Ahmad Jamal Interview: 16th November 2011

Ahmad Jamal 1997

From time to time over the last two decades years, pianist Ahmad Jamal has been on the receiving end of an overdue ovation he richly deserves. Among the prestigious awards that have come his way have been a Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), America’s highest honour for a jazz musician; induction as an Officier de L’Order et des Arts and Lettres in France and a Living Legends Award from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. But it is fair to say this kind of recognition had been conspicuously lacking for the better part of his career, despite being one of jazz’s greatest pianists whose influence has touched musicians of the stature of Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Betty Carter, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Jack DeJohnette, Red Garland, Harold Mabern, Monty Alexander, Phineas Newborn Jr. and Ramsey Lewis. 

Turn-up any jazz history book or textbook and you’ll see they have tended to skirt around Jamal’s achievements, with the result that many jazz fans today have only a hazy name-awareness of who he is and fewer still have any idea of his impact on jazz. Even so, many will have heard the sound of Jamal’s piano without realising it. In 1970, he performed Johnny Mandel’s title tune for the soundtrack of the hit movie M.A.S.H. while fans of Clint Eastwood’s films will have heard two Jamal tracks featured on The Bridges of Madison County (1995). And in more recent times, the website www.whosampled.com has listed a remarkable 75 Jamal tracks that have been sampled by the likes of Gang Starr, Quasimoto, DeLa Soul and Jay-Z (who sampled Jamal on “Feelin’ It” from his 1996 hit album Reasonable Doubt).

Jamal regards the uneven critical response to his playing with remarkable equanimity. It’s almost as if he knew it would be his fate when told the writer Nat Hentoff way back that critics were never as harsh as he was on himself.  Throughout his life he found a remarkable calmness of spirit through religion and family life that helped him to overcome the obstacles that life threw his way, prompting the late alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley to observe: “He seems always at peace, but he never does anything he doesn’t want to, and he doesn’t follow trends.”

Born on July 2, 1930, Ahmad Jamal’s birth name was Fritz Johnson by which he was known into his early twenties. Making his professional debut on piano at the age of eleven, he graduated from Westinghouse High School and played with the George Hudson Orchestra from 1947-8. Confident of his own ability he formed the Four Strings, which included Joe Kennedy on violin and Ray Crawford on guitar, when he was just 19. A year later he was leading his own trio, The Three Strings, which played Chicago’s Blue Note Club. After he converted to Islam, they became known as the Ahmad Jamal Trio and in 1951 they began recording for the Okeh label. With Eddie Calhoun on bass (who would later become Errol Garner’s longtime accompanist) and Ray Crawford on guitar (today an under appreciated musician, but not by Gil Evans, who featured him on 1960’s Out of Cool), the trio’s recordings of ‘Billy Boy’ and ‘Ahmad’s Blues’ were as widely plagiarised as they were popular. By now Jamal was developing a reputation as someone to keep an eye on, with Miles Davis especially interested in Jamal’s work. Impressed with his versions of ‘A Gal In Calico’ and ‘Surrey With A Fringe On Top,’ Davis had no hesitation in adding the songs, based on Jamal’s treatment of them, into his own quintet’s repertoire. By 1955 Jamal had brought Israel Crosby into the trio on bass and by 1956 he had replaced guitarist Ray Crawford with Walter Perkins on drums, who was in turn replaced by Vernell Fournier in 1957, the same year Jamal signed with Argo records, a subsidiary of Leonard and Phil Chess’ Chess records.

Jamal’s trio with Crosby and Fournier was one of the great small groups in jazz, and was in high demand following the success of The Ahmad Jamal Trio At The Pershing ‘But Not For Me’, Argo 628, or “628” as Jamal calls it in this interview. The album stayed in the top 10 for 108 consecutive weeks and well and truly put the Ahmad Jamal Trio on the jazz map. However, Jamal decided that touring was not for him and opened the Alhambra Restaurant in Philadelphia with high hopes he could establish the venue as a base from which he would tour occasionally. Eventually the pressure of running a restaurant with 43 employees and a successful jazz trio was too much. He gave up both in 1962, intending to study for Juilliard. It didn’t happen and financial pressure meant he formed a new trio and in 1965 changed his record label: “I went from Chess to Impulse! I moved to New York and one of my agents did a deal with Impulse!”.

