Vernell Fournier on Ahmad Jamal, WKCR, 1990

Yesterday’s Ahmad Jamal birthday posting included a conversation with New Orleans drum master Herlin Riley, Jamal’s drummer of choice during the ’80s. Today I’m sharing an interview that I conducted in 1990 on WKCR with Riley’s famous New Orleans antecedent, Vernell Fournier. I can’t precisely recall the circumstances, but as best as I can reconstruct it, I was presenting a six-hour Sunday Jazz Profiles on Jamal. Given Vernell’s massive contribution to the sound of the Ahmad Jamal Trio—among his many accomplishments, he refracted the Two-Way-Pocky-Way vernacular rhythmic signature of the Crescent City into the “Poinciana Beat”—it seemed a good idea to invite him up, which  I had a chance to do when I ran into him one night at Bradley’s.

One of my big regrets is the disappearance of my cassette copy of a Musicians Show that I did with Vernell around this time on which he spoke about his life and times in great detail—never had a chance to transcribe it. In any event, I’m glad I was able to document this encounter—this marks the first airing of the transcript.

The proceedings began with “Extensions,” a 14-minute track from 1965 that makes full use of Fournier’s extraordinary skills.

* * * *

How much input did you have into the way an involved piece like “Extensions” developed, or more generally, into the way the arrangements were set up through the course of the trio’s life?

Well, as things would progress, you’d have more input.  But in the beginning it was generally Ahmad’s format.  Ahmad laid down the format, then you tried to fit something into that you that you thought would be worth it.

When did you first play with Ahmad?

The beginning was I think in ’56, ’57, somewhere up in there.

How did it happen?

Walter Perkins was his drummer at the time.   Walter was involved with the MJT Plus Two, who were a very popular group during that time.  I think that’s the story… But anyway, I got the call, and at that time I was available to join Ahmad.  Because there was a lot of work in Chicago then, you know, a lot of good groups.  My first gig with him was at the London House, I think.

In 1956.

Yeah.  He was playing off nights there.

Had you been listening to Jamal in the years before that?

Well, of course, his first record, “The Volta,” yeah.  It was very popular around Chicago.  But no, I hadn’t listened to him… Because in the beginning, Ahmad had a string… It was a coop group, with guitar, Ray Crawford, violin,

Eddie Calhoun, I believe.

No, this bassist, he and his wife were Islamic followers.  In fact, I remember him so well because of his wife, because she made beautiful flowers just by hand; she used to sell hand-made flowers.  Anyway, he was the first bass player.  I can’t think of his name.  But it was just strings.  And they were generally working main stage at a place like the Kitty Kat and a few other clubs, but they worked downtown quite a bit, too, in the off-nights.  They stayed busy, in other words.  But that was his first group.

Was that primarily a supper club type of scene?

Half-and-half.  No one in the Jazz world stayed on the supper club scene, because it wasn’t as demanding as the club scene.  You know, when you’re young you’ve got a lot of energy you want to exert.  But of course, the supper club scene was cool also, because you could reach a high level and still be appreciated.   You didn’t have to subjugate yourself to a lower level type of music.  Just softer music and more confining.

What did Jamal ask of you as a drummer?   Rhythm has always been so important to his trio conception, it would seem that the drummer doing the right thing is absolutely essential.

Well, yes.  Well, you see, he hadn’t had but one drummer.  And Ahmad is a master at knowing to draw the ultimate from a musician.  He can fit his entire thing, I guess something like Duke was, to bring out the ultimate, to make you sound really a hundred times better than you would normally sound.  He has that gift.

As a musician, he didn’t ask anything… Actually, when we were playing at London House… I think I remember this; I’m not sure, but it’s in my mind, so it must have happened.  I had just finished setting up my drums, and I hadn’t sat down yet, and he struck out on the tune.  I think it was “Poinciana”; I’m not sure.  And I’m scuffling to get to the drums.  I’m there, but I mean, I’m not quite…you know… Well, from then on, very seldom would he have any input.  But if there was something in particular he wanted, he would repeat it with the piano many, many times until you understood what he was saying, or he might tell you — but very seldom would he speak to you about your playing.  I don’t think he ever told any drummer that was with him to do this or do that, or do anything.

And he used one of the great bassists, Israel Crosby, for many, many years.  Tell us about Israel Crosby and his function in the group.

Well, I say Israel was the rock of the group.  Because Ahmad either adjusted his changes to Israel if Israel came up with some finer changes, or Israel always would adjust himself to Ahmad, because Ahmad always had fine changes.  As far as I was concerned, he was a rock as far as the time was concerned, and he was so pleasant to hear — his choice of notes, his big fat sound.  I think he was the real catalyst, one of the major… I know he affected my life immensely.

