Is Ahmad Jamal a legend? Hello, are the Miller Lite chicks hot? Yes. Jamal is nothing if not humble about it all. Refreshing in a world dominated by 'show me the money'/'show me the camera' hams. But I guess it is because he is old school, the days when milk was a quarter, TV was black and white, and jazz was the music of the popular culture. And this is why I am so stunned we can make shoelaces that don't get untied, yet can't figure out how to build a time machine like HG Wells predicted or at least a flying DeLorean so I can go back to an era that put reason before insanity. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Jamal (and how could you not be when his version of 'Poinciana' is the definitive recording of that tune), Miles Davis adored Jamal's playing. In fact, in his no bullshit bio, Davis states it matter-of-factly how much he admired the man's piano. Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Ahmad Jamal, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Ahmad Jamal: Music chose me. I didn't choose it. I was playing at three years old. When you are that young, you don't make choices. Choices are made for you. The instrument was in my mother's house. It was already there, so I passed by it one day and sat down. The rest is history.
FJ: What was your earliest band configuration?
AJ: I had several configurations. I had Chano Pozo with Dizzy Gillespie and I had Ray Crawford and Eddie Calhoun. I was using congas, bass, and piano and then I was using guitar, bass, and piano. That was the format for a long time, guitar, bass, and piano with the wonderful guitarist Ray Crawford, who was formerly a tenor saxophonist with Fletcher Henderson. He learned guitar when he was ill. He had lung problems and he learned guitar. He was quite an emulated guy he was. He used to play the conga effect on the front of his guitar. Everybody picked it up, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis. Everybody started doing that. My format was usually bass, guitar, and then piano.
FJ: When did you move towards the more traditional, piano, bass, and drum trio?
AJ: Walter Perkins was with me for a very brief moment. People always ask me that, but I can't even remember. It was not a long period of time because I got Vernell Fournier shortly thereafter. Walter is a great drummer too, great drummer.
FJ: Miles Davis was admittedly a very strong proponent of your playing. Did Miles ever approach you to play in his band?
AJ: No, when you are in a leadership role like I was, like Cannonball was after he left Miles and Miles himself, there was an attempt to get the three of us together, but that didn't arrive at all. I was so busy with my group and trying to get it launched, I wasn't doing anything but playing the leadership role, which is what Miles was doing and what Cannonball was doing. There was an attempt to get the three of us together one time.
FJ: 'Poinciana' has become your 'My Way.'
AJ: That was not my composition. I had revived it. It was written by Bernier and Simon. It was not my composition. People think it is mine because I adopted it. I think I have the most popular version, the most successful cover that these writers had was my At the Pershing version.
FJ: At the Pershing made the Chess label.
AJ: We certainly established the jazz division. It started out with me, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters and that was it. They had a bunch of old masters by James Moody and some old masters of mine. The rest is history. Fifty-two million dollars later, he sold the company. There were four of us really that established that company, myself, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters.
FJ: You have taken as many trips across the Atlantic as any. Is the attitude overseas more reverent than here in the States?
AJ: It certainly was, Fred, for a period. That is why we had the departure of many, many, Sidney Bechet, for example. He went over there and never came back. He became a national treasure in Paris. Later on, Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon, and many, many others went over there, Ben Webster. Certainly, the appreciation, historically, is certainly monumental compared to our taking it for granted here. That is the story with the European scene. The fact is they follow this music historically and we don't. We don't teach our kids to do that and music can sooth the savage beast, but it can also raise the savage beast. That is what unfortunately we are doing here. The only art form to develop here besides American-Indian art is this thing called jazz or American classical music, which I like to refer to it as being. Certainly, there is a historic appreciation of this music over there.
FJ: Is jazz a dying art?