Ahmad's Blues

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.

"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."

Those late bloomers were quick to praise Jamal's mid-'90s two-volume work, The Essence, in which--for the first time--he worked with both a sax player (George Coleman) and a trumpeter (Donald Byrd).

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.

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