Tag Archives: Harold Mabern

For Ahmad Jamal’s 85th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature from 2002

Today is the 85th birthday of  Ahmad Jamal, whose approach to orchestrating the piano trio format has had a deep impact on the development of jazz language since the middle-1950s. I’m sharing here the pre-final-edit version of a feature article that I wrote about Mr. Jamal for DownBeat in 2002 in conjunction with the release of In Search Of…Momentum. The interviews that I drew on in writing this piece — and a few that didn’t make the cut — are found in this post from four years ago today.

 

Ahmad Jamal (Downbeat–2002):

“Extended form is because of extended living. I project my life and musical experiences in my writing and performance. I’m 72, and I’ve accumulated some information. Now I’m absorbing all the feedback, and trying to channel it into my present lifestyle. I’m going back to my early roots. All I want is to write my music and learn to perform it. Some things I write require a lot of skill, so I have to learn to play all my compositions, and I practice every day. Sometimes I’ll resurrect a composition that I haven’t done in years, because it fits in that spot. Then I use the same basic structure, although the approach is more musically mature than it was years ago. Why change a good minuet or a good concerto? You just try to interpret as the best you can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” – Ahmad Jamal, December 2002.
________________________________________

Hearing Ahmad Jamal in the freedom of his autumnal years is one of the great jazz pleasures, as evidenced by the elite cohort of New York pianists who came out on the final night of the maestro’s week-long residence at Iridium last December. With bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s with precision and panache, Jamal enthralled the likes of Monty Alexander, Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller and James Williams with fresh takes on his iconic arrangements of “But Not For Me,” “Poinciana” and “Woody ‘N’ You,” which first appeared on But Not For Me: Live At The Pershing, a recording from 1958 that sold a million copies, spent two years on the top-ten charts, and brought him international fame. For good measure, Jamal brought forth a pile of daunting recent works, which included the twisting, vertiginous opus “Gyroscope,” the Chopinesque waltz “Should I,” and a dramatic Tatum-meets-bebop line called “I’ll Take The 20.”

“Every time I hear Ahmad, I leave totally inspired,” Mabern said not long after the Iridium show. “He plays a three-chord masterpiece before he even sits down on the stool, then he throws up his hands to give a signal, and from that point on it’s magic. It’s his sound, his knowledge of chords, the way he orchestrates from the bottom of the piano to the top. Or the way he’ll play a ballad, where he keeps returning to the bridge in a totally different way each time. And there’s his touch, which I call the Franz Liszt touch. A lot of pianists might have equal technique, but their touch and sound distinguish them. That’s the way Ahmad and Art Tatum are. Ahmad is too deep for some people; a lot of piano players don’t come around because it’s too much piano to handle.”

“Should I” and “I’ll Take The 20” are among eight new  compositions that appear on his exhilarating new trio release, In Search Of…Momentum [Dreyfus], the latest product of a fruitful decade-long collaboration with French producer Jean-Francois Deiber. On the previous albums in the series, often expanding his rhythm section with percussionist Manolo Badrena, Jamal augments the trio with strong, idiosyncratic tonal personalities, interacting with George Coleman on The Essence (Verve/Birdology) and Olympia 2000 (Dreyfus), Stanley Turrentine on Nature (Atlantic), trumpeter Donald Byrd and violinist Joe Kennedy on Big Byrd (Verve/Birdology), and a septet composed of Coleman, Kennedy and guitarist Calvin Keys on a À Paris, a 1996 radio broadcast due for fall release on Dreyfus. On each album, Jamal plays with unfettered imagination and customary authority, projecting deep emotion and a palpable sense of inner balance. He finds ingenious ways to link the repertoire thematically, imparting to each album the feeling of a connected suite.

In Search Of … Momentum is the first of the Deiber series on which Jamal explores only the sonic universe of the piano trio, the configuration he has helped define from his very first recordings in 1951. In truth, it’s hard to overstate his influence on the sound of the post-bop piano mainstream. Miles Davis, Jamal’s most famous acolyte, assigned homework on appropriate rhythm section comportment to Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones by sending them to 64th and Cottage Grove for first-hand observations of the Three Strings, Jamal’s trio with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Israel Crosby, and his subsequent trio with Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier. McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller and Bill Charlap are among the pianists who cite Jamal as a seminal influence, and at early ’90s sessions at Bradley’s, the iconic New York piano saloon, Cyrus Chestnut, Eric Reed and Jacky Terrasson enthusiastically experimented with Jamallian dynamics and orchestrative strategies.

