A few weeks ago, the unfortunate news went semi-viral that the U.S. government had blocked Ahmad Jamal, who turns 81 today, from receiving a $10,000 fee for a forthcoming performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, citing the bank transfer as “a donation to terrorism.” Apparently, he was being confused with Jamel al-Bedawi, a Yemeni wanted in connection with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. It’s unclear whether the State Department or Department of Homeland Security has resolved the confusion
Jamal is, of course, a universal influence on the sound of hardcore mainstem jazz by dint of Miles Davis’ application of his strategies to his own rhythm section during the middle ’50s (Miles recorded much of the repertoire of Jamal’s early ’50s Three Strings trio with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Israel Crosby, and assigned pianists Red Garland and Bill Evans to head to his steady gig with Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier at Chicago’s Pershing Ballroom on 64th and Cottage Grove for first-hand observations of what he wanted them to do), and the subsequent assimilation of his syntax by the likes of McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller, Marcus Roberts, Eric Reed, and Bill Charlap, all of whom cite him as a seminal early influence. He’s of course evolved with age, broadening his concept, extending the forms, playing with an imaginative oomph and unfettered imagination.
As Jim Macnie put it in a cover story that ran in DownBeat last March, “All the signature Jamal elements are in place: the exquisite touch, the profound grace, the mercurial improv choices. Though they’ve been there for decades—certainly since he made his first big career splash with At The Pershing: But Not For Me, the 1958 powerhouse that rode the charts for more than two years—these days everything about his playing is a bit sharper, a touch more vivid, a smidge more fanciful.”
I had a chance to write my own Jamal profile for DownBeat in 2003, when Dreyfuss released the wonderful trio date In Search Of…Momentum. The piece incorporated a contemporaneous interview, but also drew heavily on Jamal’s remarks during a five-hour WKCR program in 1995 on which he presented his music and spoke about his life. I’ve posted the transcript of that encounter below, as well as interviews about Jamal with Harold Mabern, Herlin Riley, and Richard Davis
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Ahmad Jamal Profile (WKCR, 2-5-95):
[MUSIC: “Poinciana” (1958); “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me,” “Chelsea Bridge” (1994); “Acorn” (1992); “Foolish Ways” (1989); “Divertimento” (1989); “Blue Gardenia” (1992); “Never Let Me Go” (1994); “Rossiter Road” (1985); “Haitian Marketplace” (1964); “Night Mist Blues” (1961); “Music, Music, Music” (1961); “Too Late Now” (1961); “You Don’t Know What Love Is”; “Patterns,” “Dolphin Dance” (1970)]
I’d like to speak with you about your early years in music and your years coming up in Pittsburgh as a young pianist. I gather you began playing piano very early, and had a facility for it that was quite immediately evident.
AJ: Well, Pittsburgh is a very interesting town, Ted. You have a lot of players that are still there that are just as astonishing as the ones that have left. We had Billy Strayhorn there, and I sold papers to his family when I was a kid, which was an experience in itself. Erroll Garner, Dodo Marmarosa, who is long forgotten — we all went to the same high school. Mary Lou Williams, same high school.
Which high school was that?
Was there a great band teacher at Westinghouse High School?
AJ: There was. His name was Mr. Carl McVicker. I think he lived to be 96 or 97. I think he’s passed on now. But to use the over-used word that Sue Clark comments on quite often, the legendary McVicker. Yes, he was quite popular around there.
What was his manner like?
AJ: Well, it was his approach. He was quite innovative. He had four ensembles, the Beginners Orchestra, the Junior Orchestra and the Senior Orchestra, and then he started the K-Dets(?). It was unique, because this was the all-American Classical/Jazz band, and it was quite unusual for it to be in a high school at that time on such an organized basis. He started the K-Dets(?) maybe around 1946, which is quite early on. Now, of course, we have Berklee and all these institutions of higher learning that incorporate this music in their curriculum to say the least. But I think it was very innovative, very unique on his part to start a Jazz clinical society in 1946.
I interrupted you when you were listing the musicians out of Pittsburgh.
Well, it’s so many. You have Loren Maazel, you have Earl Wild, the exponent of Liszt, and Erroll Garner, as I mentioned before, Mary Lou Williams, Dodo Marmarosa, Kenny Clarke, Ray Brown, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Phyllis Hyman, Dakota Staton, Roy Eldridge, Art Blakey — and it goes on and on.
I’ve read that you first were put at a keyboard at the age of 3 or 4, and your ability became quickly apparent.
Yeah, I took a long time to decide. I started playing at 3. Earl started playing at 3, too. It happens. It’s very rare, but it happens. I began with Mary Caldwell Dawson, one of the great teachers, when I was 7; I started studying with her at 7.
Were your parents musical? Did they play? Was there always music in the household?
Later on, much to my astonishment, I found out that my mother had approached the piano before we started coming — that was astonishing, because she never mentioned that to me. But the whole family has the ability to play the instrument, and some of us do. I have a first cousin who was down at the Blue Note the other night. She plays very well. She doesn’t play any more, but she plays very well. So there’s music throughout the entire family. And if they don’t play, they have a very thorough knowledge and insight into what music should be all about.
What sort of music would you be listening to in the family? Were you listening to a wide range of music as a young guy?
Well, I was a collector as a youngster. Ted. I used to send away for… You had to send away for records then. So I have a lot of collectors’ items. I have big band records that Erroll Garner was on that very few people know about. Guild was the label. He did some things with Boyd Raeburn and Georgie Auld. We had to send away for things like “Salt Peanuts” when Dizzy and Bird first came out on those. I was quite a collector, and so was my brother. We collected everything, the big bands, particularly the sounds of Jimmie Lunceford and Basie, all the bands who used to come to the Savoy. We had the Savoy Ballroom. That’s when I first saw Diz, when Hen Gates was his pianist. I don’t know if you remember the name Hen Gates. Joe Harris, who’s another Pittsburgher, was playing drums — he’s a marvelous drummer. So all those bands we went to see at the Savoy as well as the Stanley Theater, where I first saw Duke Ellington and Sonny Greer. Which was a picture in itself, because Sonny was behind many, many percussion instruments. “Ring Dem Bells” was one of the things Duke wrote for Sonny, I believe.
Many people have commented that the sight of the big bands as a spectacle was almost as inspiring as the sounds that emanated from them.
Well, that’s where I first heard Bud Powell, too. Bud was playing with Cootie Williams at the Stanley Theater.
Speaking about Bud Powell, which pianists caught your ear early on?
Well, some were fairly formidable, to say the least. I mean, there are some great players in the so-called Boogie-Woogie idiom, too. James P. Johnson and Albert Ammons, forget about it; they were just incredible. But the ones that I think I began to follow most widely were Art Tatum and Nat Cole, and of course, Erroll Garner was my biggest influence.
How did you go about assimilating these influences?
Well, you’re going to emulate. You have to emulate different people until you develop your own path or your own pattern. So you’re going to emulate all those great players, and see what they’re doing, analyze what they were doing. Then you go to your sessions… We had these historical sessions in Pittsburgh, which unfortunately are absent now for a lot of the younger players. So you take these things off a record, and you apply them in the jam sessions, and eventually, if you’re lucky, if you’re blessed, you’ll find your own approach to these things — which is not easily come by.
