Jessica Williams, jazz pianist, composer


Currents + | -

Illness as Teacher

(Written shortly after being diagnosed as hypothyroid back in 2006)

For a long time, playing jazz was like a sport. The harder you hit the ball, and the farther it went, and the more the fans would cheer. If you knocked everybody down, you were the baddest or the greatest or the fastest or the coolest.

I won't even touch on the racial divide, not to mention every other "ism" that one can name, in a hot Philadelphia minute, about what you have to do and who you have to be to be a REAL jazz musician. I leave these issues to the chronic debaters of idiotic PC politics. I like what Duke [Edward Kennedy Ellington] said: "There's only two kinds of music; the good kind and that other kind." In other words, it's about the Music, people.)

When you don't feel well, the world's colors fade. Things of little significance dwindle down to no significance whatsoever. When you feel vaguely nauseous, or infinitely weary, or you're in continuous pain, your heart finds no solace in meaningless moral debates and talking heads (whether they talk about jazz or nuclear war.) When you have the blues, physical or mental or both, the parts of the world that are real become REALLY real. The parts that are superfluous fade away into the shadows like chimera.

All of the things we rely on to "hit the ball hard", to "score a goal", and to "take no prisoners", all of these things cease to work. They cease to be there for us. The idea of Music as competition or life as contest . . . all that seems silly and very far away.

We lay and look at the ceiling and we get clear in ways that we'd never achieve hanging around in a nightclub or going to a show with friends. I'm no Scientologist, either. But it seems to me that a certain young actor is less clear than he'd like us to believe. Because when you get this clear, you're quiet about it. It's not something you can easily share. Because money ceases to be a motivator, and so do possessions. Music becomes a thing that used to be fun but now you find yourself thinking "why am I doing this?" and just sitting, looking at the piano like it was a big black bull that you had to somehow fight and tame and stick flags into it and then kill it for the pleasure of a wildly cheering crowd.

It can be a physical ailment. It can be several ailments. It can be a terribly traumatic event or a series of them. It can be chronic fatigue syndrome or it can be depression or it can be the death of a loved one or it can be cancer or it can be a general erosion of hope and faith and belief in any number of things that had sustained you previously.

When you finally come back and "meet the piano again for the first time," you find that you have something to give that you didn't have before.

And it's much harder to "sell" because it's much more human and infinitely more fragile. It's hard to package and market "jazz". It's almost impossible to package magic because only those capable of truly seeing and hearing will understand the value of it.


From a Terry Gross interview with pianist Keith Jarrett:


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the most famous pianists in jazz, Keith Jarrett, a musician acclaimed for his emotional intensity and his physically energetic, improvised, solo, piano performances, has had to keep his playing to a minimum in the past few years. He's had chronic fatigue syndrome since 1996...

Last year, he released a solo album of ballads called "The Melody At Night, With You," which was recorded at his home. We'll listen to some of it. And we'll also preview his new trio CD of standards, called "Whisper Not," which will be released in October.

Jarrett used to be pretty manic in concert and very obsessive about his playing. I asked him how those traits have been affected by chronic fatigue syndrome.

Mr. KEITH JARRETT: I had to change everything about my approach before I could even start to play again. And "The Melody At Night, With You" was - - there won't be another recording that's more important to me, in many ways. But one of them that I can explain easily is that I had not played for a long time. And I didn't know if I would ever play again.

And when you -- it's something I did since I was three years old. So when I was able to sit at the piano without being sick and play a little bit, there was a way of dealing with economy that is way past anything I can imagine doing when I'm well. It's hard to describe.

It's almost like the disease made it possible to deal with the skeleton instead of the surface, you know--just the heart of things, because there was no energy for more than that.

GROSS: What about the mental focus, though, to figure out what the skeleton is--where it is?

MR. JARRETT: That came--comes and goes. And I was already on the therapy that I'm still on at the time. And it was one of the things that was slowly--the connection between my brain and hands was starting to return enough that--and I added kind of a way of thinking about playing that music. I didn't want to be clever because I didn't want to get into my old habit patterns. In a way, that's what an improviser always wants. And, in this case, I was forced to be that way, more than ever. And so I was starting at zero and being born again at the keyboard. And that's what comes through, I think.

