When asked what he's thinking about when he's at the piano, NEA Jazz Master and Kennedy Center Jazz Legend Ahmad Jamal replies, "Those songs that come up on my recordings or my concerts, sometimes I pull some things that are very distant and written years before I was here, things written by Mozart. That's the wonderful thing about music, the ability to interpret the good things beyond the wildest dreams of the composer. I'm doing what I do based on three different eras of music. The first era was as a fan, as a kid listening to Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford. Then I was also in my teenage years, listening to the revolutionary works of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Then I'm still around in the so-called electronic age. So I am drawing on a great body of work. The greater the body of work, the broader the results."
A soft-spoken man who's almost courtly in his manner and yet quite firm when expressing himself, he's not careless with words. He continues, "Whether you're a doctor or a musician you are projecting your life's experiences, whether you're 27 or 77. If your experiences are positive as a musician, a painter, a writer, that's what you're going to project. I'm the sum total of my life." As far as what his audience "gets," he laughs heartily and says, "I am not interested in them getting. How can I put it? Whatever happens is a result of living on both sides. What I try to project in my life is what my music is about. I'm looking to be satisfied in what I'm doing. And maybe in doing that someone else will hear something or feel something."
A native of Pittsburgh, Jamal credits that city as having had a profound influence on his musical development. "There are few parallels in the world. New Orleans is one. I guess Paris would be another. But Pittsburgh. All Pittsburghers are distinctly different. You're talking about Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, Joe Harris, Roy Eldridge, George Benson, Dodo Marmarosa and Ray Brown. Billy Strayhorn's family I was selling papers to when I was a kid. He had left and gone, but how many 'Lush Life''s and 'Take the A Train' are being written today? Come on! This is Pittsburgh."
Playing piano for his uncle by age three, Jamal recalls that when he entered kindergarten at five, "the teacher almost fainted because," as he says chuckling, "I was playing quite proficiently at that point." Asked about when he knew his life was going to be in music, Jamal replies simply, "Well, music chose me. I didn't choose it. Music chose me. And it's the truth, because when you're that young, you don't make decisions as such. I had the right choice, let me put it that way." The beginning of what became his profound knowledge of the popular songbook is something he credits to his Aunt Louise, an educator, who sent him "reams of sheet music" from North Carolina. "By the time I was fifteen, I knew the whole rep. She sent me the sheet music of all these guys and I learned all of the songs and the lyrics as well. Because to me the depth of an interpretation runs a little deeper if you know the lyrics."
From early on it was his association with others in music that formed a solid anchor in his life. It's a core that has endured to this day in his strong relationships with his fellow players. An observation about the subtle interaction with a smile or a nod of a head between he and longtime cohorts, Idris Muhammad (drums) and James Cammack (bass) during a recent Blue Note appearance, evokes chuckles from him. "Well, you have to have top top musicians to do that, any group that's going to be cohesive. I've had top musicians all of my life, from Israel Crosby to Richard Davis. [Richard] entered my group when he was beginning to play American classical music. He was trained as a European classicist."
Fellow pianist Harold Mabern has known Jamal since 1954, when as a nineteen year-old he was new to the Chicago music scene. He and trumpeter Booker Little heard Jamal at the Pershing, where he'd recorded in 1958 what is still the biggest-selling album of his careerAt the Pershing: But Not For Me
(Argo-Cadet/Chess, 1958). Mabern calls him "one of the most unique pianists. The way he can play a ballad is just impeccable. And his compositions are very, very unique." He mentions Erroll Garner, with whom Jamal's style has been compared. "If you want to see where Ahmad came from, listen to anything by Erroll Garner. [Ahmad] was still able to formulate what he learned from being around Erroll and put it into his own concept."
Jamal's uniqueness includes an ability to transform what Mabern calls songs "on the corny side like 'Music, Music, Music' into something memorable. 'Poinciana' wasn't much better. What he did with that! He puts his mark on it and it becomes his! I always tell my students, you listen to Ahmad Jamal, Phineas Newborn, throw Chris Anderson in there and you'll be one of the greatest pianists in the world playing any kind of music from any kind of style because between them they've got the whole thing covered from boogie woogie to Mozart. When I go to see Ahmad nobody is going to talk. Before he's sitting down he's played three or four chords that are a masterpiece. We talk when the music is over."
Another admirer and sometime New York City neighbor of Jamal's in the 1960s was Miles Davis, who memorably recorded Jamal's "New Rhumba." Asked how come they never played or recorded together, he replies, "Miles was an American classicist and his influence is far-reaching. I think it was a mutual influence. We were both leaders. When you're [both] leading groups you don't do that."
Jamaican-born pianist Monty Alexander says Jamal "defies description." When he heard "Poinciana" for the first time he felt is was "putting all of it together. ...When he played those rhythms with the aid of his incredible trio, I heard a master of piano expression. I was attracted to piano players that made [the piano] an orchestra. [With Jamal] there's so much delicacy and so much thunder there, coupled with the incredible sense of dignity, integrity and elegance; apply that to the character of a man with such purpose and focus. I can think of only one other artist in jazz music I could mention in the same category of awesomeness, Duke Ellington, and he needed sixteen people. Mr. Jamal does it with three guys."
Jamal's schedule continues to be a full one. Just back from a sold-out European tour, still with Muhammad and Cammack, he had an engagement with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra at Symphony Hall. His forthcoming CD is It's Magic
(Birdology/Dreyfus, 2008), where once again he takes the title pop tune and transforms it. The CD is dedicated to producer Jean-Francois Deiber, whom he credits with "getting me back into Europe after an absence of twenty years" in 1983.
Even as Jamal observes regrettable changes in the music world, he continues to lend support to his fellow musicians, as younger piano lion Eric Reed can testify. First introduced to Jamal's music through a fellow churchgoer at age eleven, he recalls, "Prior to that I had been listening to very heavy-handed piano players. Jamal came along with something, for lack of a better adjective, that seemed to me to be a lot smoother. I met him when I was twenty. The thrill for me was discovering how down-to-earth he was and how much of an admirer of musicians he was. I'm so in awe of him because he's been able to maintain a singular reputation as an individual and as an artist. He has never compromised. He has always done interesting projects. Those projects might not always be commercial successes or even artistic successes. But the whole idea of being an artist is trying new things and experimenting. Who he is as an artist and who he is as a person are not separate."
A spiritual manhe prays five times dailyand one who clearly relishes life, his music and even his own elegant attire, Jamal cheers for jazz in a world endangered by what he speaks of as "high tech, no manners. Civilization but no culture. Culture is being able to say hello. Being able to take care of your parents, your children."
About the music he loves he declares, "The best thing is that it's still the only art form that developed in the United States besides American Indian art. And it's still being heard despite the lack of proper promotion and exposure. That speaks well of the strength of this art form. The worst thing that could happen [for jazz] is the absence of camaraderie in our field, which is very important. Very important for a Ben Webster to be around and hand a kid like me a pair of his cufflinks. I admired him and he admired me. Camaraderie is very, very important."
Ahmad Jamal, In Search of...Momentum 1-10 (Dreyfus, 2002)
Ahmad Jamal, Chicago Revisited: Live at Joel Segal's Jazz Showcase (Telarc, 1992)
Ahmad Jamal, Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival 1985 (Atlantic, 1985)
Ahmad Jamal, The Awakening (Impulse!-MCA, 1970)
Ahmad Jamal, At the Pershing: But Not For Me (Argo-Cadet/Chess, 1958)
Ahmad Jamal, Chamber Music of the New Jazz (Argo-Cadet, 1955)
Top Photo: Marek Lazarski
Bottom Photo: Ziga Koritnik