A Fireside Chat With Ahmad Jamal
“ It [jazz] will be going on and on and on as long as there is a world as far as I am concerned. They will be singing ?Sophisticated Lady? long after these other fads are gone. ”
Is Ahmad Jamal a legend? Hello, are the Miller Lite chicks hot? Yes. Jamal is nothing if not humble about it all. Refreshing in a world dominated by 'show me the money'/'show me the camera' hams. But I guess it is because he is old school, the days when milk was a quarter, TV was black and white, and jazz was the music of the popular culture. And this is why I am so stunned we can make shoelaces that don't get untied, yet can't figure out how to build a time machine like HG Wells predicted or at least a flying DeLorean so I can go back to an era that put reason before insanity. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Jamal (and how could you not be when his version of 'Poinciana' is the definitive recording of that tune), Miles Davis adored Jamal's playing. In fact, in his no bullshit bio, Davis states it matter-of-factly how much he admired the man's piano. Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Ahmad Jamal, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Ahmad Jamal: Music chose me. I didn't choose it. I was playing at three years old. When you are that young, you don't make choices. Choices are made for you. The instrument was in my mother's house. It was already there, so I passed by it one day and sat down. The rest is history.
FJ: What was your earliest band configuration?
AJ: I had several configurations. I had Chano Pozo with Dizzy Gillespie and I had Ray Crawford and Eddie Calhoun. I was using congas, bass, and piano and then I was using guitar, bass, and piano. That was the format for a long time, guitar, bass, and piano with the wonderful guitarist Ray Crawford, who was formerly a tenor saxophonist with Fletcher Henderson. He learned guitar when he was ill. He had lung problems and he learned guitar. He was quite an emulated guy he was. He used to play the conga effect on the front of his guitar. Everybody picked it up, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis. Everybody started doing that. My format was usually bass, guitar, and then piano.
FJ: When did you move towards the more traditional, piano, bass, and drum trio?
AJ: Walter Perkins was with me for a very brief moment. People always ask me that, but I can't even remember. It was not a long period of time because I got Vernell Fournier shortly thereafter. Walter is a great drummer too, great drummer.
FJ: Miles Davis was admittedly a very strong proponent of your playing. Did Miles ever approach you to play in his band?
AJ: No, when you are in a leadership role like I was, like Cannonball was after he left Miles and Miles himself, there was an attempt to get the three of us together, but that didn't arrive at all. I was so busy with my group and trying to get it launched, I wasn't doing anything but playing the leadership role, which is what Miles was doing and what Cannonball was doing. There was an attempt to get the three of us together one time.
FJ: 'Poinciana' has become your 'My Way.'
AJ: That was not my composition. I had revived it. It was written by Bernier and Simon. It was not my composition. People think it is mine because I adopted it. I think I have the most popular version, the most successful cover that these writers had was my At the Pershing version.
FJ: At the Pershing made the Chess label.
AJ: We certainly established the jazz division. It started out with me, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters and that was it. They had a bunch of old masters by James Moody and some old masters of mine. The rest is history. Fifty-two million dollars later, he sold the company. There were four of us really that established that company, myself, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters.
FJ: You have taken as many trips across the Atlantic as any. Is the attitude overseas more reverent than here in the States?
AJ: It certainly was, Fred, for a period. That is why we had the departure of many, many, Sidney Bechet, for example. He went over there and never came back. He became a national treasure in Paris. Later on, Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon, and many, many others went over there, Ben Webster. Certainly, the appreciation, historically, is certainly monumental compared to our taking it for granted here. That is the story with the European scene. The fact is they follow this music historically and we don't. We don't teach our kids to do that and music can sooth the savage beast, but it can also raise the savage beast. That is what unfortunately we are doing here. The only art form to develop here besides American-Indian art is this thing called jazz or American classical music, which I like to refer to it as being. Certainly, there is a historic appreciation of this music over there.
FJ: Is jazz a dying art?
AJ: That couldn't be further away from the truth, Fred. This whole business of this multi-billion dollar record business that is doing everything with areas that don't have anything do to with the music established by Nat King Coles, Louis Armstrongs, and Ella Fitzgeralds. This is the art form that established the record business, period. It will be going on and on and on as long as there is a world as far as I am concerned. They will be singing 'Sophisticated Lady' long after these other fads are gone.
FJ: Let's touch on your new release, In Search Of Momentum.
AJ: In Search Of was my title and the subtitle (Momentum) was put in by my producer over in France, Jean-Francois Deiber. It sounded OK and so I went along with it. The title is apropos for the composition. I always write first and the composition dictates itself to me. I write the music and to me, the music dictates the title. The dynamics are important. The research is important. The melodic line of the song is important. Everything is important with music. It is always a challenge. Music is a constant challenge. You are not ever finished. People ask me what my favorite record is and I say that it is the next one. That is about the size of it. I am always looking forward to the next go around because I always am learning something during the process of recording and when it comes out, I am faced with more challenges, happily so. I had several ideas and the main idea was to record a wealth of tracks, which I find is very necessary. It is much better to have more than not enough, Fred, as was the case with my model release, At the Pershing, which is really a historic piece of recording or historic musical document. I had forty-three tracks when I went into the studio. I only used eight. I always had the concept of recording a wealth of tracks because you have got to have choices. When you don't have enough choices, you run into trouble and so I always had a concept of recording enough so I can have some good selections.
FJ: When will you be returning to the West Coast?
AJ: I am going to Europe for five weeks in conjunction with the release of this latest recording venture. I don't know when I will be coming to the coast. The last time I was out there, I worked Cerritos Center. I don't know when I am do out there again. I love coming out there, but there is not a wealth of places for me to work now because I have backed off of nightclubs, Fred. I am only doing, for the most part, theaters and concert halls. It is time. I've been doing the nightclub circuit for years and years and years. Right now, I don't want to spend a whole week in clubs. I only do two clubs and that is the Regatta Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Iridium in New York, which are vacations for me. Sometimes I like going back to New York City because there is still a lot of energy there. Those are the two places I am doing nightclubs. Now, that may change, but right now, I am not doing any nightclubs with the exception of those two. In Europe, I don't ever do clubs. I do nothing but theaters in Europe.
FJ: In the times we are living in currently, shouldn't we place that much more importance on the music?
AJ: Of course, the motion of the industry was established in very turbulent times and when turbulence goes on in the world, that is when music soothes the savage beast, Fred.