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The Venerable Ahmad Jamal

By Published: March 13, 2004
AAJ: Were you from a musical family?

Jamal: No, my family was certainly musically inclined, but they didn't opt to become career musicians. I'm the only one who opted for a career in music.

AAJ: When did you start to feel that's where you wanted to go?

Jamal: Music chose me. I didn't choose it. At 3 years old, when you start playing at 3, you really haven't made any choice. It has chosen you. Like Tiger Woods and the golf clubs. When you start that young, I think the career has chosen you.

AAJ: You took formal training pretty young?

Jamal: I took formal training at 7 with some masters in Pittsburgh. Mary Caldwell Dawson and James Miller. I studied with them. I went out with a band that made me leave my happy home. I started touring with George Hudson when I was 17 years old. That's quite young to leave town.

AAJ: The Three Strings band, was that a little different to not have a drummer at that time?

Jamal: Well, Nat Cole didn't have drummers either. He eventually ended up hiring Lee Young Sr., who was Lester Young's brother. That's the only drummer Nat ever had. Lee Young is still living. He plays golf every day and I just recently saw him. He's a wonderful man and was a wonderful drummer and comes from a wonderful family, the Young family. At that time, some of the groups did not have drums, including mine, but I added them later on because it was too subtle. For some of the venues you got to have drums.

AAJ: The club scene then was thriving. What was that whole scene like, with all those great players, the jam sessions and what not?

Jamal: It's certainly different than what it is today. That's when you built the Charlie Parkers and the Dizzy Gillespies and the Bud Powells. Stuff Smiths. That era produced the Fats Navarros and the Clifford Browns and the Max Roaches and Ahmad Jamal and Errol Garner. That was the Golden Age, because that sort of atmosphere does not exist today. The all night jam sessions in my hometown, those things have gone. That era built a lot of great characters and a lot of great musicians.

AAJ: That seems to be part of what's lacking today. There are a lot of schooled musicians, but I don't know if they have stories to tell or they miss the camaraderie .

Jamal: You took the words right out of my mouth. It's a cold, cold world out there without camaraderie. When you don't have the things passed down to you from Johnny Hodges and Duke and Ben Webster and Roy and all those wonderful people, Coleman Hawkins. My ex-bassist Israel Crosby used to tell me wonderful stories. When that's missing, a lot is gone. Camaraderie is gone.

You've got high technique and you've got technology. You've got a lot of cell phones and computers and this and that, but you've got a confused world, don't you?

Camaraderie is missing all over the earth, not only here, but everywhere. You've got to have camaraderie to go with the technology, and that's what's missing. You're not going to find a Sarah Vaughan very easily anymore. Or Ella Fitzgerald. Or Mabel Mercer. Or Billie Holiday. You're not going to find them too easily anymore. Or Art Tatum or Phineas Newborn. That's another pianist that's forgotten, but not by me. I haven't forgotten him. I met him when I was 18 years old in Memphis. Marvelous player. Very influential. He's as influential as they come. There's only one Phineas Newborn. He was one of a kind. So was Art Tatum.

AAJ: Was the trio something that appealed to you?

Jamal: Sure. Still appeals to me. I love it. It's a lot of fun. I get joy out of it every night. That's important in your work, because if you get joy out of your work, then the people get joy. I get joy out of my work every night. It takes a long time to reach that level, though. Some of us take longer to reach that level, and some of us do it earlier. But whatever, it's a wonderful thing. Be joyous in your work. Whether you're doing a typewriter, or the 88s, or playing trumpet, or you're a physician or a lawyer, or whatever. Enjoying your work is very important.

AAJ: Each great musician has their own style and they don't talk much about it, but the use of space and things like that in your playing, how did that develop? Were there influences that you heard from other people that you took bits and pieces from?

Jamal: My style comes from my hometown. Everyone from Pittsburgh is different. That's the situation in Pittsburgh. George Benson? He was different. Roy Eldridge? he was different. Billy Eckstine was different. Very few singers play trumpet and slide trombone and he ended up playing guitar his last years. Ray Brown is from Pittsburgh. How many people play like Ray Brown? Very few, if any. Or they're copying Ray. Errol Garner. One of a kind. A complete orchestra within himself. Billy Strayhorn. Who writes like Billy Strayhorn? Who's writing "Lush Life" or "Take the A Train" these days. He stayed with Duke all of his life, cause Duke recognized his talents. And it goes on and on and on.

My whole approach to music comes from my town. Everybody from Pittsburgh is different. We're from the same town but we're different. I'm different from Errol. Billy Strayhorn was different. Dodo Mamarosa was different. Stanley Turrentine? No one played like Stanley. Stanley was different. So all that comes from my hometown.

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