Paul Jacobs was one of the most brilliant of American pianists. Although his approach to music was intellectual, this did not prevent his interpretations from being touching and honest in feeling, as well as being exceptionally clear in execution and delineation of formal elements. He was especially well known for his crystalline approach to Debussy.
Jacobs, who grew up in the Bronx, was already a proficient pianist before he was ten. He avidly read and played through vast quantities of piano music, borrowing everything he could get from the New York Public Library system. He studied at the Third Street Music School Settlement and then at the Juilliard School with Ernest Hutchenson. He gave major New York recitals while still a teenager and played in major new music ensembles, including the Composers' Forum.
He moved to Europe in 1951, remaining there nine years. He became a familiar figure among the serial-oriented avant-garde of the time, attending the summer sessions at Darmstadt and often performing with Pierre Boulez's Domaine Musical. He was the first to perform the complete solo piano music of Arnold Schoenberg, which he recorded for the Véga label.
Jacobs continued his active participation in the new music scene when he returned to the United States in 1960. Aaron Copland said "[h]e brings to his piano playing a passion for the contemporary, and a breadth of musical and general culture such as is rare."
His recitals were predominantly devoted to the most recent music, although he also played Baroque harpsichord music, having come to love the sound of the instrument through his involvement in performances of Elliott Carter's Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano with two orchestras.
He frequently gave premieres, including works of Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, Henze, Messiaen, Sessions, Carter, and many others. He also became known for the clarity and emotion he gave to the late Beethoven and Schubert sonatas. He played with the leading new music ensembles on the New York scene, such as the Contemporary Innovations series organized by Gunther Schuller, the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, and the Fromm Fellowship Players.
In 1962, Leonard Bernstein appointed him the official pianist of the New York Philharmonic, and in 1974, added official harpsichordist to Jacobs' title. Jacobs remained in those positions until his death.
He was an active teacher, and although he taught frequently at Tanglewood, the Mannes School, and the Manhattan School of Music, his lasting affiliation was at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, beginning in 1968, also remaining there until death. He was by all accounts exceptionally energetic, constantly organizing concerts and lecture series. He tended to stay in New York, rather than undertake the life of a touring concert virtuoso.
He recorded for several labels. Among his most cherished LPs were the 15 released on the Nonesuch label, including music of Schoenberg, Debussy, Stravinsky, Carter, Messiaen, Ravel, Thompson, Bartók, Mozart, and Beethoven, and especially the original piano music of Ferruccio Busoni, recorded between 1976 and 1979. (Although some of these recordings were reissued when Nonesuch revived as a compact disc label, the highly regarded Busoni series' rights reverted elsewhere and remained out of print for nearly 20 years until they reappeared on the Arbiter label in 2000, along with some of his other hard-to-find piano recordings.)
He died in 1983.