He had also played earlier with Teddy Wilson in trio format, and was very experienced.

Yes.

Who, by the way, would you say are some of the influences on Jamal in terms of his concept of the trio sound? — if you feel you can say that.

VF:    Well, yeah, I think I can, because most trios came from the sound of Nat King Cole.  The unity and the way he used dynamics brought about a new phase of playing.  Ahmad just had more difficult dynamics, and so many of them.  That was the thing.  I mean, there were five or six ways he could play one tune.  He might insert something from another tune into the tune you’re playing, and would want that accent with it when he did it.  You had to consciously be aware that he was playing the piano.

[MUSIC: “Night Mist Blues,” “This Terrible Planet”]

Ahmad Jamal is a rhythmic innovator in the music.

Yes.  He never did sort of, for the trend of the time, the straight-ahead Jazz thing.  He always intermixed, I guess for lack of a better word, exotic times, or exotic feelings into Jazz.  Rumbas, tangos, believe me, you were able to do all these kind of things and still make it sound like Jazz.  Generally what he did, while I was with him, he’d get the melody, say, for “This Terrible Planet” that was written for him by Bob Williams, he’d get the tune, it was sent to him and he liked it… I remember one day he called a rehearsal.  I think we were getting ready to have a record date, or he was thinking of a record date, I don’t know.   Anyway, we called a rehearsal, and he laid down the line and he laid down the bass line — on “Terrible Planet,” the bassist was Jamil Nasser.  And he and Jamil formulated the sound that Ahmad wanted.  And naturally… Nobody writes for drums.  It’s funny, but nobody writes… They always try to get some kind of an input from you.  And from the rhythmic pattern that was set with the total melody, then the drum pattern was developed.  Not to talk about the drum pattern on this thing, but for the drummers out there, it’s interesting… If you can understand, it was a 6/8 time, but 1, 3 and 5 was on the bass drum, and 2, 4 and 6 was on the snare drum, so it was like a 4/4 fighting the 6/8, which seems almost impossible, but your right foot will always fall out on 1 — so it starts the sequence over and over again.  And once you get used to that, then the rest of it is easy.  And the tambourine was used on the side.  I didn’t know what to do with that tune, and I played the tambourine, and I guess Ahmad smiled, and so I kept it there.  That’s what you look for really — what pleases the guy that you’re working for.

He has to smile.

Yes.  Smile or something.  Smile is good enough.  The tom-tom thing came in with the left hand; that was for something else.  But anyway, Ahmad would set a pattern.  And  actually, the whole rhythmic pattern derived from the melodic pattern that he set with the bass line and himself, and once he set that then you just joined in with the… Until you did something that pleased whoever you’re working with.  If they set up a pattern, then you try to do something… You keep looking for something until you think that that’s what they want.

Jamal also would set up a lot of his lines against the drum pattern and create that type of dialogue.

Oh, yes.  He’s a phenomenal rhythm… I can’t find the word I want to use.  But as I told you earlier, I happened to do a thing with him in Perugia about 1987 or ’88, and it was really one of the high points of my life again to know that I could still play with him — or still try to play with him.  Anyway, now he’s into all kinds of rhythmic pattern things, 7/4, 5/4.  Very seldom does he play straight any more.  It’s always 6/8 or… And it’s very exciting.  He’s gone into another bag altogether.

Another aspect of his playing is just his phenomenal technique.  Harold Mabern refers to his “masterly chromatic runs.”

Well, I’m sure… He never talked much about himself in all those years.  But I’m sure that he had… He did mention his teacher in Pittsburgh, who all the cats from Pittsburgh during that time knew of or came under him.  I think Erroll Garner… Well, all the cats.  Ahmad had a lot of Classical piano.  I have always said, especially now, that he wanted to ever go into another bag, like the concert bag…

[END OF TAPE SIDE]

I’ll tell you, I think Ahmad is really just developing.  Because he always had this.  But you know, you get to a certain age… By that I mean, Ted, you get to a certain age where you figure, “What more can happen?  Let me go on and try a two-bar thing.”  You know what I mean?  And I think he’s at that stage now.  So there’s no telling what direction he’ll… Well, like Miles, the same thing.  Miles takes another thing, but when you listen to it you still know it’s Miles.  One of those things.

We’ll next hear some tracks from Live At The Black Hawk in San Francisco.  What were some of the circumstances surrounding that date?

VF:    Well, the Black Hawk in San Francisco was the last recording date, but immediately after that the trio was disbanded supposedly temporarily.  Well, we didn’t really know whether it was temporary or permanent, but it was disbanded.  Also that was one of Israel’s last recordings. I think he made a couple after that, but that was his last  recording with Ahmad.

