Ahmad's Blues

Long hailed by his peers, Ahmad Jamal at last has the critics firmly in his corner

Ahmad Jamal is reminiscing about Pittsburgh.
Known to much of the world simply as a grimy steel town, Pittsburgh has also been one of the great breeding grounds for jazz. It's a city whose musical legacy is so imposing that Andre Previn turned down other offers for a chance to conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony. The 68-year-old Jamal hasn't lived in Pittsburgh for half a century, but he proudly runs down the list of musical giants who hail from his hometown: people like Billy Strayhorn, Errol Garner, Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown, Art Blakey, Phyllis Hyman, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine and Kenny Clarke. Jamal--who took direct inspiration as a kid from Garner's piano virtuosity and sold newspapers on Strayhorn's block--credits Pittsburgh with keeping his artistic vision clear even after decades of music-making.

"Freshness is something that's indicative of the town I come from," he says. "It's a very unique town. That kind of town keeps you fresh. It's a phenomenon that's unique. There are other pockets, but none quite like Pittsburgh. There's Kansas City, there's Detroit, there's Philadelphia, but the only one that would parallel Pittsburgh is New Orleans.

Among his Three Rivers homies, Jamal has a particular fondness for Strayhorn. In 1996, he released I Remember Duke, Hoagy & Strayhorn, an album that, at least in part, paid tribute to Strayhorn's compositional genius. Because Strayhorn frequently toiled in Duke Ellington's shadow (to the point where Strayhorn's "Take the A Train" became Ellington's trademark tune), his contributions were slow to be recognized. Somehow, you get the feeling that when Jamal talks about Strayhorn, he could just as easily be thinking about himself.

"People are starting to discover the intricacies of Billy Strayhorn's music," he says. "In order to play 'Lush Life,' you have to study it. All his work was so scholarly. You can't approach it unless you know what you're doing. And he was, in a sense, buried. But people are beginning to discover him now."

Jamal can probably relate to Strayhorn's fate, because he's long been jazz's most underrated living legend. Consider that neither The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz nor The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Jazz makes a single reference to Jamal, despite the fact that his 1958 album But Not for Me (recorded at Chicago's Pershing Club) was a musical milestone and jazz's first-ever million-seller. Beyond this obvious commercial impact, Jamal consistently received extravagant praise from Miles Davis, never one to waste a compliment.

In the late '50s, Davis gushed, "All of my inspiration today comes from Ahmad Jamal. I live until he makes another record." In putting together his classic lineups of the '60s, Davis actually sought pianists who reminded him of Jamal's smooth elegance. Jamal takes obvious pride in Davis' assessments, but says that while they were friendly, they consciously chose not to be close friends.

"It was quality, not quantity," Jamal says of their relationship. "We lived a block away from each other, but we never hung out, because we didn't have that familiarity-breeds-contempt role. We kept our distance. That's why we had a nice relationship."

Jamal laughs when he recalls the last time he saw Miles, at a music festival in Finland. "There were a bunch of reporters and people waiting for him, and he comes out of the limousine, hugs me and goes straight upstairs. So we had a good relationship, one of respect. That's what I like, 'cause I'm sort of a loner anyway. I don't much like hanging out."

Despite the admiration of Davis and many of his other peers, Jamal fared less successfully with many critics of the 1950s, who saw his smooth, melodious approach as cocktail-lounge music next to the radical harmonics of bebop. In fact, in his understated way, Jamal was opening up the vocabulary of jazz, redefining the potential of the small band. Though he's quick to point out that he's worked with everything from orchestras to big bands to a sax-piano duo, Jamal is remembered for his succession of sterling trios. With just a rhythm section behind him, Jamal managed to use space and dynamics to riveting effect, confident that every chord he hit would be magnified in this setting. He has always played with such effortless precision that it took some critics years to recognize the heart behind the technique. Jamal insists that critical approval never concerned him anyway.

"I don't look for appreciation from man," he says. "I look for appreciation from the Creator and then myself. If I enjoy my role with the Creator, everything else is subservient. If you're looking for the plaudits from man, you've got a problem. You have to look to yourself for appreciation. If you appreciate yourself, then somebody's going to appreciate you in the bigger arena. You have to do what you have to do. Someone's gonna pick it up, you don't have to worry about that."

Jamal went through a painful divorce in the early '60s and also was forced to close his club, The Alhambra, and watch his musicians leave him to work with George Shearing. He acknowledges that this period was one of several times that he wanted to find a new line of work, because he couldn't stand the business side of his vocation. He also never much cared for the road. But in 1983, he returned to play concerts in Europe after a two-decade absence and found--as many jazz greats have--that European audiences were immeasurably better informed about the great American art form. Although Jamal continues to live in upstate New York, France is now the center of much of his musical activity.

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