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."