Another thing, Ahmad was getting away from the softer sound, and getting more into the stick sound.  I was playing sticks more than brushes, and at one time I didn’t pick up a stick, except for “Poinciana.”  But then he started getting more into that.  He started expressing himself in a more volume-ous [sic] way; I guess that’s the word.  With more… I don’t want to say “loud,” but he became more…

More intensity.

Well, more progressive, more progressive on the piano, and showing what he really could do.  Because you know, for many years they called him a “cocktail piano player,” which was really a drag.  Like the group was a cocktail group, you know.  But I guess he proved to many dissenters (I guess that’s the right word) that his talent wasn’t limited.  And it was a very happy feeling, surprisingly.  You know, right before death…not death, but the demise of the group, this happy feeling was immediately before that.

[ETC.] We’ll begin with “April In Paris.”

VF:    That was a direct take from Basie.

[MUSIC:  “April In Paris,” “Two Different Worlds,” “I’ll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine,” “The Best Thing For You”]

We’ll move next to more live material recorded in 1961 at Ahmad Jamal’s own club, the Alhambra, in Chicago.  Where was the club located and what was it like?

It was located on Michigan Avenue, either between 13th and 14th or 14th and 15th.  But it was right above what they call the Loop, a couple of blocks from the Loop.

The South Loop, right below the Roosevelt Avenue…

Right.  Or above, either one of them.  If you’re talking about the South Side, you’re talking about above.  Originally it was a three- or four-story office building, and Ahmad purchased the building.  He had his offices on one floor, and he had two rented out, and the bottom he took and made a restaurant out of — the Alhambra Restaurant.  It was a magnificent place.  The decor and the food and the comfort was well-accepted by the public.  And it was a non-alcoholic place, so that made it able to stay open 24 hours a day.  During the prom season, you would be surprised at the amount of youngsters that would come there at 12, 1, 2, 3 o’clock in the morning, and still hanging, but come in and hear the music and have their dinner or whatever.  It was a wonderful place.

Was the band pretty much playing there constantly, week after week?

Well, the general idea behind the whole situation was that we would spend maybe six months of the year, so we could be with our families, and six months for travel — go out for two weeks, come home for two weeks, that type of thing.  And I think he had plans of booking people like Miles and these kind of people into the place, eventually.  We were there for a couple of months to try to get it off the ground, which we did.

Then it was one of those stories after that.  You hear a million stories.  I’ve heard a couple of versions.  But the club could have been successful, would have been successful, but the only way it could succeed was with Ahmad.  Ahmad had to take  up the slack in the lean days to build it, to make it flourish.  You know how Jazz is.  You have to establish it where someone knows at any of the day, the night, seven nights a week, they can go somewhere and have good music, good food — and that takes a while to do.  But I think he had succeeded in doing that.

People say that at around this time in Chicago, the club scene was in a kind of a downswing.

I don’t know, Ted.  Because there was always X amount of work on the South Side.  The phenomenal thing about Ahmad, this didn’t take five or six years to do.  He did this in less than two years, from working the places on the South Side, which paid well, but from hundreds of dollars, you’re talking about thousands of dollars now — and it’s a matter of a year-and-a-half.  And there was still an abundance of work on the South Side.  The South Side didn’t really start to deteriorate until I guess the rest of the United States started deteriorating, after the death of Martin Luther King.  Then the clubs and everything…

But there was always an abundance of work all over town, not just the South Side.  You had the North Side, the near North Side, you had the Gold Coast, you had the far North Side, you had Oak Lawn.  There was many, many places.  Calumet City!, ha-ha, which is close to Chicago.  But the club was very successful.  Very successful.  But it couldn’t make it without Ahmad.

[MUSIC: From Live at the Blackhawk: “All Of You,” “Love For Sale,” “Time On my Hands,” “Sweet and Lovely”]

We’ll next move to the date that brought Ahmad Jamal to  wider public recognition, his dates at the Pershing Ballroom on 64th and Cottage Grove.

Yes.  In the Pershing Hotel, right on the corner.

There were several venues in the hotel, weren’t there?

Yes.  There was the Pershing Lounge upstairs.  And downstairs, I forget the name of the place, but that’s where Sun Ra got his thing together, the first big band together, was downstairs at the Pershing.

Was it El Grotto?

It was called El Grotto…

That’s when Earl Hines had the place.

