As one of the major architects of modern jazz piano, he has a gift for melody, broad and open harmonic palette, and astonishing rhythmic drive.
“I’ve been around a long, long time, so you have to be unique to be in the business as long as I have.”
Ahmad Jamal has a certain magic in his playing and it must come from the water in his hometown. “I’m from Pittsburgh!” Jamal says proudly. “And Pittsburgh has a history of uniqueness and style: George Benson, Erroll Garner, Billy Strayhorn, Billy Eckstine, Ray Brown, Art Blakey, me, Roy Eldridge, Stanley Turrentine, a tap dancer named Gene Kelly. Unique! That’s the quality of Pittsburgh-ers. We have a special approach to music. All of us. It’s like New Orleans. There are certain pockets in the world that are unique and phenomenal for music.”
Born in 1930, Jamal began playing piano at age three. He moved to Chicago in 1950, where he began his recording career. In 1958, he released the live album But Not For Me, with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier, which included Jamal’s wellknown recording “Poinciana.”
“I never get tired of playing ‘Poinciana,’” says Jamal. “That recording is a baby compared to Mozart, so I don’t ever get tired of playing it. They’re still playing Mozart after hundreds and hundreds of years. There’s no such thing as old music. It’s either good or bad.”
Jamal says, “I’m writing most of my things on my own. At my concerts you hear mostly my compositions and some by others. The unique thing about American classical music is that we interpret the songs beyond the wildest dreams of their authors and writers. Look at John Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things.’ That’s the unique thing about American classical music. That’s what it is. I don’t call it jazz, I call it American classical music. I coined that phrase many years ago.”
Regarding the mediocrity of some of today’s music, Jamal makes it clear: “The pure things last. The things that are not pure die. That’s just the way it is. All these things you hear on the radio now, the attention is fleeting and will not last. It’s an illusion.”
Is jazz a thinking man’s music? He responds: “The world is a thinking man’s world, especially nowadays; if you’re not thinking, you’re in trouble. With all these advances, you have Blackberrys, blueberries, mp3s, mp4s, iPods, new things coming out every day—but is the quality of life better? Do you have any real revolutionary people now, or are they disappearing? Do you have people coming up with wonderful statements and innovations? Every age or generation is for the man or woman who thinks. Every age is for the thinker. If you don’t think and act in a positive manner, you’re going to always be in trouble.”
With such dramatic technological changes happening today, what is the future of jazz? “You have to get out and hear ‘live’ music,” Jamal offers. “The movie industry was built during the Depression, when people would go out to forget their troubles. The wonderful thing about music that will always endure is that people get away from their troubles. That’s what’s happening now. Let’s promote the good things to get rid of the bad. Do you see Duke Ellington on the tube every day? Do you see American classical music every day? You see it every day in Europe. They’re trying to claim it as their own, but they can’t do it because the origins of it are here. We have a lot of work to do.”
Jamal’s 2010 release, A Quiet Time (Dreyfus Jazz), features a song called “After JALC,” referring to a previous concert he performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center. “What inspired me to write that tune was my experiences at Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton and that wonderful orchestra. They’re great guys and that’s one of the best orchestras in the world!”
On Marsalis, Jamal adds that “he almost single-handedly changed things when he built Jazz at Lincoln Center—the kind of building that should house this art form. The only American art forms are American classical music/jazz and American Indian art. Those are two art forms that come from the United States.”
Jamal has mastered what every musician looks to master, developing his own sound. “I like to think of my music as peaceful music because I’m a peaceful person. My music is a product of 80 years of living. Every day is a new day of discovery. We don’t create anything. We’re not creators, we only reflect creativity. That’s why there’s the saying ‘nothing new under the sun.’”
Jamal’s influence on his fellow musicians encompasses Miles Davis, Randy Weston, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock. He has become an extraordinary composer, arranger, teacher and jazz theoretician.
Ahmad Jamal is jazz royalty.
Text: Scott H. Thompson is an internationally published writer and jazz publicist.
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About Scott Thompson
Thompson served as Assistant Director of Public Relations for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York for almost a decade. With a background in broadcast journalism, Thompson’s voice and work has been heard on the Associated Press Radio Network, the Mutual Broadcasting network and NBC-AM New York, on The Morning Show. His experience spans radio, television, print and the internet. Thompson co-produced the New Haven Jazz Festival from 1994-2000.
A prolific writer, Thompson has contributed to DownBeat, JazzTimes, Jazziz, and the All Music Guide. He penned the CD liner notes to Herbie Hancock Head Hunters, Weather Report 8:30, George Duke Brazilian Love, Stan Getz The New Collection, The Essence of Maynard Ferguson, and The Essence of Al DiMeola.
Scott is one of the original members of the Jazz Journalists Association.
Editor’s note: JazzinEurope is very pleased to make the connection with Scott and values his enthusiastic support with his newly curated and revised column for us in the menu section “Across the Pond”. His original article was published in PlayBill Arts