Who were some of the players your age that participated in these sessions in Pittsburgh?
A great trumpeter who is Stanley Turrentine’s brother, Tommy Turrentine. Tommy taught me my first flatted fifth chord. He’s a great musician, Tommy. In fact, I got Tommy a job with George Hudson’s band shortly thereafter, after I joined the band. Joe Kennedy, the great violinist, was one of the prominent figures in the jam sessions. There was the great guitarist Ray Crawford, who started out playing saxophone; he was one of the great saxophonists. Joe Harris. Ray Brown would come back, when he wasn’t on the road; he would come back and play, too. Leroy Brown, the famous Leroy Brown in Pittsburgh. Osie Taylor, a phenomenal saxophone player. Sam Johnson, the great Sam Johnson, a pianist. Cecil Brooks, who now has a son, Cecil Brooks, III. Cecil was one of the great figures around 471, where the sessions took place.
Were these private sessions, or would people come from around the community and offer their input?
Well, it was a private club of musicians. You had to be a member to get in. But we also let the general public in if they said and spoke the right words!
Was this club affiliated with the union?
Yes, it was our 471 local.
Apart from that, were you out doing little or not so little gigs in the community for money as a teenager?
Yes, I was working in just about every setting possible. I was working sometimes with Eddie Jefferson, who was a tap dancer then. He wasn’t singing at the time. I used to play for Eddie Jefferson on rare occasions. In fact, Eddie used to come down to the club and participate in jam sessions, too. And I was with all the big bands. I did a lot of big band work in Pittsburgh.
Local big bands?
Will Hitchcock, Joe Westray, Jerry Elliott.
What type of chart would they be playing? Were local arrangers doing it, or were they working with stocks, or the popular charts of the day?
50-50, Ted. We had some great writers within Pittsburgh, so we had some stock charts, but we also had our own writer that would write as well.
I guess Billy Strayhorn had left a little before that time?
[LAUGHING] Yes. We didn’t have Billy’s things! Duke had those. We had the stock arrangements of Billy’s by that time, I would suppose.
Then I had some very unusual settings where we would go. Carl Otter, who was a great musician around Pittsburgh, his father was a great pianist, and Carl was one of the saxophonists… We used to play jobs in Uniontown, just piano and tenor, no drums, no bass. Can you imagine that, just piano and tenor.
Earl Hines in his autobiography mentions Wylie Avenue as the strip where he really picked up his information in the 1910’s and early Twenties. What was the Pittsburgh Jazz scene like when you were in there as far as the older musicians, and what part of town was it located in? Give us a sense of the ambiance in Pittsburgh.
Wylie has been replaced with the new sports center, the coliseum, the sports dome, whatever they call it. It’s been replaced, and Wylie Avenue is no more, unfortunately. They should never have torn down Local 471. They should have kept the building (it’s a historical landmark), and moved it at least. But that was lost, which was a tremendous loss.
Wylie Avenue was the place where we all gathered, the places that were around there were the Washington Club, where I first met Art Tatum. I was 14 when Art came and played for us.
What was that experience like?
Well, it’s very difficult to describe an experience like that, [LAUGHS] a 14-year-old kid sitting and playing along with Art Tatum. Of course, he played last!
Did he have any comments for you at that time?
I don’t know. I was too in-awe to even get into that. His quotes were mentioned later on in some of my press releases. Someone found some quotes of his as a result of that, and put them in some subsequent press releases.
Then we had the Bamboolah Club, and we had Crawford’s Grill, which I’d imagine you’ve heard of. Crawford’s Grill was the definitive place for players. I, interesting enough, never worked Crawford’s Grill. Then, of course, the capital, the dome of the capital, the Musicians Club. To me that was the dome of the capital as far as music was concerned.
So you came up in some very tough company in Pittsburgh, very high standards. How old were you when you began working regularly and taking home some money.
Too young. I was 11 years old. That’s too young. I’d do algebra during intermission, between sets. That’s too young. I don’t recommend that.
Can you give us some descriptive sense of what you sounded like at the age of 11 or 12, in 1941 or 1942?
I sounded well enough… See, in my case, I had an aunt from North Carolina. That was when publishing was publishing, and she used to send me sheets and sheets and sheets of music that was written before I was born. So I sounded well enough during those years as a result of having all this great body of work that I drew from this sheet music, that I was working with guys 60 or 65 years old, and they were astounded because I knew all of these sounds. That’s how I got so much work, or enough work to start buying my clothes instead of relying on my Mom and Pop to do it.
Were you improvising at that time? Were you functioning as an improvising Jazz pianist?
Well, when I first started playing, I just played everything I heard, so I was improvising just like anyone else does who sits down, whether it’s Bach or Beethoven. They’re all improvisers, too. Improvisation is not confined to American Classical Jazz. Anybody who sits down and starts doing innovative things is an improviser. So I was doing it all my life. I started doing that at 7, started writing charts at 10, and was quite at home with, as I said before, guys 60 or 65 who had been doing it for a long time — because I had this great body of work that I was drawing from.
You mentioned that you left Pittsburgh with the George Hudson Band.
George made me leave my happy home. That’s where it started. George is also from Pittsburgh, but he transplanted to St. Louis, stayed in St. Louis, and is still there, if he’s still living. Out of that band came Clark Terry, a great number of musicians. Myself. Ernie Wilkins, a great writer who used to write charts on the bus. I can see Ernie right now writing charts on the bus. He was a phenomenal writer. He came out of that band, too. Bill Atkins, one of the great, unheralded first saxophonists, possibly the top first man in the world. Marshall Royal was another one, with Basie for many, many years, but Marshall was known — Bill wasn’t. So George produced a lot of great musicians.
So you went out with him and wound up in Chicago, is how it went?
George sent for me. He came through and heard me, I guess, at one of those historic jam sessions at the 471, and I got a call to come to Atlantic City. I was 17 then. I had my eighteenth birthday in Atlantic City. So I stayed in Atlantic City all summer, and there I met Johnny Hartman — because Johnny had just started. We worked for Billy Daniels, who was one of the so-called superstars at that time. Butterbeans and Susie. Ziggy Johnson had the chorus line; that’s another historic figure. We had Jimmy Smith, the xylophone player who used to tap-dance on the xylophone — incredible. He passed away in Chicago at the Pershing Hotel from tuberculosis. Oh, it’s a line of people that were there.
We stayed for an entire season in Atlantic City, at the Club Harlem, which is now no more. We would start at 8 o’clock at night, get out when the sun was coming up. Louis Armstrong came through one time, and that’s where I met the famous Sid Catlett. It was one of the thrills of my life, playing with Sid Catlett. We had great times there. Great times.
It seems like by the time you’re 18 or 19 and getting to Chicago, you’d had as much experience as some people get in sixty years!
Well, there are a few of us that have, I call it, embraced three eras of music. A few of us have done that. George Coleman, Thad Jones, Jamil Nasser, the late Phineas Newborn, Harold Mabern, and Miles Davis, as well as Gil Evans — because Gil was writing back then for Claude Thornhill. Musicians who have embraced three eras are very fortunate, and their whole approach is different, because we were youngsters when the big bands were in vogue, we were still young when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker came along, and we’re still around in the so-called Electronic Age. So when you’re drawing from this great body of work, your approach is quite different.