That was before my time, see.  That was all over with when I got to Chicago.  But there was also a dance hall above that, believe it or not, Charlie Parker used to play for dancers, and Charlie Ventura and Lester Young — they used to play upstairs there.  Would you believe that?  It was great!  The joint would be packed.  Anyway, there was a lot of activity at the Pershing in the late Forties and early Fifties that I saw.

Apart from just the sheer talent of Jamal, can think of  why this particular recording have broken the band out as spectacularly as it did?

I don’t know.  I don’t think we ever figured that one out.  I guess it was just time.  It was just time.  For that recording, I think we did three nights in the Pershing, two or three nights recording us at that time.  It could have been the live thing, with the people clapping.  That could have done it.  But it was accepted all over immediately.  Immediately.

Jamal has always had great acclaim with the public and quite a bit with musicians, but the critical community has always seemed to have a little trouble.  So I guess the public spoke in this case.

Well, like I said, when the Judgment Day comes, I would hate to be some critics!  That’s wrong, I know, to say.  That’s quite a statement to make over public…

I don’t think you’re alone in that sentiment among the musical community…

VF:    Well, generally the critics… Well, it was just like Charlie Parker.  You know, when Charlie Parker first hit the scene, everybody, almost everybody except the youth was against it, was anti-Charlie Parker.  But the youth were definitely there.  And that was Ahmad’s crowd also.  But then he reached not only the youth; he played something for the elderly also, the people that were used to the other kind of music — but with a new feeling.  The same music, but the new feeling.  That’s what Bird did.

As you mentioned before, a lot of what Jamal did comes out of the tradition of the Nat Cole Trio, and there’s Art Tatum sound, and the Erroll Garner sound as well.

Well, to me Erroll is… I hate to say it, Ahmad, but Erroll is my favorite pianist.  And the reason for that is Erroll is the only guy I know who can play by himself and swing an entire audience — by himself.  He’s a one-man band. Ahmad loved Erroll.  A lot of times, he played it.  He could play like Erroll.  Which is very, very difficult.  It takes a lot of stamina and a lot of good timing.  Erroll had excellent timing.

But what made the trio successful, I don’t think either one of the three of us knew.  All of a sudden, there it was.  Because we left home, went out on the road… In fact, our first trip from home with the trio, after the record had hit, was Des Moines, Iowa.  And it was a complete disaster.  Well, that’s a long story.  But it was a complete disaster, because it was held under certain auspices that weren’t sanctioned at that time.  But we didn’t come back disgruntled.  We knew we felt good when we played.  And the next engagement we had, we left and went to Washington, and then boom, that did it — Washington, D.C.

So you’d go to each town and the record would break in  each town as…

Well, no.  The record broke immediately.  I mean, as we were traveling from town to town, the record was breaking way before we got there.  In other words, before we got to California, which maybe was three or four months after we left to travel on the road, the record had become phenomenally big then.  One of those kind of things.  It was an immediate response.  I’m sure of it.

We’ll begin a set of several compositions recorded at the Pershing with a special request from Vernell, “Poor Butterfly.”

When I was looking at the album, it reminded me of Israel Crosby’s wife.  She loved that tune.  So she must have been in the audience that night.  And that’s how spontaneous Ahmad is.  He had certain things that he could  make an arrangement immediately.  We knew exactly what he was going to do.  But Hazel was her name.  In fact, she’s the godmother of one of my older children.  So naturally, when I see the title of this tune, I think of both.  And it came from a famous opera.

[MUSIC:  “Poor Butterfly,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Cherokee,” “But Not For Me”]

As you said before, Ahmad Jamal didn’t make Bebop his whole thing…

No. But of course, he had the technique to do anything that he wanted to do.  And naturally, during that time, all of the younger musicians could really play Bebop.  You know what I mean?  That was the thing to do.  If you wanted to really play music, you had to play Bebop, because that’s the one that called for all your expertise.  So a lot of times if you listen to him, I think you could realize that he was very capable of playing Bebop.  I know it wouldn’t have been any kind of problem for the straight-ahead thing.

Now, Chicago was a real jam session city in the 1950’s.

Yes, it was.

Did Jamal go around and play at sessions?

No, he didn’t.  He was basically a very quiet family man.  But a working family man.  He worked all the time.  I think we talked earlier about his conception.  He was trying to get his conception of what he thought he should do with the piano into the forefront.  But no, he didn’t really hang out.  There was a special restaurant we used to go to, and drummers used to get together, and bass players… Anyway, it was a home for the musicians after we got off from work.  We’d hang til four or five in the morning.  But very seldom did Ahmad hang.

Which place was that?

That was called the Home Restaurant on 63rd and Cottage.  We sort of took over the restaurant from like 2 to 5 or 6.