Jamal now lives in rural upstate New York, but he remained in Manhattan after the December Iridium stand to help care for his grandson while his daughter gave birth to her second child. On the night before Christmas Eve I visited him at his  hotel, appropriately situated on 52nd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Relaxed in blue-green plaid pajamas and slippers, wearing a patch over one eye, he stood before his window, where the streetlights on 52nd Street stretched all the way to the Hudson River. Jamal had personalized his room with an electric keyboard and headphones, books of Czerny exercises and torch songs, folios of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau De Couperin,” an anthology entitled The Ravel Reader, a supply of green tea and dates, medicine for his diabetes and a Koran.

“I hate the word ‘trio’ now,” Jamal insists. “It’s limiting as to what I do. I like to refer to my ‘small ensemble’ or my ‘large ensemble.’ I travel with my small ensemble a lot, but I’ve done other things as well. Now it’s happening in an exciting fashion because I’m writing more than I had been. I wrote for a large ensemble when I was 10, and I’ve been writing ever since. Basically, I’m a writer and an orchestrator. I like big bands. I listen to Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Count Basie. I’ve always been a fan of 80 pieces, or 16 pieces; I once wrote for 22 voices. I’m not saying I can do it—I never acquired the skill—but I’ve always been a fan of orchestrations, Ravel and Johnny Mandel, all the things that speak of getting incredible sounds out of an orchestra. I’ve had an orchestra going on in my mind daily for all my life.

“I’ve been shaped by the big band era, by the Gillespie–Parker era, and by the electronic age or whatever we call it, and I project my life and musical experiences in my writing and performance,” he continues. “I’m 72, and I’ve accumulated some information. Now I’m absorbing all the feedback, and trying to channel it into my present lifestyle. Sometimes I’ll resurrect a composition that I haven’t done in years, because it fits in that spot. Then I use the same basic structure, although the approach is more musically mature than it was years ago. Why change a good minuet or a good concerto? You just interpret as best you can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

* * *

Jamal conceptualized his inner orchestra during his formative years in Pittsburgh. A child prodigy who first made music on the piano at 3, he began formal studies at 7, performed Liszt’s Eroica Etude publicly at 11, and joined Local 471 at 14, the year he matriculated at Westinghouse High School, alma mater of pianists Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner and Dodo Marmarosa, where Fritz Reiner brought the Pittsburgh Symphony to play assembly programs. There he played piano in the school’s integrated swing band, while spending evenings on jobs at various Elks Clubs, Masonic Lodges, piano lounges, and dance halls around Pittsburgh. “I’d do algebra during intermission, between sets,” he remarks. “That’s too young. I don’t recommend that. But I sounded well enough. My aunt from North Carolina sent me huge amounts of sheet music that I could draw from. I was working with guys in their sixties, and they were astounded because I knew all these sounds. That’s how I got so much work, or enough to start buying my clothes instead of relying on my Mom and Pop to do it.”

“Pittsburgh trained me to work in every configuration. It was a tough town, a critical place. If you didn’t know what you were doing, you were going to be turned down there. We studied Bach and Tatum, Beethoven and Basie; there was no separation. I played with a lot of singers. I played with Eddie Jefferson when he was a tap dancer. I did a lot of big band work with Will Hitchcock, Joe Westray and Jerry Elliott, all good leaders. I worked duo jobs in Uniontown with saxophonist Carl Otter. Later, I worked with the Caldwells, a song-and-dance team who held the instruments, didn’t play them, so you had to be the bassist, the guitarist, the whole nine yards. This training creates the whole musician.”