However, by the Seventies, jazz was undergoing profound change and Jamal was finding difficulty positioning his music. “I have had some moments when I backed off and didn’t work at all. I had a record company from 1969 to 1972, and that was a period of time when I was trying to stay home and get out of the touring end of it.” One session from 1971, Live at Oil Can Harry’s documents this period of transition, a period of frustration that in this interview he chooses not to talk about. In 1972 he experimented with a Fender Rhodes piano on Outertimeininnerspace while his 1972 set at the Montreux Jazz Festival, released as Freeflight, provided a valuable resource of samples for DJ’s in the age of Rap. Jamal emerged in the 1980s on acoustic piano, recording for independents Kingdom Jazz and Black Lion before signing with Atlantic when it was clear the period of transition was behind him. His style was now more forthright, as opposed to the more discursive approach of his trio with Crosby and Fournier, as albums such as Rossiter Road, Crystal, Pittsburgh and Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival 1985 reveal.

After a period with Telarc, Jamal came under the wing of producer Francis Dreyfuss in France where some of his finest latter-day work is to be found, including 1995’s The Essence, a recipient of the prestigious D’jango D’or award. However, Dreyfuss, with whom Jamal had developed a strong personal relationship, died unexpectedly on June 24, 2010. On January 4, 2013 the company ceased its operations and its catalog was absorbed by BMG Rights Management Group, but by then Jamal had moved to Harmonia Mundi’s Jazz Village label, releasing Blue Moon on 6 February 2012, followed by Saturday Morning: La Buissonne Studio Sessions (2013), Marseille (2016) and in 2019, at the age of 89, Ballade, a rare solo album.

When I interviewed him in 2011 he was in his eighty-second year, and the pianist, once identified as a “coming great” by Art Tatum when he was just fourteen years-old, was about to release his then latest album Blue Moon, which subsequently garnered a Grammy nomination and rave reviews in the French press — “Magistral!” Jazz News, “Un autre chef-d’œuvre, simple, majestueux et tendre”, Les Inrockuptibles, “Une merveille intemporelle”, Jazz Magazine. In conversation Jamal projected serenity, often leavened by a mischievous wit revealing of his razor sharp mind. In a discography that numbers well over fifty albums, he was in no doubt that this album was something special. “I think it is going to be of the calibre of 628 [meaning his hit album Argo LP-628 But Not for Me]”, he said matter of factly. Many of the hallmarks that took Argo LP-628 to Number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1958 are present on Blue Moon. The masked virtuosity that enabled him to compress powerful emotion into suave yet economical statements; his mastery of “playing” silence to maximum effect; the architechtonic nature of his arrangements with crisp, melodic twists; unexpected dynamic shifts from bold crescendos to barely audible diminuendos; his ad hoc use of vamps (or pedal points);  and finally, a masterful use of tension and release — which, incidentally, he understood and manipulated better than anyone else in jazz. 

The surprise of Blue Moon is, well, ‘Blue Moon.’ Not only is it the most performed song in the Rodgers and Hart canon (everyone from Presley to the Platters recorded it), but it also has a chord progression that’s the most used in in pop and jazz ( I – vi7 – ii7 – V ). But the genius of Jamal is what he does with it. Typically, he takes a highly original approach, customising the song into an arrangement that allows him to “own” the song in a way that reflects his very individual musical personality. In a neat piece of symmetry given his reference earlier to Argo LP-628,  the album closes with the Dizzy Gillespie composition ‘Woody’n You’, a composition he performed on “628.” It is fair to say that the energy, power and drama he brought to the performances on Blue Moon sounded as if it had  been recorded by someone half his age, and, as if to underline the point that his musical quest was by no means over, he pointed out that, “I am still developing. I am discovering every day different colours and dynamics of music and the different ways of exploring chordal structure, I’m still discovering every day. I tread my own path.” One of jazz’s true originals, he certainly did that.

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© Stuart Nicholson 2020.