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Interviews

Ahmad Jamal: Forward Momentum

By Published: July 6, 2010
AAJ: You've recorded a number of the songs on A Quiet Time before, which was also true of it's Magic; you seem to share Duke Ellington's philosophy that a composition is never finished but constantly evolving—is that fair to say?



AJ: There's no such thing as old music; that's something I share with Duke Ellington. The European classicists keep repeating the same body of work so there's no such thing as old music; it's either good or bad. I'll quote a wonderful pianist who's passed away recently, Frank Richmond: "Finished but not never."

AAJ: Another musician who passed away recently was bassist Jamil Sulieman Nasser
Jamil Sulieman Nasser
b.1932
bass, acoustic
...

AJ: Jamil was from Memphis and he was with me ten years. He had a truly fine ear. He came to New York with one of the most profound players in our history, and that's Phineas Newborn
Phineas Newborn
Phineas Newborn
1931 - 1989
piano
. He also worked with Oscar Denard, who the world doesn't know about, but he was one of the finest pianists in the world. He toured Africa with him so he was a pioneer in the fullest sense of the word. He worked with B.B. King
B.B. King
B.B. King
b.1925
guitar, electric
, and I think he did three hundred and sixty four one nighters in one year with B.B. King. Jamil was a giant.

AAJ: A lot of your arrangements, even in a small ensemble, have an orchestral quality to them; who influenced you in that regard?

AJ: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my city, which has produced the finest musicians in the world; that's where Billy Strayhorn
Billy Strayhorn
Billy Strayhorn
1915 - 1967
piano
comes from, that's where Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner
1921 - 1977
piano
comes from, that's where Earl Hines
Earl Hines
Earl Hines
1903 - 1983
piano
comes from, Billy Eckstine
Billy Eckstine
Billy Eckstine
1914 - 1993
vocalist
, Ray Brown
Ray Brown
Ray Brown
1926 - 2002
bass, acoustic
, Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
, Eddie Clarke, Earl Wild, Gene Kelly, George Benson
George Benson
George Benson
b.1943
guitar
, Stanley Turrentine
Stanley Turrentine
Stanley Turrentine
1934 - 2000
sax, tenor
, Maxine Sullivan
Maxine Sullivan
Maxine Sullivan
1911 - 1987
vocalist
, the great singer. We all come from an orchestral city; Pittsburgh. That's where all my inspiration comes from.

AAJ: Someone who is mentioned a lot as having influenced you is Errol Garner and that's well documented, but what about Earl Hines
Earl Hines
Earl Hines
1903 - 1983
piano
?

AJ: Earl was an orchestral influence, not so much pianistically. The pianistic influence was more Art Tatum
Art Tatum
Art Tatum
1909 - 1956
piano
, Errol Garner and Nat "King" Cole
Nat
Nat "King" Cole
1919 - 1965
piano
, not particularly in that order but in any order you choose. They were equally influential.

AAJ: Many musicians—from Duke Ellington through John Coltrane and up to Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau
b.1970
piano
today—have spoken of the difficulty of ending a song; the start is no problem and making your way through the song is no problem but they talk of the difficulty in ending a song. Is that something you can relate to?

AJ: I have no difficulty starting or ending a song; my compositions dictate themselves. There are an abundant number of ways to do that but I adopt a certain form that happens to be my signature form, you know, certain endings that no one uses but me. My difficulty these days is finding the time to write, what with your blackberries and blueberries and computers and iPods and all this junk they have; if you can extract yourself from all that you have no problems with endings [laughs].

AAJ: On A Quiet Time the percussionist, Manolo Badrena, makes a big impact; you've worked with him a lot over the years, what do you like in particular about his playing?

AJ: Manolo is a remarkable player, that's why he was with Weather Report
Weather Report
Weather Report

band/orchestra
and Joe Zawinul
Joe Zawinul
Joe Zawinul
1932 - 2007
keyboard
, one of the great pianists, composers and orchestrators to say the least, for 32 years.

AAJ: Do you tell him exactly what you want, or does he bring his own thing to the mix?

AJ: He recorded with me years and years ago. He knows what to do. I have certain things I specialize in and he affords me the opportunity to exhibit my specialty as he's a great listener.

AAJ: You were using congas over fifty years ago, weren't you?

AJ: That is correct. I've been using percussionists for years. There were only two people who used percussion early on and that was me and Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
. I used to have a group with percussion, bass and piano. It wasn't always guitar or drums. I've been tinkering with and working with percussion for years and years. It's not anything new.

I had a guitarist, another Pittsburgher, Ray Crawford
Ray Crawford
b.1924
, and he was mimicked by Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel
1923 - 2004
guitar, electric
and Herb Ellis
Herb Ellis
Herb Ellis
1921 - 2010
guitar
and a lot of others, and he used to get a conga effect on the frets of his guitar on my early recordings, so everybody started imitating Ray Crawford. We've always employed some sort of percussive effects one way or the other, but I was working with actual congas years and years ago.

AAJ: Another musician who worked with you in the very earl days was bassist Richard Davis
Richard Davis
Richard Davis
b.1930
bass
; what do you recall about playing with him?

AJ: One of his first engagements was with me. He's a person who can play in any symphony orchestra in the world. He was trained in the European classical tradition and then he became very competent in the American classical tradition when he was working with me and other people like Thad Jones
Thad Jones
Thad Jones
1923 - 1986
trumpet
's great orchestra every Monday at the Village Vanguard. He's one of the great educators now; he's a professor at Wisconsin. He worked and recorded with me early on, until he went to New York with the great pianist Don Shirley
Don Shirley
b.1927
, on some records you've probably never heard on the Parrott label. Those masters were later purchased by Leonard Chess.


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