[MUSIC: “Raincheck” (1960); “Prelude To A Kiss” (1976); “Squatty Roo” (1958); “Don’t You Know I Care?” (1994)]
We were taking you from Pittsburgh to Chicago in our last conversational segment, and you were spending a season in Atlantic City with the George Hudson band. From then to Chicago, what happened?
I left the band to go back to exploit with Joe Kennedy the possibilities of getting the Four Strings in gear and getting some work for the group that we had at the time. The group was Joe Kennedy, Ray Kennedy, myself and Edgar Willis at that time (Peepers) was playing bass, one of Mary Lou Williams’ favorite bassists. He passed away some time ago, two years ago. He was the bassist with Ray Charles for a while, after he went to California. So I left the band to go back to Pittsburgh, then we went back to Chicago with that group in 1948, called the Four Strings.
Did you have a gig? Was it set up through a booking office or something?
We couldn’t get any work. We had one job that came out of an office in Chicago, and that job was not in Chicago — it was in Dayton, Ohio or somewhere. So that group broke up because we couldn’t get work. Joe went back to teaching in Pittsburgh. Out of that group came the Three Strings, because what was left was the guitarist, bass and piano.
Did that begin your concept of the orchestrational piano trio?
Well, you know, before the formation of the trio, I worked with Israel Crosby for a while. He had a trio. I worked with him at Jack’s Back Door at 59th and State. I was doing maintenance work at Carson Pirie and Scott downtown for $32 a week, and I would work at Jack’s Back Door with Israel and Johnny Thompson. I’m the only living member of that group. That was another interesting combination, saxophone, piano and bass — no drums.
Von Freeman cites Johnny Thompson as having been an influence in the 1930’s.
Johnny was one of the great players. In Chicago, you know, that was the age of saxophone. Tom Archia went there, that’s where everyone went… That’s where Vernell was working. You couldn’t get Vernell, because Vernell was sought after all over the place. It took me a long time to get Vernell in the group. So I was working odd jobs. I couldn’t work every night anyway, because I hadn’t joined the union. I hadn’t put my transfer in, or some crazy rule. I worked with Von Freeman a bit. I worked with another saxophonist called Claude McLin, that people don’t know about. He was a great player, too. Gene Ammons was around; he was the big boss. And Tom Archia where Vernell was working.
So finally, I went into this steady job over the weekend with Israel — Israel Crosby, Johnny Thompson and myself.
Then I played solo at the Palm Tavern. Once in a while, Ike Day would come in and play for me. People don’t know Ike Day, except for a few like the late Buddy Rich and Papa Jo Jones, and people who are in that really essence of the core elite. Well, Ike Day was one of the great drummers who never left Chicago for very long. He used to help me in my single engagement at Jack’s Palm, the Palm Tavern. Unfortunately, he passed away in untimely fashion.
So I worked single, and I worked trio with Israel, then I formed my own group in 1951. That was quite some time after the Four Strings had disbanded, though. In the interim, I had gone out with a group called the Caldwells, and Ray Bryant and I were the graduates of that particular college, working for those three singers, the Caldwells. Ray and I were the pianists of record with the Caldwells. Then I went back to Chicago and formed my trio in ’51 after working around for three years.
By this time the union had straightened out…
Not really. A friend of mine, who was one of the great saxophone players, Eddie Johnson, heard me play, and he went to Harold Gray and said, “Look, I want him on my job,” and he’s got to get in the union. That’s how I got in the union. Harry Gray was the head of the union at that time. A very tough man. Very tough.
I gather when you met Von Freeman, was working weekends at the Pershing Hotel, which you became identified with in the 1950’s. Describe the ambiance around the Pershing Ballroom a little bit, and also what was going on around the South Side’s booming Jazz community.
Well, Von was at the Circle Lounge. He wasn’t at the Pershing when I met him. I worked with Von at the Circle Lounge at 63rd and Cottage Grove. The Pershing was at 64th and Cottage Grove. It was one of the more sophisticated places on the South Side, along with Harry’s Show Lounge, which was the last time I saw Nat King Cole. Nat came in and saw me there when I had a trio working in the front room. We had graduated from the back room up to the front room at Harry’s.
Then we had the Hi-Hat Club, where Lester used to come, and Vernell and Israel were the musicians of record; they accompanied everyone that came through there. That was quite a place, too, the Hi-Hat; I think it was on 63rd Street.
I went into the Pershing early-on, in 1951. I asked for a job in there and didn’t get it; they didn’t hire me. So I went somewhere else, and I came back in the Pershing later on, in 1958. But the whole atmosphere there, Eddie Harris and I would be walking down the street, and there were great things happening there. As I said before, Tom Archia, Willie Jones, and Willie Dixon.
Leonard Chess had just started his label. He started it with five artists. He started it with a little guy named Chuck Berry, some old masters by James Moody, some old masters by me, and Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. He had about five artists. So the whole thing was one of great historical interest. In fact, the place where he started is now a historical landmark in Chicago. He owned the Macombo, where Tom Archia held court every night with Vernell and Willie Jones. Leonard Chess owned that place. So the atmosphere was really something when it came to saxophone at that time. And of course, there were a great deal of venues to work, too, which are missing now.
Chris Anderson, of course, was playing with Von Freeman then, and he’s cited by many people who heard him at that time as having a very advanced concept for that time, and he seems to have had an impact on a number of
Chris has always been one of our favorites, along with Billy Wallace, who is a pianist that all the insiders know. Billy is now playing a single up in Seattle. But Chris had, and has always had a great harmonic concept, absolutely amazing, astounding. And I have to get out and steal a few chords from you, Chris, as I mentioned before. I haven’t seen Chris in a long time.
Of course, there was a bunch of greats around. Chris. Bill Lee (the bassist, Spike Lee’s father). Billy Wallace, who used to hold court quite often in Chicago.
The tracks we have cued up were recorded in 1951 and early 1952 for the Okeh label, with the trio of you, Ray Crawford, and Eddie Calhoun. About three or four years after you cut these, Miles Davis then recorded most of these sides in his own way. He always was very outspoken about his debt to your concept. He had family in Chicago. Did you know him at that time. Do you recollect first meeting Miles Davis?
I knew Vernon quite well, Vernon Davis. I met Vernon before I met Miles. Vernon probably is still in Chicago.
But everybody came to the Pershing. Billie Holiday came there with her chihuahua dog, Art Tatum used to come through there, Lena Horne — everyone came to the Pershing. Sammy Davis was there the night before he lost his eye. And I guess that’s where Miles first heard me. What happened, there’s a man named Cadillac Bob who built the place downstairs, beneath the lounge, and he used to bring artists such as Miles there. That’s where I first saw a teenager named Paul Chambers, and I was astounded that he was on the bandstand at his age. And Miles I think was introduced as a result of him working downstairs and coming up to the Pershing.
Eddie Harris, in a show we did last year, said he used to play on your off-nights at the Pershing, and he’d double on piano, and Charles Stepney, who played vibes, would take over on piano and he would play saxophone. He also said that for a while Billie Holiday took a financial interest in a club that was based in one of the rooms at the Pershing that was called Budland.
