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The Venerable Ahmad Jamal

By Published: March 13, 2004
AAJ: How is the recording industry today? Is it still something you like doing? Is it too businesslike today?

Jamal: It's not the Norman Grantz era that's for sure. There are no more great recording executives and if you don't have great recording executives you don't have a great recording world. The record world is terrible. You don't have any people who know the business. You have people who are marketing Madonna and Shadonna. They fail to realize this great recording industry was built by so-called jazz artists. And at the other end of the spectrum, a base in European classical music as well. So recording companies were built by European classicists and American classicists. I refer to jazz music as American classic music which is a term which I coined. And now people are beginning to use it without any credit to me. But I don't care. The fact is that they're using it and that's what counts.

The record industry was started by American classicists. People like Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and Louie Armstrong. And on the other end they had a roster of people doing the European body of work. It would never have gotten off the ground. Capitol Records, for example, was built by a jazz pianist, Nat Cole. He built Capital Records. He had records with Lester Young too. He wasn't only a singer, he was also great pianist. It's a shame that we don't have the Ahmet Erteguns anymore.

Leonard Chess, he started his record label with Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry and myself. I built the jazz division of Chess Records. You don't have those kinds of executives anymore. Ralph Kaffel [label president] who started Fantasy Records, he had one artist. His name was Dave Brubeck. They got big, so big that they started doing films, Amadeus and One Flew Over Cuckoo's Nest. All these record companies had their base in American classicists and European classicists. They didn't base their stuff on the stuff that's out there now, that they're marketing right now.

They won't tell you that, but the fact is that people that are running the record business don't know one thing about it. And that's why it's not in such good shape.

AAJ: Are you keeping busy, in light of the recession and dwindling club scene?

Jamal: By the grace of god, I'm turning down work. I presently don't see any problems. In times of depression or bad economy, that's the way it usually is. That's when the movie industry took off, during the Depression, because people were going to shows to get away their problems. That's what launched the movie industry. Sometimes a recession or change in the economy does not effect our business. I have not felt the pinch. I'm turning down work

AAJ: You've been a commercial success. What does that mean for a jazz musician? They're producing so-called music now that isn't even done by musicians, it seems to me.

Jamal: It's not music. It has nothing to do with music. It's something else. That's the way thinking is today. Right is wrong and wrong is right. That's the way it is in some musical forms. Right is wrong and wrong is right. But this business has always managed to survive. The American classics have always managed to survive in spite of it all. Because it's a pure art form. It's the only art form to develop in the United States. It's still not programmed properly. You got to take your cassettes and your CDs with you in your car, otherwise you wont get anything most of the time. If you're traveling by car, you've got a problem if you don't take your cassettes and your CD player, because that's what we do. We program everything but the right thing. So music can sooth the savage beast, but it can also raise the savage beast and unfortunately that's what they're doing, raising the savage beast.

But fortunately, American classical music has always survived. You'll be hearing Duke Ellington for a long time. Long after this other stuff has died down.

AAJ: You've been a big influence on a bunch of pianists, and beyond pianists, over the years. Is that something that's important to you or at least cool with you?

Jamal: No. I'm too busy trying to influence myself. I'm too busy trying to do things I haven't done or go to the next step, god willing. I don't have time to reflect on who I've influenced or who I haven't influenced.

AAJ: You started at the age of 3?

Jamal: Yeah, I took a long time to decide.

AAJ: What was the scene like in Pittsburgh? You hear more about some of the other cities like New York or Chicago.

Jamal: Pittsburgh is one of the most important cities in the world for music and musicians. There are very few cities that have produced music like Pittsburgh. Very few. Billy Strayhorn is from Pittsburgh. He wrote "Lush Life" when he was 16 years old, that's the kind of talent we had coming out of Pittsburgh. Everyone from Pittsburgh has been influential to the music world. From Art Blakey to Kenny Clarke to Roy Eldridge, to Mary Lou Williams, myself, Errol Garner, he also started playing at 3. Dodo Mamarosa, whom the world has forgotten. George Benson, Stanley Turrentine. All of those are from Pittsburgh. On the other end of the spectrum you have Oscar Levant, Earl Wild. When Andre Previn had the choice to conduct the London or the Pittsburgh symphony, he chose Pittsburgh. We have a very powerful statement musically from that town. Very powerful. It still remains so.

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