The Venerable Ahmad Jamal
Jamal: Well, it was a mutual admiration society. I was a fan of Miles. He was a fan of mine. I lived a block and a half from him [in New York City] for a number of years. We never spent a lot of quantity time, we had quality time. The few times I was at Miles' house was just very briefly, but we had a wonderful, respectful relationship.
AAJ: When they went to put "New Rhumba" on Miles Ahead, was that shortly after you wrote it?
Jamal: I wrote "New Rhumba" in 1948 or 1949. I wrote "Ahmad's Blues," that era. "Ahmad's Blues" is one of my better copyrights, as well. It was in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf on Broadway. It was Miles Davis' recording with Red Garland. Red Garland playing "Ahmad's Blues" on a Miles Davis recording [Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Prestige Records]. "New Rhumba" I wrote about that same time.
AAJ: Did that have a lot of impact on your sales when people like Miles and Gil Evans would take your songs? Those albums were big sellers. Did it present you, in a way, to a bigger public?
Jamal: Every little bit helps. Clint Eastwood used two of my records in the Bridges of Madison County. But he also used John Coltrane. He used some Dinah Washington things. Every little bit helps, but I think I established myself. In '58 we made that historic recording [At the Pershing, Chess Records] which has become one of the recordings of the past century.
We as instrumentalists, we don't get hits. Only a few of us get hit records. The singers get the hits. Only a few of us are able to do that. It's a miracle when an instrumentalist gets a hit record. And how many? Herbie Hancock, Chuck Mangione, Dave Brubeck, myself, Miles Davis. Then you have to start thinking.
AAJ: What is the appeal, with your trio in particular, that strikes a chord with people?
Jamal: You have to remember, I grew up in that era ' in three or four eras of music, like Miles did. That was the appeal of Miles. I was a kid listening to the Count Basie orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom. I was only 6 or 7 listening to Duke Ellington. I was a teenager when "Salt Peanuts" came out with Dizzy and Charlie Parker. I lived through the Big Band era and the electronic era and also I draw from a great body of work, because my aunt sent me stacks and stacks of sheet music. Everything depends upon a musician's repertoire, how vast is his repertoire. Whether he's playing the Russian repertoire or the American classic repertoire.
The more you acquire, the more you think in-depth musically. So that's what I attribute it to. My early beginnings and my years of taking in music. When you take in music over five decades, that's a lot of time. That's a contributing factor, whether it's Miles Davis, or Oscar Peterson or myself or McCoy, whoever. It has to do with the amount of work you're drawing from, including your own.
I'm doing 90 percent of my own compositions now and 10 percent of the compositions of others, as opposed to doing 10 percent of mine and 90 percent of others when I first began. So I'm writing more and still growing. It's very, very important, to keep growing.
AAJ: You've also gotten critical acclaim, as well as popular sales. Is that important to you?
Jamal: One thing I pray for: not to be concerned with what people say about my work. Because I know what my work is. I'm the best critic of my work. I'm not overly concerned with the good, bad and indifferent. If you get caught up in people, you've got a problem. You've got a big, big problem if you get caught up in what people say. If you're gonna live for what people say, you might as well lay down and forget it. Because it doesn't work that way. You have to be involved in yourself. The quickest way to become troubled is to be concerned with what people are gonna say about your life and your work.
If you strike a great chord, and people are communicating with you, and you can get along, then that's wonderful.
I'm concerned, first of all, with accurate analysis. And many times analysis is not accurate when you are critiqued by someone not in the business. I can't critique an appendectomy. A doctor can, but I can't. I can critique thoracic surgery. I want to be around people who are genuinely sincere in their approach to reporting. I don't want propaganda reporting, or parody. You gonna imitate what Leonard Feather said or Ralph Gleason said or Nat Hentoff? Be yourself. One has to be careful about this critiquing and the values placed on things.
AAJ: What about longevity? You've been at this so long and consistent and popular and praised. Is that satisfying to you?
Jamal: I'm just beginning. Every day is a new beginning. I'm just beginning to write. I'm just beginning to do a lot of things.
AAJ: You're still working on your playing, trying to get it where you want to go?
Jamal: I love the role of a scholar. I would like to be a scholar in whatever I do. A scholar is never finished. He's always seeking. I'm seeking.