Yeah, Budland. That’s correct. That’s downstairs, that’s right. That’s the one that Cadillac Bob built. Later McKie Fitzhugh had a place down the street where John Coltrane used to work, and McCoy used to work on the spinet pianos there! I remember that, too! Terrible pianos.
Describe the layout of the Pershing a little bit. I believe there were three venues located in that hotel, the dance hall, the upstairs lounge and the basement. Is that right?
Well, they had the Pershing Ballroom, the ballroom where they had the dances. Those I never attended because I was busy working downstairs, but they did have fairly big names come in there. But I never went upstairs. C.B. Atkins was around. He was one of the husbands of Sarah Vaughn. C.B. used to come in and out of there, upstairs I guess in the ballroom, and he would tell me what was going on upstairs. But I never attended.
The Pershing was one big, massive, circular bar. The bar was the entire room. It was a big room. The stage was adequate. It was high. It was the place, at that time when we went in there, where everyone came. That was the place where everyone came. Downstairs was Budland, as you just reminded me, was the other venue. So there were three. There was Budland downstairs, and the Pershing Lounge, and upstairs the ballroom.
I guess a few years before you came to Chicago, Earl Hines, whose geographic path you followed, owned a spot down there called El Grotto, and Joe Louis I believe had an interest in that place as well.
Yes, I knew the El Grotto. Again, I didn’t go to the El Grotto much. But I do remember the El Grotto.
Was Earl Hines someone who had an impact on you coming up? Were you very aware of him as a young pianist in Pittsburgh, his legacy and his presence in Pittsburgh?
Oh, sure. Earl was a great, great player, and a great band, and great records. So you had to listen to Earl Hines. I was a collector of Earl Hines’ records.
The big band that had played at the Grand Terrace.
We’ll give Ahmad Jamal another break and hear these seminal sides from the early 1950’s on Okeh. I don’t know how many exactly we’ll hear, but we’ll begin with “Ahmad’s Blues,” one of Ahmad’s many famous compositions, recorded May 5, 1952 — Ray Crawford, on guitar, Eddie Calhoun on bass.
[MUSIC: Jamal/Crawford/Calhoun, “Ahmad’s Blues”, “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”, “Billy Boy” (1951-1952); Jamal/Crawford/Crosby, “Autumn Leaves”; “New Rhumba” (1955)]
I’d like to speak with you about bass players, because the bass plays such an essential role in your conception of the trio, and you’ve worked with such superb bass players. Eddie Calhoun, Richard Davis had one of his early gigs with you in Chicago, Israel Crosby, Jamil Nasser, and onward and forward. Would you discuss your ideas on what a bassist needs to do performing in your group?
Well, the bass essentially, Ted, has to be an extension of your left hand, as Al McKibbon was in the case of George Shearing, and as Israel was and as Jamil was when he was working with me. So that’s what the role of a great bassist is as he or she relates to the pianist. And I’ve also sought those bassists who had sensitive ears, who had the ability to hear. Because I myself am drawing from a great body of work (having explained before that my aunt sent me sheets and sheets of music), so you have to have a man who has the ability to have this perception of what you’re doing when it comes to pulling these compositions of years and years ago, as well as the present things that we do.
How much input do you have into the lines that the bass player comes up with, apart of course from being the pianist and the main soloist?
AJ: Most of the bass lines I myself have done. The rare exception was the bass line that Israel played on “Autumn Leaves.” That was his bass line, which has been widely used. So most of the bass lines I have developed myself, because I have a thing for that. I love bass lines. So most of the things, 99 percent of the things, I write.
You’ve mentioned that you worked with Israel Crosby before you even recorded, and then subsequently he joined your band…the year I have in my mind is 1954. I’d like you to say a few words about Israel Crosby for the audience, what made him so distinctive as a bass player, and your own personal relationship.
AJ: Well, as I said before, I worked with Israel before he worked with me. I joined his trio with the late Johnny Thompson, and worked at Jack’s Back Door for maybe a year. It was a very interesting job. We played everything, all kinds of tunes. It was great.
It was a while before I could get Israel, because Israel was working a lot with Benny Goodman and Buster Bennett around Chicago, and it was difficult for me to get Vernell as well as Israel. So finally I got Israel into the group, and we stayed together for around eight years, Vernell, Israel and myself. First of all, the incredible thing about Israel is that he used a K-bass. He didn’t have a Tyrolean bass (I think that’s what James Cammack is using now; he just bought one) or a German bass or some of these fabulous instruments that you see various bassists with. He just had a K-bass. It was phenomenal how Israel could get this kind of action, this kind of sound, this kind of penetration out of a K-bass. But he did.
And of course, the remarkable thing about Israel is that he was a master of intonation. His intonation was flawless, just absolutely flawless. And a tremendous ear. Again, here’s a man that knew many, many, many compositions. He knew all the tunes. You couldn’t play a tune he didn’t know. He was just a phenomenal bassist in the fullest sense of the word.
And I guess a very ingenious musician as well, because performing with you, the other musicians have to fill in a lot of space and come up with counterpoint and dialogue. In a show we did a few years ago, Junior Mance was commenting that Israel Crosby always came up with ingenious ideas that blended with the most perfect taste.
Well, the classic line that Israel created (and Todd Coolman, who is another great bassist, and I often talk about it with him, has written these things down that Israel did) is his line on “But Not For Me.” That’s a classic Israel Crosby line, as well as the things he was doing on “Poinciana.”
You mentioned how difficult it was to get Vernell Fournier into the group because he was so busy. I’d like again for you to say a few words about his very special qualities as your drummer for eight years, and then for a little bit after in the mid-Sixties.
Here again, I’ve had three great drummers from New Orleans. The New Orleans atmosphere down there produces this type of talent. I had Vernell Fournier, and Herlin Riley, who left my group and went with Wynton Marsalis, and now Idris Muhammad. They all have that great New Orleans background, that great magic that only can come from New Orleans. They all have that approach to music. And when you visit New Orleans and you are down there, and you explore these beginnings and whence it comes, you realize what they have that many other drummers don’t have.
That’s a tantalizing comment. Can we explore that a little bit? What is it about the New Orleans beat that’s so special to you?
AJ: Well, historically I don’t know it as well as Idris does or Vernell does. But when you talk about New Orleans, you talk about the funerals that are conducted and the way they are conducted, where the drummers participate to a large extent, to say the least, and the French Quarter — and it goes on and on and on.
Vernell is one of the great brush players of all time. Tremendous approach to drums tonally, and one of the great innovators. What he’s done on “Poinciana,” if he could have copywritten that, he could build a bank. Many of the things you hear that drummers do, whether it’s Maurice White or whether it’s in some Rock groups, some of that stuff came from Mister Vernell Fournier. But it’s very difficult to keep from being plagiarized when you’re playing in the context that he played in. The thing that he did on “Poinciana,” for example, one of the most widely imitated rhythms in the world.
In fact, it’s called the ‘Poinciana Beat,’ isn’t it, by drummers?
Which brings up another aspect of your playing, which is the extensive use, and often within the same piece, of different time signatures and different rhythmic approaches to music.
