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The Venerable Ahmad Jamal

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.

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