Jamal devoured music. He collected 78s by Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie, by Pittsburgher Erroll Garner with Boyd Raeburn and Georgie Auld, and early bebop anthems like “Salt Peanuts.” He heard the Fritz Reiner-conducted Pittsburgh Symphony at school assemblies, caught Basie and Gillespie at the Pittsburgh Savoy Ballroom, and attended concerts by Ellington and Cootie Williams at the Stanley Theater, the latter show featuring a 20-year-old Bud Powell. Later in the ’40s, Jamal—an avid student of the trio approaches of Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole and Garner—would begin to incorporate Powell’s progressive harmonic conception into his vocabulary, applying his investigations at jam sessions with Pittsburgh’s finest at the union hall.

At one such session, St. Louis-based bandleader George Hudson, who had employed Clark Terry and Ernie Wilkins, heard Jamal and recruited him for a summer-long engagement in Club Harlem, the major showroom in Atlantic City. Starting work at 8 p.m. and leaving when the sun came up, Jamal played for top-shelf singers like Billy Daniels and Johnny Hartman, TOBA veterans Butterbeans and Susie and a charismatic chorus line choreographed and directed by Ziggy Johnson.

Jamal had intended to study at a conservatory, but at summer’s end he rode north with Hudson for a stint at New York’s Apollo Theater. “I didn’t go to 52nd Street,” Jamal said, nodding at the window. “I was too busy playing from 9 a.m. to midnight. We were on the bill with The Ravens, who had the hottest act in the country with ‘Old Man River.’ Dinah Washington. Jimmy Smith, a xylophone player who tap-danced on the instrument. Billy Eckstine was checking me out from the wings. That was fun, because the big band was your cover. You don’t have the same responsibilities.”

Quartered behind the backstage door of the Apollo at the Braddock Hotel, Jamal met trumpeter Idris Suleiman, an early jazz convert to Islam, who approached the introverted youngster with what Jamal describes as “a philosophical presentation.” That encounter planted the seeds for Jamal’s eventual embrace of Islam. “It had everything to do with being all you can be,” he says. “There are people who don’t want to be all they can be, and when you want to be all you can be, they want to put blocks in the path. I know no other existence except my present existence. I’m very guarded about this, because I’ve been abused by ignorant people. The issue at hand is music. If a person wants to interview me about philosophy, that’s a different ballgame, because my philosophy certainly has influenced my music.”

* * *

By early 1949, Jamal, newly wed to a woman from Chicago (“I did everything young,” he comments), had settled in the Windy City. He got on the bad side of Harry Gray, the famously hardass president of the black musicians local, by working a one-nighter with guitarist Leo Blevins before receiving  transfer from Pittsburgh, and subsequently struggled, Taking a $32-a-week job as a maintenance man for the department store Carson Pirie Scott. At a  request of saxophonist Eddie Johnson, Gray finally relented.  Jamal began to make his voice felt on gigs with tenorists Claude McLin and Von Freeman, and took a long-term weekend job with Israel Crosby and tenorist Johnny Thompson at Jack’s Back Door, a lively joint on 59th and State with a long bar and a stage at the end. He also played solo at the Palm Tavern, often joined by drum legend Ike Day “whenever he felt the urge to come by and sit in.”

“I first met Ahmad at the Club De Lisa, which had been burned out a couple of times and gotten down to nothing,” Freeman recalled in a WKCR interview. “I asked him if he’d make some gigs with me, and he said, ‘Yeah, but I’m not much of a band player; I’m a trio player.’ I said, ‘Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.’ He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then. He stayed with me about two years, and then told me that he was giving a two-week notice, until he gave me a two-week notice that he was going to form his own trio. Around that time, he started hanging out with Chris Anderson. After that, I  noticed a big difference in his playing.”

Joined by fellow Pittsburghers Ray Crawford and Tommy Sewell, Jamal formed the Three Strings, a collective title emblematic of his equilateral triangle approach to the trio. In the fall of 1951, with bassist Eddie Calhoun on board, Jamal came to New York for a job as intermission pianist at the Embers, a boisterous supper club on East 54th Street. John Hammond attended, was impressed, and gave Jamal a recording date on OKeh. The sessions produced “Ahmad’s Blues” and arrangements of “Poinciana,” “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and “Billy Boy,” the latter becoming a minor crossover hit. On the strength of these sides, which immediately caught the ear of Miles Davis—whose own Birth Of The Cool sessions had inspired Jamal—for the finesse and subtlety of their rhythmic momentum, Jamal began to find regular work on the supper club circuit, using a small 63rd Street room called the Kit-Kat Lounge as his Chicago base. He hired his former employer Israel Crosby, and in 1955 went in the studio with Crosby and Crawford to record Chamber Music Of The New Jazz.

