Keith Jarrett Named Recipient of 2003 Polar Music Prize



Keith Jarrett
Photo by Judith Jay Ross, courtesy Polar Music Prize

On January 28, the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm announced American composer, pianist, and improviser Keith Jarrett as the 2003 winner of the Polar Music Prize. His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden will present the prize of one million Swedish kronor (approximately US$ 115,000) to Jarrett on May 12, 2003, at a ceremony at Berwaldhallen in Stockholm.

Stig Anderson, the late publisher, lyricist, and manager of the superstar Swedish pop group ABBA founded the Polar Music Prize in 1989 when he donated a large sum of money to the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. The prize is named after his record label, Polar Music International AB and the first prizes were given in 1992.

Although there is no set rule as to how many prizes are given each year, the specially selected Polar Music Prize jury generally gives the prize to two or more artists whose exceptional achievements have contributed significantly to the advancement of music. This year marks the first year that the prize was given to only one person, symbolically pointing to Keith Jarrett’s well-rounded musicianship characterized by his remarkable ability to smoothly span genres.

A child prodigy who started playing the piano and composing at age 3, he was discovered soon after his arrival in New York in 1966 by legendary drummer Art Blakey and played with the Jazz Messengers shortly until he became a member of the Charles Lloyd Quartet. Jarrett then led a trio with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian, which later became a quartet with the addition of Dewey Redman on tenor saxophone. His work with this ensemble leaned toward the avant-garde with strong roots in the free jazz movement of the ’50s and ’60s and he was eventually picked up by Miles Davis and played on several albums from Davis’ jazz-rock fusion period (Directions, Live-Evil, Get Up With It).

Despite his involvement with such superstars, Keith Jarrett’s most fruitful collaboration was with record producer and founder of ECM Records, Manfred Eicher. Together they revolutionized expectations of jazz recordings producing a successful series of albums of solo piano improvisations, a courageously subtle change from the excitability of free jazz. These recordings along with an immense amount of concertizing established Jarrett as a major figure in improvised music. His performances often move seamlessly through genres until eventually the listener has arrived in a place that is uniquely Jarrett’s. His improvisational skills and spiritual relationship with sound have culminated in a twenty-year relationship with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, who were brought together by Jarrett’s desire to make an album of standards. The musical connections between the three players are so strong that this trio (referred to as the Standards Trio) remains Jarrett’s preferred vehicle for live performance.

But Keith Jarrett’s musical interests refuse to be cornered simply into the jazz world. His career is rife with classical projects including recordings of The Well-Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations, as well as a number of other classical masterworks. In addition to his interpretive work, he is the creator of a number of concert pieces that have been performed by orchestras and chamber ensembles all over the country. To further defy categorization, he has also been involved in projects as diverse as scoring a film, a self-made recording of ethnically-infused overdubbing (Spirits), and some truly innovative works with the pipe organ (Spheres) and the clavichord (Book of Ways). With such a complete musical outlook, it seems natural that the Polar Music Prize jury would abandon the categories of “popular” and “serious” music, which seemed to inform their decisions in the past.

The citation announcing Keith Jarrett as the winner of the 2003 Polar Music Prize sums up his indispensable contribution to music and his lengthy career, stating, “The Polar Music Prize for 2003 is being awarded to the American musician, Keith Jarrett, pianist, composer and master of the field of improvisational music. Keith Jarrett’s musical artistry is characterized by his ability to effortlessly cross boundaries in the world of music.”

A Complete List of Past Winners of the Polar Music Prize:

1992: Sir Paul McCartney and The Baltic States
1993: Dizzy Gillespie and Witold Lutoslawski
1994: Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Quincy Jones
1995: Sir Elton John and Mstislav Rostropovich
1996: Pierre Boulez and Joni Mitchell
1997: Eric Ericson and Bruce Springsteen
1998: Ray Charles and Ravi Shankar
1999: Stevie Wonder and Iannis Xenakis
2000: Bob Dylan and Isaac Stern
2001: Burt Bacharach, Robert Moog, and Karlheinz Stockhausen
2002: Sofia Gubaidulina and Miriam Makeba
2003: Keith Jarrett