am, and have been, carrying on an anti-electric-music crusade of which this is an exhibit for the prosecution. Electricity goes through all of us and is not to be relegated to wires." He has largely eschewed electric or electronic instruments since his time with Miles Davis.
Jarrett's public speeches and writings have been perceived as negative or obnoxious by some. He has been known to write back disdainful letters to critics who have negatively reviewed his music. This attitude and his vocalizations while playing are the reasons most commonly cited by his detractors for disliking him and dismissing his music.
Jarrett, for many years, has been a follower of the teachings of metaphysicist and mystic G. I. Gurdjieff. In 1980 he recorded for ECM an album of his compositions Sacred Hymns of G. I. Gurdjieff.
Jarrett's younger brother, Chris Jarrett, is also a pianist and his other brother Scott Jarrett is a producer/songwriter.