“I did something with repertoire,” Jamal says. “I had that vast repertoire from my aunt. The strength of a musician, whether he’s Horowitz or Rudolf Serkin or Jamal or Oscar Peterson, is the repertoire. It’s remarkable what the American classicist/jazz musician has done. They’ve interpreted these songs beyond the wildest dreams of the author, be it Cole Porter or Gershwin. That’s what Charlie Parker did with ‘April in Paris.’ Most of Art Tatum’s body of work was standards, much to the delight of the composers economically! They made a fortune. George Gershwin’s estate didn’t need ‘But Not For Me,’ but they accepted it. Or ‘Poinciana.’”

In 1955, following what he describes as “a horrible experience” at the Embers, Jamal “got in my car with Israel Crosby and drove back to Chicago. When I got back to Chicago, I went to Miller Brown, who owned the Pershing Lounge, and said, ‘I want to become an artist-in-residence; I want a steady gig.’ That gave me time to get the people I wanted. Ray Crawford stayed in New York, and I decided to hire a drummer. It was almost impossible to get Vernell Fournier, because he was busy. But I waited for the right moment, and I finally hired Vernell.”

* * * *

“When the Judgment Day comes, I would hate to be some critics!” Fournier exclaimed during an interview on WKCR in 1991, reflecting on the disdain and condescension that the jazz press gave to Live At The Pershing.  Indeed, many writers continue to be deaf to Jamal’s qualities, in pointed contrast to his immense popularity among the public and his fellow musicians.

“At the time I heard Ahmad,” says Keith Jarrett, referring to Live At The Pershing, “I thought, ‘This is swinging more than anything I’ve been listening to, but they’re doing less. What’s the secret here?’ With Ahmad, the intensity was in the spaces. The simplicity of their playing made the swing work the way it did.”

“Ahmad put together the best trio I ever heard!” said Marcus Roberts in a conversation several years ago. “He and Errol Garner exemplify a hard-swinging school of Pittsburgh piano playing that had a profound impact on me. Garner typically would use his left hand to emulate Freddie Greene’s guitar playing in the Count Basie band, while in the right hand he played what you might think of as saxophone or trumpet figures in a big band. Ahmad extended that and expanded the form.

“Most of what Miles Davis did in the ’50s came directly from Ahmad’s concept. On a straight-ahead AB tune like ‘Autumn Leaves,’ Ahmad would expand the A-section until he had nothing left to play, then he’d move to the bridge and use a totally different groove. That brings the whole tune to life from a different angle. He’s a brilliant bandleader who knows how to make the piano sound like an orchestra; he could play a single line in the highest register of the piano and make it ring. Israel Crosby played all kinds of hip stuff underneath, but Ahmad’s left hand was never in the way of Israel’s harmonic direction.”

“Ahmad used difficult dynamics, and so many of them,” Fournier said. Out of New Orleans, Fournier’s extrapolation of the vernacular Crescent City streetbeat known as “Two-Way-Pocky-Way” on “Poinciana” is one of the most emulated rhythmic signatures in jazz. “He could play one tune five or six ways. He might insert something from another tune into the tune you’re playing, and would want you to play the appropriate accent when he did it. You had to be conscious at all times that he was playing the piano.”

Jamal uses dynamics to denote a spontaneous inner narrative, and he developed techniques to spontaneously shape and arrange the flow. “Ahmad’s music has structure and form, but he directs inside the form with hand signals,” says Herlin Riley, Jamal’s drummer from 1982 to 1987. “One signal tells you if you’re playing the top of, say, the head section or A-section, he has another cue for the bridge, and another for the interlude. If he wants any of the cycles repeated, he’ll give the appropriate cue, and when it’s done he cues you to go to the next part. So it’s always organic and rich.”

