Compassion makes beauty out of brokenness

Compassion makes beauty out of brokenness

by Haruko DeArth


The story of Keith Jarret, an acclaimed Jazz pianist, and his solo piano improvisation in Cologne (Köln) in 1975 is absolutely inspiring. (Image: Cover of THE KOLN CONCERT by Keith Jarret)


The concert was sold out and organized by 17-year old Vera Brandes, then Germany's youngest concert promoter. A few hours prior to the show, the piano that had been set on the stage for Jarret was, by mistake, the wrong instrument. It was far smaller than the requested grand, the keys were sticky and thin in the upper registers, and the pedals did not work properly. 


The concert organizers did everything they could to fix the situation but it was impossible to tune it up to the desirable condition nor transport the right piano to the concert venue in time especially in the heavy rain that they were experiencing. Jarret, who was known for his perfectionism, refused to perform that evening. 


As Jarret walked away, Vera desperately followed him and begged him to play. 1400 people were about to show up for the concert. She begged him soaking. Jarret felt sorry for the young promoter and, knowing that he was stuck with a bad piano for a sold out concert, agreed to play. He told her “do not forget, just for you”. 


The 60 minute improvised jazz concert for that evening turned out to be absolutely magical. It’s recording became the best-selling solo album in jazz history and the best-selling piano album with sales of more than 3.5 million. 


What was it that made a disastrous situation turn around to become so amazing? How could something so beautiful be made out of what had been broken? 


What was remarkable, needless to say, was Jarrett's technique and ability to produce extensive improvised material over a vamp of few chords for prolonged periods of time while staying within the key range that worked, as well as using his body weight to produce a powerful and commanding sound out of a small instrument. 


Another element of this miracle concert was the role that Vera played. In fact, if Vera didn't beg and plead for Jarret to play, the spectacle would have ceased to exist. Jarret had the power and privilege to walk away from his situation with no cost. For Vera, however, at the time a young and inexperienced concert producer, the stakes were high.  If Jarret didn't play, she would have lost everything. So she did what she had to do; chased after Jarret in a last ditch effort to save the concert.


It is such a familiar situation where one with less power pleads to the powerful for mercy. Vera’s fate was completely in the hands of Jarret. In all honesty, the clichéd “powerless young woman vs powerful man” scenario doesn't make the story particularly attractive.  Maybe Jarret felt enough guilt about cancelling, or maybe he felt particularly sympathetic because Vera was female, young, and vulnerable. For whatever the reason, Jarret decided he would play, “just for you”.  


Although it is respectable that he took a chance of not being able to offer the best performance and perhaps even bringing ruin to his own reputation, in my opinion, there is nothing particularly admirable about Jarret changing his mind and agreeing to play that evening.  He just made the morally correct choice as he should have in the beginning. All he did was, just as we all should as humans, to act on compassion. 


The story exemplifies, however, how it would not be easy to make a decision in a critical moment that can influence the fate of others. Just as Jarret’s fame and perfectionism almost kept him from showing genuineness and empathy, we often forget to imagine what it is like to be in other people’s shoes, especially when we are privileged. No one is immune to those mistakes. 


What helped Jarret change his mind was the human connection that he shared with Vera. Before any breakthrough or extraordinary occurrence, those two people who came from opposite sides of the spectrum with different backgrounds, talent, roles, and reasons for success and motives had to make a human connection based on compassion and empathy. The story tells us that such human connection encourages us to answer the most critical questions honestly and genuinely, and without expectation.


But of course, such a decision can put us on the spot and face an enormous challenge in mounting pressure. What was extraordinary was that when Jarret was forced to find ways to avoid an absolutely disastrous concert, his skill found a new way to express itself to have breakthrough occur. It forged his brain power to unlock creativity and reach a different mindset that is fearless and open for experimentation; one that wouldn't have been forced out otherwise. 


To me the story is inspiring not just because Jarret was able to produce something extraordinary that night. The story is inspiring because it makes us realize that it was the human connection and Jarret’s act of compassion to Vera’s desperation and vulnerability that ultimately allowed for something so beautiful and extraordinary to be made out of brokenness. 


*Inspired by the sermon by Rev. Darcy Baxter at UUFSC’s Sunday Service on January 13, 2021.