That’s the Pittsburgh influence. We have a little influence in Pittsburgh, too. We have some things that happened there as well. As I said before, I’m drawing from three eras of music. I have had more influences than pianists. Ben Webster was a big influence upon me. The big bands were a big influence upon me. So I think orchestrally. I’ve always thought orchestrally. That’s the way I approach my group, whether it’s a duo, a trio, a quintet or whatever it is — it’s my orchestra. And with an orchestra, you have to have, or at least I like to have a variety of things going, rhythmically and melodically and harmonically. It’s part of my training.
Let me bring you back to the Ben Webster influence. He’s the only non-pianist you’ve mentioned so far…
Well, Roy Eldridge influenced me, too, on trumpet. I play some of Roy’s things! Lucky Thompson influenced me. Don Byas was one of my biggest influences. It goes on and on and on. These things you incorporate, and they stay in the inner recesses of your mind, and they become a part of your conscious playing.
Well, the trio became immensely popular at the time of the release of the album Live At The Pershing, although of course, you had established yourself prominently in Chicago by that time. Let’s talk about the events leading up to the immense popularity of your trio and of your concept, and the tremendous exposure the band now had. Of course, you were well-known to the musicians’ community, but now the broader public and international public came to know your work.
Well, first of all, it’s almost impossible for an instrumentalist to have a breakthrough. It was no meteoric rise in our case. I had been recording for seven years, and the group I had was far too subtle to continue working in the various venues, because guitar and bass sometimes are lost in the bigger venues — so I went to drums as a result. It wasn’t an overnight thing. I mean, I had worked long and hard to try and get a group together, and I went in as artist-in-residence in Chicago. After working here in New York, I decided to go and stay at home. Home then was Chicago. So the thing that happened in Chicago was very, very rare. There’s only a few of us that have that kind of breakthrough who are instrumentalists. The singers get the hit records. We instrumentalists don’t. It doesn’t happen very often. Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Miles, Dave Brubeck, and then you begin to think who else. But there haven’t been too many hit records instrumentally. Ours stayed on the charts for eight weeks, which is very, very unusual.
[MUSIC: Jamal/Crosby/Fournier, “I’ll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine” (1961); (w/J. Nasser) “This Terrible Planet” (1965); “April In Paris” (1961); “Love For Sale” (1958), “All Of You” (1958); “Cherokee” (1958)]
Tell me about your nightclub, the Alhambra. You said you had 43 employees. It was a very ambitious venture.
43 too many. Yeah, it was quite a venture, and one I got away from. Interesting club. I had Jackie Cain and Roy Kral there as well.
You had a non-alcohol policy, I gather.
Yes. I had one of the great oud players (and one of the great bassists, too) while I was working for George Wein up in Hyannisport, at the other Birdland up there. I had Abdul-Malik. The late Abdul-Malik played an engagement there for me as well.
We’ve covered a short space of time in your musical career. What have I not mentioned that you would like to express for the radio audience?
Well, there are so many things to mention, Ted. But wWe didn’t mention the concert with Duke at Carnegie Hall, the 25th Anniversary of Charlie Parker with Strings. I think I’m the only one around from that concert that we did with Duke. Of course, I worked with Duke on a number of occasions, and shared the bill with him at Basin Street West also.
Your new  release is dedicated primarily to Ellington and Strayhorn. It’s called I Remember Duke, Hoagy and Strayhorn, and there are versions of “I’ve Got It Bad” and “In A Sentimental Mood,” “Don’t You Know I Care”, “do Nothing Til You Hear From Me”, “Chelsea Bridge”, and also “Prelude To A Kiss.” You mentioned earlier seeing the Ellington band at the Stanley Theater and seeing Sonny Greer for the first time. Do you remember your favorite recordings by the Ellington band of that era?
“Cottontail” was one of my favorites. That’s a classic recording of Ben Webster’s.
Did you get to see the band that had Jimmy Blanton in it in person?
No, I never saw that band.
When did you first start going out, by the way?
My sister took me to the theaters when I was around 7.
What are your early memories of seeing big bands?
Quite impressed, you know. That’s when I first heard Cootie Williams. As I said, he had Bud Powell in the band then. And seeing Count Basie come into the Savoy, and seeing Diz. Very, very good for a young musician, to say the least.
But we have to also talk about some of the great bassists I’ve had. That’s one thing I didn’t expand upon. I’ve had some tremendous bassists. At the beginning with Tommy Sewell out of Pittsburgh, and then Eddie Calhoun, who passed away. After that, Israel. Jamil Nasser was with me for many, many years. He’s one of the bassists, coming here with one of the great players of all time, Phineas Newborn. Jamil came to New York with Phineas, so Jamil had a tremendous association with a great pianist. So he was with me for a number of years.
Not to speak about… I’ve had some great drummers. I had Wyatt Ruether. Papa Jo Jones also worked with me.
I had Richard Davis after he left Cozy Eccleston. That was the second job he had when he joined me. I had both the Pates, Johnny Pate and his son Donald Pate. It goes on and on. A great bassist, Mike Taylor, out of Pittsburgh. But I’ve had some tremendous players. But we’ll have to talk about that when I have time.
One more question: On the relation between technique and improvising.
AJ: Technique is extremely important. I’m amazed at some of the young players out here now. They have tremendous techniques. They are power technicians, and they’re doing tremendous things. But technique without the ability to tell the story is meaningless. You have to tell a story. Art Tatum had tremendous technique, incomparable technique. There are very few parallels to Art Tatum, or to a Phineas Newborn. But they also told a story.
Technique is something that is invaluable for any musician, and I respect it tremendously. But I also respect the ability to tell a story.
[MUSIC: Jamal/Coolman/Gordon Lane, “Dreamy” (1980); w/ Strings, “Bellows” (1989); “Tranquility” (1968); “Manhattan Reflections” (1968); “I Remember Hoagy” (1994); “Skylark” (1994); “Round Midnight” (1985)]
On various WKCR Musician Shows over the years, the following pianists presented these tracks by Ahmad Jamal:
Mulgrew Miller : “Dolphin Dance,” “Poinciana” (1971)
K. Barron: “Music, Music, Music,” “There is No Greater Love” [“Live At the Pershing was very influential. I remember I was laying in bed, getting ready to go to sleep, and I had the Jazz station on, and the tune they were playing was ‘Music, Music, Music.’ And again, it was ‘Who is that?’ It was just so hip. I think Ahmad is like the consummate trio player. There’s just so much space and so many ideas and he’s so creative in a trio setting. And his technique is…I mean, it’s unbelievable technique. His touch… So he has it all happening for him.”
Cedar Walton: “Haitian Marketplace”
James Williams: “Patterns”, (“Night Mist Blues”)
Cyrus Chestnut: “You Don’t Know What Love Is”
John Hicks: “Rossiter Road,” “Too Late Now,” “I’ll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine”
Junior Mance: “Raincheck,” “Poinciana
In a 2008 piece for the now dormant webzine http://www.jazz.com, pianist Eric Reed selected a dozen Jamal favorites.
Here are interview excerpts in which several of Jamal’s contemporaries, bandmates, and fellow pianists remark upon his qualities.
RD: But the first time I got a job which was more than local, in a sense, was a guy who lived in Chicago at the time, who had come from Pittsburgh — that was Ahmad Jamal. This must have been 1952.
Q: So it was in the early group before he started using a drummer? Was that in the guitar-bass phase of the group?