GROSS: I love listening to music, but I find, for instance, if I have a headache that music loses its appeal to me; that I just can't focus on it.

MR. JARRETT: Right. And I couldn't listen to music...

GROSS: Really, mm-hmm.

MR. JARRETT: ...for two years at all. I mean--well, what happens to chronic fatigue--I use that term, although I disagree with the title of the disease. But what happens to a person that's sick is that they can't even do things they enjoy, in the same way you're describing the headache. But you don't have a headache. And that's really weird for a musician or a music lover. Suddenly, music means absolutely nothing. And I remember sort of philosophically asking myself, and even other musicians, `What really is music? I mean, is it important? Does it matter at all?' And I was in an existential state that actually--I mean, that would be an appropriate question from that state.

GROSS: So it must have been thrilling when you didn't have to ask that question anymore; when you just understood why you loved it.

MR. JARRETT: Well, actually, it altered everything about how I perceive music and how I perceive its importance. And it's not going to change. I mean, when I get 100 percent well, that's going to be with me because it's something, I think, you're given an insight to if you're compromised in a way that you never get that insight otherwise. You're too busy being a player.

GROSS: So if I said to you, 'Now, Keith Jarrett, what is the importance of; what is the meaning of music?' What would you say?

MR. JARRETT: I'd say I don't know.

I might have had an answer for you before. I think--I would say I don't know, and it's not really important to know.

GROSS: Well, I want to play a track from the album that you were just talking about, "The Melody At Night, With You"--the album in which you first got back to playing after feeling too sick to play.

MR. JARRETT: Mm-hmm.


I love it when someone who's so great at what they do (like Keith Jarrett) says "I don't know." And I deeply admire him for his honesty and his candor here. His Music is sublime, beyond category and idle criticism. It's a living entity. And it is the mirror through which we see the world more clearly. It is ART.


I was talking to Billy Taylor today, and I told him that my original tribute album for him, Billy's Theme, was my own "The Melody At Night, With You," because I had been in that same place Keith Jarrett describes, and am just now emerging from it. And I said that, of all my 45 or so CDs that are out there, it's my tribute to him that I listen to most regularly (2 or 3 times a week) because it doesn't have any frills or any show-boating or any superfluous bells and whistles. No quotes to speak of, and no witty insertions. No speed-demon runs and no play-it-again-sam licks. No super-chops. No guile whatsoever.

I know that all of the future music that comes from within me will be streamlined and straight-forward just like this.

Billy said that my Music says something. I said, "well, if it doesn't, then there's no reason to play, right?" And he agreed.

It has to say something.

And that something can no longer ever, ever be look at me or check this out or dig this.

I'm no match for the newly-hatched wunderkind, not in the chops department. I could never play as fast as some of these 15 year old kids. They're like machine guns. They shoot notes into the air while the drummer shoots them out of the air like a skeet-shooter. It's like urban warfare. I hear this stuff with its weird and dark and unintelligible (to me) chords and its strange time-signatures and its atonal, all-over-the-place 'melodies' and I say "please . . . make it stop!"

It sounds like the soundtrack to a violent computer game (to me.)

I've played since I was four. But I could practice until my 60 year old fingers fell off, and it wouldn't do me any good. The only thing I can bring to the Music is me, all the wonderful (and terrible) wonder of what it's like to be truly human and incredibly fallible and not as strong as I'd prefer. I always do my best... and often, it's just not good enough for me.

When I read about Keith, I feel good knowing that he's been there and back. I like his Music more now.

Even Monk had his bad nights (he's quoted as remarking, "man, I played all the wrong mistakes!") so I feel better about that.

When I play now, I'm learning to let go.

Let go of all the worldly stuff about being good enough or young enough and looking right and surviving whatever test W___ M___ has concocted to decide who is playing "authentic" jazz and who is to be excluded as "not allowed."

When you get here, it just doesn't matter what anyone thinks. It's about the Music, and it's about the people. It's about saying something.

It's about being REAL.




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