The Venerable Ahmad Jamal
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.
AAJ: The spatial elements in your music. You were an influence on Miles. Is that satisfying?
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?