RD: Yeah. He had Eddie Calhoun…
Q: He had Ray Crawford on guitar?
RD: Yeah. Ray Crawford on guitar, and then there was another guy on the guitar — I can’t remember his name now either! Then there was Ahmad, and I was playing bass, of course. Ahmad had a tune which required me to play maraccas while I was playing the bass; I had to learn to do that with him, so he’d get this effect. And then Ray Crawford would thump on the strings and make it sound like a conga drum. It was a fantastic thing. And Ahmad had a sound and a concept that was just unbelievable. And of course, he attracted all of the guys coming in traveling to the club to hear him play, and it was always jam-packed. It was the first time I was with what you might call a consistent professional successful group.
Q: Was he working steadily with, like, several-week engagements at a time? And what clubs was he playing in Chicago?
RD: He would work at the Pershing Lounge, which was in the Pershing Hotel, oh, six weeks at a time, or more even.
Q: There were several levels to that club, weren’t there? There were like two or three different venues within that hotel…
RD: Well, the ballroom. See, the ballroom is where all the great traveling artists would come through. Like Lester Young; I remember seeing Lester Young. And several people would come. Charlie Parker… They’d all work in the ballroom. And the lounge was the place…I think that’s when first heard Eddie South, the violinist. I can’t remember all the groups that worked there, but I remember being there with Ahmad. And it was a classy kind of a joint. You know, there was a nice stage presentation, a lot of room on the stage, storage of the instruments — you know, it was very pleasant.
Q: Good piano.
RD: Good piano, yeah. It was a good thing for me to be with Ahmad. The one thing I’ll never forget him telling me at a rehearsal, he said, “Who is your favorite piano player?” And I said, “Oscar Peterson.” You know, who else? And he said, “You want to know who my favorite bass player is?” I said, “Tell me.” I thought he was going to say Ray Brown or somebody. He said, “You are.” I said, “Me?” He said, “Yeah, because you’re here with me.” I said, “God, what a lesson!” I was the number-one bass player for him because he was confronted me being with him. That was a real booster.
TP: You went out on the road with him in ’82?
HERLIN RILEY: From ’82 to ’87.
TP: Go over how he heard about you.
HERLIN RILEY: Ahmad Jamal happened to be in New Orleans at a place called The Blue Room, which is the Fairmont Hotel. There was a trumpet player in the house band there named Omar Sharif — Emory Thompson was his Christian name — who Ahmad knew. Ahmad needed a drummer, because the guy who’d been playing drums with him left him in New Orleans, and he’d hired some guys in New Orleans who didn’t work out. Ahmad was going to Phoenix, and he asked Omar if he knew somebody who could do his gig, and Omar recommended me, and called me to tell me. Then I got a call from Ahmad about 7:30 in the morning. “May I speak to Herlin Riley?” “This is he.” “This is Ahmad Jamal. I understand you’re an excellent drummer, and I need someone to work with me in Phoenix. Can you do it?” Of course, I accepted, and I got some other guys to do my gigs around town. We went to Phoenix, we did a soundcheck, and we hit. We hit the same night. I was familiar with his music, but I hadn’t met him. So we played, and after the set he offered me the gig. I happily accepted.
TP: When we spoke for the liner note, you said the soundcheck was the rehearsal, and it was very easy to work with him. He sat down at the piano, started playing, and continued to play. He pointed to the bass player, who came in; he pointed to the conga player, who came in; he played the cycle of the song around and around 3-4-5 times, then pointed to you and brought you in. He didn’t tell you what to play; you just heard them, and found your pocket. Let’s talk about the dynamics of playing drums with him.
HERLIN RILEY: The things I said are still true. Playing with him was an enriching experience. Ahmad’s music is organic, and the fact that he can arrange it on the spot… Because everything is cued. The music has a structure it has a form, but he gives you hand signal to direct you inside of the form with the music. It tells you if you’re playing the top of the head section, the A-section or whatever, then he’ll give you another cue for the bridge, then he’ll give you another cue for the interlude. So if he wants you to repeat any of those three cycles, he can just give you the same cue to repeat it over and over. Then when he gives you the next cue to go to the next part of the tune, you go there. So the music is constantly being shaped and arranged on the spot, which makes it very organic and very rich.
Also, Ahmad Jamal can be very percussive in his playing, so we often had a lot of rhythmic and percussive interaction. We would play off of each other. He always does that. I’ve found myself very much at home playing with him. If I was to play with him now, it would be the same.
TP: He obviously has an affinity for New Orleans drummers.
HERLIN RILEY: I think one thing about New Orleans drummers is the fact that most of us grew up within the street band and parade band traditions, and the bass drum is very prevalent inside of that. It’s just like the music of the early ’20s. It comes from the bottom-up. New Orleans drummers play the drums from the bottom up, from the bass drum up, as opposed to a lot of other guys who perhaps play from the cymbals down. I think Ahmad is one that likes the groove. And when you hear most music that has a solid groove on it, it comes from the bottom up. He really likes playing grooves [vamps]. I think he just has an affinity for the nuances that New Orleans drummers bring him; that is, incorporating the bass drum inside of the grooves.
TP: So you think he just hears that sound as part of the orchestra in his head.
HERLIN RILEY: That’s what I think. He didn’t talk to me about it, but I just know from working with him that he likes the groove! When he stands up, he’ll watch you play, and kind of clap his hands and get inside the groove. It’s kind of unexplainable, but it’s something I’ve found I’ve been able to identify from working with him over the years.
TP: You said that in working with him, you dealt with rhythms you’d never faced or dealt with before. Can you be specific about the rhythmic signatures he likes to work with and the ways he works with them that are unique?
HERLIN RILEY: For instance, he would play sometimes a tune in 6/8, and we’d get into the 6/8 feeling, and inside that 6/8 feel he would impose a regular 4/4 meter over the top of that, so you’re playing two different meters at the same time. I had never experienced anybody who had that kind of rhythmic control, to really be able to go back and forth seamlessly between the two. Because it’s two different ways of thinking. But I could hear him doing that. It would be two different rhythms going on at the same time, and I had never experienced that. Also, I remembering playing a tune with him that Jack DeJohnette wrote called “Ebony,” and inside of the cycle of the tune there was a 3/8 bar. So you go 1 2 3 4, 1-2-3 1-2-3-4… It wasn’t music that was counted out to me like that. It was something that he played, and later on I came to understand what it was. But he just played it, and then I had to just kind of figure it out and play inside of it. Later, as I started working with him and he started introducing those kind of 3/8s and 7/8s and 5/8 kind of rhythms inside of the music, then I could see it from an academic standpoint. But when I first started working with Ahmad, it’s stuff that was just played, and you had to react and find your place inside of that. As opposed to actually knowing what it was, you had to instinctively know what it was and go with your instincts.
TP: And your instincts were sufficiently honed by playing in the range New Orleans contexts to be prepared.
HERLIN RILEY: Yes, being in New Orleans, I was prepared. I had a lot of experience I could call on. New Orleans is a small community, but there were a lot of things going on musically in the late ’70s and the early ’80s, a lot of styles of music. I got a chance to play in Latin bands, bands that were playing a lot of free jazz, and even got a chance to play in vaudeville, burlesque… I played for strippers, then later I played in “One Mo Time.”
