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"We're one of the biggest things in Europe now," he says. "That's one reason why Ben Webster, Bud Powell and so many of us go to Europe, because there's a much better appreciation of what we're doing. I don't even record here anymore. I do all my recording in France.
"We have too much of a good thing [in the United States], and we don't treat it properly. We've had two art forms develop in the United States, American Indian art and this thing called jazz, and neither has been given its just due. You see Lawrence Welk on the tube every week; what about Duke Ellington? Lawrence Welk has nothing to do with American art; it's a polka thing."
If the Welk reference suggests that Jamal hasn't been keeping up with American television, his point is well taken nonetheless. One gets the sense that Jamal's talents were overlooked for so long that he's had to speak up for his own accomplishments. He doesn't come off as immodest, necessarily, but rather as someone who knows how big his shadow is, and doesn't see the point in feigning humility.
He's quick to point out that he and Dizzy Gillespie were the first jazz artists to incorporate Latin percussion in their work; or that big fan Clint Eastwood used Jamal's signature "Poinciana" in The Bridges of Madison County; or that he's the only surviving musician from Duke Ellington's 25th-anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall in 1952.
"I fall into the same category as Linus Pauling, who got a Nobel Prize belatedly," Jamal says. "He extolled the merits of Vitamin C, and all the medical people said, 'No, no, no, he's nuts.' So I fall into that category happily. I don't mind sharing the dais with people like Jonas Salk, who I've shared the dais with when I was given the Jaycee award back in the '60s. So my contributions are certainly historical, to say the least, and to say the most, you can find my name above Lyndon Baines Johnson in the books of America.
"The people who applaud me are the late bloomers, with the exception of Miles Davis. Man is not the brightest example of intellect at all times."
The Essence was yet another reminder that one of the great rewards of Jamal's work has always been his improvisatory wit and the great intelligence he brings to his playing. With little fanfare, he incorporates classic phrases from the jazz canon into his solos, as if to remind you that each piece of music is just a link in an infinite chain.
You can hear it in his 1960 recording of "Raincheck," when he tosses in a fragment of "Beginning to See the Light." In a lighter vein, he turns the self-penned "New Rhumba" into a swinging homage to the children's ditty "Put Your Little Foot." His classic 1966 recording of "Misty" takes similar liberties, using the famous standard as a mere springboard for a medley that includes a taste of "On Broadway."
As a music fan whose knowledge of jazz is encyclopedic, Jamal expresses some concern for the future of his chosen genre, but in typical fashion, his take is a little more cosmic than most.
"The future of the world is in jeopardy, and jazz is part of that," he says with a laugh. "We have a huge problem, and we have to find the panacea. I know I've found it. The assimilation and application is what I'm about. But the world needs a whole lot of straightening out, 'cause it's all messed up.
"The thing I've found in music today is there are not too many things I care to listen to. And it's not because of being what they used to call a 'moldy fig.' I've always thought of myself as someone who's not in a rut musically. But today, I find there are no singular forces, no Dizzy Gillespie, no Lester Young or Art Tatum. We've got great technicians, but no revolutionaries like Charlie Parker. It has to do with the environment. You have a sterile environment. You have an environment of things and not of the spirit. People are not feeding the soul. They're feeding the body only. And when that happens, there's no soul in the music."
Ahmad Jamal is scheduled to perform on Saturday, January 16, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Showtime is 8 p.m.