I was deeply saddened to learn yesterday of the death of the jazz pianist, composer and bandleader Keith Tippett (25 August 1947 – 14 June 2020).
I ran a jazz club for ten years in the 1980s, which is not as romantic as it sounds, consisting mostly of tedious bureaucratic bullshit, but if you manage the concerts themselves, as I did, you get to meet a lot of famous and not so famous musician. Some of them just remain names, hello-goodbye and little more. Some, however, become friends Keith was one of those.
I first met him as an artist performing at a small jazz festival I organised, “9 Performers on 3 Stages”, to celebrate the opening of the new large concert hall in the cultural centre in which I worked. Keith played a solo set in the smallest of the three venues. He came out, sat down at the piano, was still for a couple of minutes, then he began to improvise. He played forty continuous minutes of some of the most intense, beautiful, moving, technically challenging, live music I have ever heard and I have heard an awful lot of live music. The room was absolutely packed and during the entire forty minutes you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. When he finished the room erupted in a storm of applause and jubilation. After about five minutes of ear shattering exultation, he returned to the stage, sat down once more at the piano and played a very short Chopin etude. When he had finished he turned to the audience, smiled and said very softly, “that’s all I know” then he left the stage to stunned silence.
In those days I mostly booked my musicians into a small family hotel, Hotelchen am Theater, which was then run by a lovely lady called Tini, who was very artist friendly. In a normal commercial hotel, when you book in for one night, they tell you that breakfast is from 7 to 9 am and you have to vacate your room by 11 am at the latest. When you booked into Hotelchen, Tini would ask, “when do you want breakfast?” Musician, “2 pm!” Tini, “that’s cool, what would you like for breakfast?” Musicians loved her and her guest book is an awesome piece of artistic history. I had, of course, booked Keith into the Hotelchen. When Tini got up at about 7 am, she found Keith sitting on the floor with her then 3 or 4 year old daughter, Nora, polishing shoes! They were playing hotels. Tini died some years ago and Nora now runs the hotel and from time to time I remind her of this very magic moment.
Keith was a very intense family man and whenever he played you always had to arrange for him to call his family back in England. This was before mobile telephones and instant worldwide communications. International telephone calls were in those days expensive and not always easy to set up but I always made sure that we did it for Keith whenever he came to entertain us. Some years later I was working at a big jazz festival in Nürnberg, selling records for a small record company, when I got the chance to hear Keith in duo with the moderately insane but totally brilliant Dutch jazz drummer and percussionist Han Bennink, a mindwarpingly superb performance. Later in the evening I ran into Keith and got introduced to his wife Jules aka Julie Tippetts, a superb jazz singer. For many non-jazz fans she is better known, or should we say remembered, as the pop/rock singer Julie Driscoll, who had a massive hit with Brian Auger and the Trinity performing Bob Dylan’ This Wheel’s on Fire in 1968. Jules was very much one of the 60s ‘It Girls’ and the secret heartthrob of legions of pubescent, male teens. She was even more beautiful, as a mature lady and totally sweet and friendly.
I had quite a lot of Keith’s music before I even met him and have acquired more over the years but it is the real life person, whom I shall miss. Keith was a warm, generous, kind human being and a brilliant musician and the world just got a little bit darker with his demise.