TP: From what you say, it seems Ahmad Jamal has had a big influence on the rhythmic content of contemporary jazz. Whether it’s direct or indirect, a lot of things he’s done have filtered into the contemporary mainstream.
HERLIN RILEY: I would think so. But a lot of that stuff is unspoken, because Ahmad Jamal is not one of the most in-your-face jazz figures who is out here. He hasn’t had the same kind of recognition as people like Miles Davis or Dizzy or even Monk at this point. Most jazz musicians know who he is, but the general public, when you mention his name, they’re like, “Who?”
TP: Do you think he’s a little taken for granted by the jazz public?
HERLIN RILEY: I think the Jazz Establishment has shied away from him, especially early on in his career, especially the fact that he changed his name, became a Muslim at a time when it was very unfashionable. My personal feeling is that he’s had to endure some backlash from that.
TP: True, but he was quite successful in the ’50s… And he doesn’t want to take any stuff from anybody business-wise. But he was never the type of bandleader who would instruct you how to play your parts. It would be a general feel, and whoever you are becomes the interpretation of it.
HERLIN RILEY: Yes. I think that’s one of Ahmad’s great assets. He understands and he can hear musicians, and hear that musician’s voice for what it is. Either it’s something that he can work with or it’s something he can’t work with. If it’s something that he can work with, then he’ll let you really be yourself and let you speak your musical voice as it may be. Now, sometimes he gives you subtle directions in the music. He used to tell me, “Don’t fill in every time the phrase comes around; you don’t have to play a fill.” He’s always directing the volume and dynamics inside of the music. But really, he’s just shaping whatever is already there; whatever talent you already have, he knows how to shape it, but just let it grow and be better. But he doesn’t disturb it in trying to have you change your direction or change who you are musically speaking.
TP: You seem so well positioned to put Ahmad Jamal in perspective. You’ve heard play since when?
HAROLD MABERN: 1954 in Chicago. Frank Strozier and I graduated from high school together in 1954, and moved to Chicago. Booker Little graduated in ’55, and he followed us there. George Coleman came in ’55 or ’56. I hung out a lot with Booker and Frank, because they went to the conservatory, and we used to practice together at the YMCA. Booker Little was the one who turned us on to Ahmad Jamal. He’d gone out one night to hang out, and we asked him, “Where did you go last night?” He said he went to see Ahmad Jamal. We didn’t know who Ahmad was, but Booker knew, and he said that he’d heard one of the greatest pianists in his lifetime. Booker played a little piano, too; not solo, but he knew a lot about it, having been around Phineas Newborn. After that, the Pershing became our hangout night after night. But we also heard Ahmad at the Kit-Kat Club with Ray Crawford and Israel.
TP: You probably heard him with Ray Crawford and Israel Crosby first. Because I think Ray Crawford left in ’55, and the Pershing began in late ’55. Was what he was playing when you first heard him similar to what’s on the earlier recordings?
HAROLD MABERN: The way he sounds on records is the same as it sounded in person. There was no difference. It was all great.
TP: But usually, before an audience, people will stretch out, or it’s more experimental, or chance comes into the equation…
HAROLD MABERN: I see what you mean. Well, he stretched out then, but naturally not as much as he does now. Because he is constantly evolving. It’s that way with all of us; you get to the point where you take more chances, you don’t play it safe. But he did stretch out, but it was more of a format situation. Now he’s really stretching out. But at the time I’d heard him, I’d never heard that kind of approach before.
TP: Describe what was unique about his approach.
HAROLD MABERN: Well, I have to put Bill Lee into it, because he also told me about Ahmad. The fascinating thing to me — after being around Phineas, with the technical aspect; which was great, and is still great, with the touch and the sound — was the sound that Ahmad was getting then. After being around Bill Lee, I became attracted to his chords; I’d never heard chords played that way. That’s when Bill Lee told me about Chris Anderson, Billy Wallace and Ahmad Jamal. So then when I heard ahmad, it was the sound and the chordal approach. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “Wow, how can that piano sound that way?” That’s the only I can exlpain it, is his overall sound. We’ve had a lot of great pianists, with great sounds and touches. But there’s something about his approach…the sound he got that was unbelievable.
TP: Did you see it as an extension of the great piano trios of the ’40s and early ’50s, like Nat Cole and George Shearing…
HAROLD MABERN: Well, Nat Cole especially was one of his main influences, with the guitar and bass. But one of his main influences, as I’m sure he spoke about, was Errol Garner. They grew up together. If you match up any record by Erroll Garner and any record by Ahmad, from an orchestral standpoint, you say, “Wow, there it is right there.” But it was a lot like Nat Cole in the touch, the sensitivity of what he played, the chord voicings…
TP: And probably a more progressive conception of harmony.
HAROLD MABERN: Exactly.
TP: So he was incorporating bebop, Bud Powell’s language onto the trio as a logical extension.
HAROLD MABERN: Right, with Art Tatum touch… I call it Franz Liszt touch. I tell my students that it’s the touch that produces the sound. A lot of pianists might have equal technique, but it’s the touch and the sound they get out of it — like a Chopin touch or a Liszt touch. That’s the way Ahmad and Art Tatum are.
TP: Well, he played Liszt when he was 11.
HAROLD MABERN: That’s exactly right. So all that produces the sound. I would say the format of Nat Cole and Erroll Garner formulated his overall concept. Then he just got beyond that and took it further, to the point where his stuff is so awesome… But it’s undescribable. You have to hear it, and then all you say is “Wow, gee-whiz…”
TP: Well, he has that amazing control.
HAROLD MABERN: Total control.
TP: In the ’50s, would he do things like work with different time signatures in one piece?
HAROLD MABERN: I didn’t see him do that myself until he got to New York City. Which was another thing I thought was hip. I said, “Wow, why didn’t I think of something like that?” But that made me think of something he said once, that everybody needs to be directed or have a director, even if you play by yourself — because you have to direct or conduct yourself. But that time thing, that thing with the hand signs, I’m pretty sure I saw him do that when he came to New York City. And naturally, his buddy, Monty Alexander, has taken that… See, he has a special relationship with all of his piano friend, and I consider him to be a friend as well as my mentor.
TP: He seems to have very warm relationships. As he puts it, he’s been grown-up since he was a kid, and he takes his responsibilities very seriously.
HAROLD MABERN: To show that that’s true, I have a picture on my wall where Ahmad was playing one of these Elk type clubs, a junior lodge in Pittsburgh, and he was like a little kid sitting with all the older kids. So I can see that he’s been a responsible human being for a long time. People always said he used a lot of space; he’d rather call it discipline. To have that kind of discipline and patience… He has really done his homework
But again, the overall thing about him, besides his touch and control… I’ve always said that if Ahmad Jamal’s time was the brakes on a car, you would never have an accident. His time is impeccable. He will play a run and stop on a dime. And the way he is able to play in those different time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4… He is a master at that. It’s really unbelievable. He is not playing cliches. He is playing music. Mulgrew Miller said, “man, I have a hard time playing in 5/4.” But Ahmad can play with no problem in any of those weird time signatures. He’s what you call a super-duper genius in every sense of the word.
TP: So you actually were able to see the trio live from the beginning.
