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The Venerable Ahmad Jamal

By Published: March 13, 2004
Ahmad Jamal settles into a comfortable chair in his office at home, relaxed and ready to field questions, which he does with both a firmness and a calm ease; not unlike nestling his body onto a nightclub piano stool and taking a relaxed breath before embarking on a performance that will take the patrons off to another place ' a sweet and swinging place. He exudes a warm presence and handles everything even-handedly, but with total candor. He's confident and he should be, as one of the figures who has helped develop the classic American art form known as jazz.

It's hard to sum up an artist like Ahmad Jamal. He's an American original. A classic artist. His playing has influenced countless other pianists since his early days back in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he, in turn, was a musical sponge, soaking up the sounds of the city's rich musical heritage, then finding his own way.

He started playing the piano at age 3, so he's been at it 68 years. (OK. Here's the math: He turned 71 last July 2). And he's been thriving in a world where musicians in general, and jazz musicians in particular, are not always greeted with open arms. But through the power if his art ' and it's clear, talking to him, through the power of his own will, fortitude and vision ' Jamal has excelled. He's had best-selling records and is consistently in-demand for performances. ("I'm turning down work," he said). And yes, there are the stories of how he influenced even the perennially influential Miles Davis with his light touch, sweet sound and use of space.

Like most artists, a lot of the makeup of Ahmad Jamal can be found in his music. The ear for melody, the rhythmic sense, the light and facile touch. His music rolls out like a limousine and reaches a beautiful cruise control. Everything in it is functional, and seemingly simple, no matter what complexities have gone into its framework. But that's not all of Mr. Jamal.

He is outspoken. From his position in the business and his stature in history, he can see things about the recording business and the music industry, about the people who made jazz for this century and about life. He has no hesitancy expressing them. As a matter of fact, ask him about his piano style and he doesn't dwell on it. He says it's an amalgam of being exposed to many kinds of music and living in a city full of great musical creativity. Ask him about life? He'll tell you in more detail. He'd make a good teacher.

"I would like to be a scholar in whatever I do," he said in an interview not long before Christmas. "A scholar is never finished. He's always seeking. I'm seeking."

And what he finds he doesn't mind sharing with others willing to lend an ear. "Be joyous in your work," he advises. "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." At another point, his sagacity touches on dealing with people. "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' The quickest way to become troubled is to be concerned with what people are gonna say about your life and your work."

His words, carefully chosen yet not premeditated, come from a keen mind and eyes that have been open as he progressed across the music scene, city to city, club to club and business relationship to business relationship. After his formal piano training as a youngster, he joined the George Hudson Band at the age of 17, and began touring nationally. His Three Strings band a short time later, with Ray Crawford on guitar and Israel Crosby on bass, was the precursor to his famed piano trio (traditional bass and drums rhythm section) for which he is probably best known. While performing in New York, renowned producer John Hammond saw the Three Strings and signed the group to Okeh Records. It wasn't long before Vernell Fournier took the drum spot and the guitar was cut out. Drums, he said, were better suited to noisy nightclubs. It was his sound in the trio format that endeared him to Miles, and the trumpeter began using not only songs that Ahmad had been performing ' like "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" or "But Not For Me"—but Jamal originals like "New Rhumba" and "Ahmad's Blues."

Scores of recordings later ' including Olympia 2000 released in October 2001, which features saxophonist George Coleman ' Jamal shows he still has the staying power, the enthusiasm and the thirst for more.

So how would one introduce him? I suggest, simply, the Venerable Ahmad Jamal.

All About Jazz (AAJ): You had a CD release recently, Olympia 2000. You're still in the trio format, but you've been using George Coleman of late.

Ahmad Jamal: We've been working some spots together. But sometimes I expand. I had seven pieces at La Salle Pleyel in Paris. So I'm not just doing the small ensemble anymore. I don't even call it trio, I call it a small ensemble. Because the word trio is limiting as far as I'm concerned. So I have a small ensemble and sometimes I have a larger one. In the case of this project I used a quartet. I also have a seven-piece thing that we haven't released in the States yet. It was done at La Salle Pleyel with [guitarist] Calvin Keys and Joseph Kennedy Jr. on violin and George Coleman [tenor sax]. A bunch of guys, including me.

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.

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.

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?

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.

AAJ: How do you like the newest CD that's out?

Jamal: It's full of energy. I love things that are full of energy. There's a lot of energy and a lot of good things going on. George (Coleman) is playing superbly. I think the world is going to know a little bit more ' they know about George Coleman, but I think the world is going to know a little bit more about George as a result of the release of this CD. He plays superbly. That was the result of a five-week tour. We did Grenada, Spain. And most of them were sold out. There wasn't a seat left at Salle Pleyel.

AAJ: The Sal Playel music will be released maybe next year?

Jamal: Yeah. That's probably going to be released in a compilation, because I didn't release it in the United States. It's also wonderful, wonderful piece of music. I like it. A lot of good solos on it. It's a nice piece of music.

AAJ: What else is on the horizon?

Jamal: Playing a week with a gentleman of the bass, Keter Betts, sharing the bill after 20 or 22 years at Blues Alley in Washington, DC. Dec. 26 to January 31. I'll be going down there to do my annual gig. Then I'm going to Symphony Hall in Chicago. Then a European tour again. Many, many interesting things. Working on the next record, perhaps. Having a lot of fun and enjoying life.

AAJ: Of all the years you've had in the business and all the things you've been through, what would you tell some of the younger ones out there? Any words of advice?

Jamal: The best advice I can give anyone is prepare yourself with options. Well how do we do that, Mr. Jamal? You go and get knowledge. And you learn all the things that you can, so if one area breaks down, you don't get frustrated. In other words, if a fire breaks out, you don't get trampled to death because you only have one exit door. Well how do you do that, Mr. Jamal? You go to school. Prepare yourself for options. If you want to be a performer, see how that breaks down and you learn how to conduct. So you conduct for a while. If you can't find a role in conducting and you've prepared yourself to teach, you can teach for a while. And if you can't find a job in teaching or orchestration, you can write for a while. If you have these options, you can be places because you want to be, not because you have to be. That's the best advice I can give to any young person. Prepare yourself so you have options. So you're not locked in and can't get out.

AAJ: How would they find soul in their playing, and in life? Is there a secret to that?

Jamal: Live according to the best rules. That's how you find soul. Otherwise you're not going to find soul. You have to live according to the rules. You've gotta observe some of the rules, if not all. The more rules you observe in this life, the more soul you're gonna get.

AAJ: And will that come out in the playing?

Jamal: Absolutely. If you don't observe rules, you're not going to come out at all because you're gonna perish somewhere along the way. If we can keep all our wonderful talent here longer, it's better for us and better for the world. A lot of our great, great talents have been destroyed because of the influence of this world. Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Tad Dameron, Fats Navarro, Chet Baker. Because you've gotta observe some of the rules. If you don't follow some of the rules, sometimes you don't even survive. That's the name of the game: develop your spirit and develop all the things that are warranted and are demanded as a result of living.

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