Was Jamal very popular among the young pianists in Chicago?

Oh, yes.  And amongst the musicians.  In Chicago at that time, they had such a variety of music going on.  The music wasn’t limited whatsoever.  There was Bebop and all the rest of the things happening in Chicago.  So there was a lot of education to be had, a lot of knowledge to be gained.  Because you figured Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, people like Sonny Stitt, these were staple men in Chicago, they were always around in Chicago.  And drummers and bassists… Well, a lot of your best bass players during that time came out of Chicago.  The musicianship was very high quality.  I think I told you before, the last time we talked, that if a band was leaving New York City going to Chicago minus a man, they didn’t worry too much, because they knew they could pick up someone in Chicago that could fill that spot until whoever they really wanted would come forth and be part of the organization.  But Chicago was a very thriving musical town.

But no, Ahmad didn’t hang that much.  But everyone knew him.  Everyone would go see him, you know.

Another aspect is his great orchestrational abilities within the trio format.  I think Ellington must have been an influence on him there.  And he recorded Ellington compositions and Ellingtonia throughout his career…

Well, I think Ahmad always paid homage to the great musicians.   I don’t care who they were.  Naturally, he paid homage to a lot of composers.  But also what we call cliche licks that different musicians used to make, he’d also pay homage to them on those.  Tatum and Garner… Like I said, he could do the thing just like Garner if he wanted to.

Anyway, whatever the situation demanded, he had the power to come forth and take care of the business.

[MUSIC: “Raincheck,” “Squatty Roo”]

This last segment will focus on the drummerless trio that Jamal first recorded, three or four recordings, one for the Okeh label and one for Argo-Cadet.  Do you recollect hearing this particular trio in person?

Yes.  Is Eddie Calhoun on bass on that one?

Actually, it’s Israel Crosby and Ray Crawford.   The LP is Chamber Music Of The New Jazz.

I remember hearing Ahmad many, many times.  Whenever he’d play the South Side, there was a particular place that loved him and the people loved him there.  It was called the Kitty Kat, at 63rd Street.  It was a very small place, but it stayed packed for Ahmad.

Was it a good piano?

A very good piano, yes.  Of course, there weren’t as many grands around as there are now, but most places had well-tuned pianos.  I’ll put it like that.  Sometimes a grand piano would have taken up too much room, some of the joints were so small.

No Bosendorfers in these places.

Oh, no.  I didn’t hear of Bosendorfer until… I  think George Shearing played one when I played with him.   But sitting next to a grand could be very detrimental to a drummer during that time, because if a guy really plays that grand, when he digs into those bass notes, it really can affect your ears — in a pleasant way, but it can affect them.

Another thing about this time, a number of these tunes, some six or seven that we won’t be able to get to, were recorded by Miles Davis around this time with the great quintet.  He collaborated with Gil Evans on “New Rhumba.” “All Of You,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Surrey With the Fringe On Top.” “Ahmad’s Blues” and  “Billy Boy” were features for Red Garland.  “Autumn Leaves” and “Squeeze Me,”  too [ETC.] Ray Crawford had a very percussive technique on guitar.

Yes.  He started… Now, I don’t know if he originated it, but he was one of the first, I think, to record the bongo beat on the guitar.  It gave it an extra body, it gave it an extra sound, instead of just strumming all the time.

But to get back to Red,  you know, Ahmad recorded “Billy Boy” and those things much longer before Red Garland recorded those things.  But that’s when the group really started expanding, when he got into the trio thing.  I think Joe Kennedy and whoever else was there left and went back to Pittsburgh, and then he stayed with the trio at all times.  It wasn’t augmented whatsoever.  What was the question…

It wasn’t a question, but more of a comment.   What you’re responding to has to do with Ray Crawford’s guitar and had you seen the drummerless trio.

Yes.  And in fact, at this particular club, the Kitty-Kat that I was talking about before, they’d work on a Monday night when most of the groups were off on Mondays.  And Monday was a big day in Chicago.

They had the breakfast…

The breakfast show was Monday morning, and then you went to the jam sessions afterwards, then there was an evening jam session, then you’d go to the clubs that night.  So it was a 24-hour situation, or a 36-hour situation.

Chicago was  wide-open.

That’s right.  So we’d all head over to see Ahmad, pay him a visit, listen.  But then there were other things that you wanted to hear, too, so it wasn’t a constant thing.  But we always knew he was there.  We’d get full of his sounds, and we’d leave and come back and get replenished with them later on, like guys do today.

[MUSIC: “New Rhumba,” “Billy Boy”]

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Filed under Ahmad Jamal, Chicago, Drummer, Interview, WKCR

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