HAROLD MABERN: As I said, I saw him with Ray Crawford and Israel at the Kit Kat Club, which was a real small club on 63rd Street. It was real small, and man, the people were packed in there like sardines. Then when they moved to the Pershing, naturally, that being a larger club, we were able to stretch out. We also started working there on Monday mornings with the MJT+3, and Israel Crosby would come to sit in with us on Mondays. That became our home away from home. Ahmad would work the night, we would the breakfast party on Monday mornings.
TP: That would be ’57-’58-’59, but you’d been seeing him since ’55. I guess his first drummer was Walter Perkins, and then Vernell. Was the trio extremely popular in Chicago?
HAROLD MABERN: All the piano players in Chicago, including Ahmad and Herbie, had their own individual sounds. But there were three groups in Chicago that had hit records — the Ahmad Jamal Trio, the Ramsey Lewis Trio and the MJT+3. We all had our different audiences…
TP: Herbie Hancock said that one thing that marked the Chicago pianists was that they were interested in reharmonization, parallel to and before Bill evans, and that Chris Anderson was responsible for a lot of it, and that Ahmad had his fingerprint on all of it. Did Chris have an impact on Ahmad?
HAROLD MABERN: I’m sure they did on each other. To tell the truth, I really can’t say for sure. They both have great love and respect for each other. Chris went to Wendell Phillips High School, because Nat Cole went there. Chris wanted to go there to be around Nat Cole. But I’m sure Ahmad had an effect on him, too. I always tell the story that Billy Wallace said, “I got this piano player, and I got this piano player; I almost got Ahmad.” When I tell that to Ahmad, he laughs. To this day, he said, “I almost got Ahmad.” In other words, he lets it be known that Ahmad is still the king.
TP: And you feel he started to stretch out once he left Chicago and moved to New York.
HAROLD MABERN: When he left Chicago and moved to New York, that’s when he started to really stretch out. He had all these little basslines [SINGS REFRAIN]. You hear them and say, “Well, that reminds me of something McCoy Tyner…” Well, he influenced McCoy Tyner. We know how he influenced Miles and the whole group, to the point where Miles told all the piano players to say, “Play like Ahmad.” Which was fine with me. In fact, Miles used to make them… It was mandatory that when Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly left their gig, they all had to come to the Pershing. Ahmad was almost like an assignment. That’s where we met Miles and Cannonball. So when Ahmad got to New York, that’s when he really started opening up, and his stuff grew in all sorts of ways. Compositions so modern… I was talking to James Cammack, who played with us Monday night at Smoke, and we were talking about the different compositions and how many tunes Ahmad has in his book, and we were talking about “Bellows” and what a hip tune that is! That tune sounds like it was written a few minutes ago. I’d say he probably wrote it in the late ’70s or early ’80s when he was with 20th Century. That’s when he recorded Diana Ross’ “Touch Me In The Morning.” We both love pop music. Most pianists don’t fool with that. But Ahmad and I have never had a problem with putting music in a category. If it’s good… I always say that we bump heads, because he’ll record a tune that’s kind of off the beaten track, and it’s a tune I’ve been thinking of recording.
TP: Let’s touch on some of the dynamics of what happened when he started to stretch out. You talked about the extended basslines.
HAROLD MABERN: Right. The extended basslines, and then he did… Well, he could go from the basic II-V-I sound in his right hand to the modal sound, the things you hear McCoy doing. He just explores the whole piano. And in doing all that, he never loses his originality. Again, it’s because of what he plays, the way he plays it, and his touch. He can play a modal type line, but you always know it’s Ahmad, and it’s mainly because of the touch.
TP: Why do you think he has such an affinity for New Orleans drummers?
HAROLD MABERN: If I had to sum it up: The beat. When you think about that beat Vernell put on “Poinciana,” David Lee and Ed Blackwell played it… It tends to come from the marching band things. [street beats]
TP: But he’s from Pittsburgh, where Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey and Joe Harris are from, which is a different way of approaching time.
HAROLD MABERN: True. But I think it’s that the New Orleans beat comes from the street and it swings. And once he heard what Vernell played on “Poinciana,” that opened the trio up to do other things that advanced his musical goals. It’s hard to explain it beyond that. You’ll know it when you hear it, and say, “Wow, what is that?”
TP: He did very radical things on albums like Extensions and Naked City Theme, with “Haitian Marketplace.” Let’s talk about his last 10-15 years, which seems a particularly fruitful period, primarily acoustic, a lot of recording, a lot of new compositions, framing his sound in many contexts — playing Ellington-Strayhorn repertoire, doing septets, live recordings, bringing in George Coleman and Donald Byrd and Stanley Turrentine, bringing in percussionists like Manolo Badrena, extracting a maximum of color. But how do you observe is progression since the latter ’80s?
HAROLD MABERN: Not to be redundant or repetitive, but the way I see it is that he’s constantly evolving. He has never disappointed me. Never is a big word, but he has never disappointed me. Every time I go to hear him, I am always learning something. When I leave, I’m totally inspired. Todd Barkan told me that Cedar said that Ahmad Jamal gets his complete attention. When I go to hear Ahmad, I don’t want to go…even if it’s another musician… If you’re going to talk, go to another table. Because Ahmad is the kind of musician who, when they say, “Ladies and gentlemen, Ahmad Jamal,” before he even sits down, he’s hit three-chords that’s a masterpiece. Before he even sits on the stool, he’s played a three-chord masterpiece, then he throws up his hands to give a signal, and from that point on it’s… I don’t know anybody like him. It’s very hard to explain.
He’s really too deep for some people. A lot of musicians can’t handle it. As George Coleman said, a lot of piano players don’t come around because it’s too much piano to handle. They can’t handle it by themselves. But I’ve always been one to understand and appreciate genius.
TP: So he’s a total original.
HAROLD MABERN: Totally original. I can think of three other pianists who are original like that. One is Erroll Garner, one is Phineas Newborn, one is Thelonious Monk. Then there’s Ahmad Jamal. I’ve listened to them all, but what Ahmad has done and continues to do… The main thing is just his sound! I mean, it’s the sound, his knowledge of chords, his compositions, his touch, the way he orchestrates from the bottom of the piano to the top. Or the way he’ll play a ballad, where he keeps going back to the bridge and each time it’s totally different. He’s just a very special and blessed human being.
Ahmad Jamal’s concept is orchestral. He has a wide knowledge of the keyboard, and he uses all of the keyboard all of the time. He’s very rhythmic and very dynamic; that’s his trademark. But he has a well-defined trio style, as did Erroll Garner. Tatum had another kind of style. I guess he used his rhythm section just, hmm, to give pause between his notes. He had so much to play, he never could stop himself. But there is another style of playing, and Nat Cole certainly had a beautiful soft side to his trio playing. Bud Powell brought another dynamic into trio style playing. There are really a lot of models out there to listen to.
Ahmad Jamal is a very unique player. He’s sort of in a class by himself, because he was of no particular school, but yet all of the areas and eras of the music are represented in his playing, all of the Modern approaches and…you know, the whole history of the piano is there. Yet, he’s so individual and his style and his approach and his conception is so unique. He is so deserving of the highest merit in the tradition and history of jazz pianists. He keeps encompassing all of the innovations that come along. That’s why he’s such a remarkable artist.