From the beginning, Fournier noted, “Ahmad intermixed exotic feelings — rumbas and tangos — and made it sound like jazz,” Fournier continued.Indeed, Jamal’s complete command of rhythm is a major component of his mystique.  “I’ve always said that if Ahmad Jamal’s time was the brakes on a car, you would never have an accident,” says Harold Mabern, who first heard Jamal at the Kit Kat Club in 1954, and religiously attended sessions at the Pershing. “He will play a run and stop on a dime. And he’s a master at playing without cliche in time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4.”

Fournier gave an example. “When Ahmad got the melody for ‘This Terrible Planet’ (Extensions, Argo, 1965), he laid down his melody line and the bass line for Jamil Nasser, and he and Jamil formulated the sound that Ahmad wanted,” he recalls. “I developed the drum pattern from inside the melody. It was in 6/8, 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. Once you get used to that, the rest is easy.”

“Most New Orleans drummers grew up within street band and parade band traditions, in which the bass drum is prevalent, and so we play the drumset from the bottom up,” notes Riley, a son of the Crescent City. “Ahmad is a very percussive player, and he loves to play vamps; he’ll stand up, watch you play, and clap his hands to get inside the groove. He introduces 3/8 and 5/8 and 7/8 rhythms inside the music, and you have to react and find your place inside of that.

“He understands musicians, and can hear their voice for what it is. Either he can work with it or he can’t. If he can, he’ll let you speak your musical voice as it may be. Now, sometimes he gives you subtle directions, and he’s always directing the volume and dynamics. But really, he’s just shaping whatever talent you have, and lets it grow and be better.”

Jamal himself is wary of focusing on the details of his art, preferring to accentuate the larger picture. “The little variety of time signatures that I do are absolutely natural,” he says. “I respect technique, but technique without the ability to tell a story is meaningless. Art Tatum and Phineas Newborn had incomparable technique. But they also told a story.”

* * * *

Within two years after Live From The Pershing broke, Jamal was commanding several thousand dollars a week. He purchased a 16-room, six-bath Hyde Park mansion that had once belonged to the nuclear physicist Harold Urey, and a four-story office building on South Michigan Avenue, creating his own posh, alcohol-free supper club, the Alhambra, on the ground floor. But he overextended, got divorced, lost the club, disbanded and moved to New York in 1962, taking an engagement at the Embers with bassist Wyatt Reuther and drummer Papa Jo Jones. He became artist-in-residence at the Village Gate on Bleecker Street, which like the Pershing had upper and lower levels and a bar area.

“When Ahmad got to New York, he really started opening up,” Mabern observes. In fact, it’s evident from a recording at San Francisco’s Blackhawk in 1961 that Jamal was already beginning to spread his wings. “Earlier, I never picked up a stick, except for ‘Poinciana,’” Fournier said. “But toward the end of the trio, Ahmad was getting more into the stick sound. He became more progressive on the piano, showing what he really could do.”

The Jamal who created such 1964–’71 albums as Naked City Theme, Extensions, At The Top: Poinciana Revisited, Tranquility, The Awakening and Manhattan Reflections had moved a distance from the elegant miniaturist of 1958–’61. Like a short story writer morphing into a novelist, Jamal’s improvisational flights took on the discursive, kaleidoscopic character that remains his trademark. He denies that this evolution reflected the intense New York quotidian, saying only, “I was in New York, but not of it.” To this he adds, “and I was in Chicago, but not of it.”

“Does that mean you’re in Pittsburgh?” I ask.

“I am in Pittsburgh, but I am also in where I live now,” Jamal responds. “Since I moved to upstate New York, I am in tune with my surroundings. By the grace of the Creator, I’ve been backing off, being very selective and taking the time that’s been granted me to sit down and get away from the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. I go to my little place in the country, hopefully I’m not watching TV, and sit down and do what I enjoy most — writing and practicing the things I write.

“Still, the fact is that I was shaped, first of all, by my hometown. I come from the land of giants, and there you have to practice restraint. There’s always a faster gun than yours. I still practice restraint. But sometimes I play, too!

“Some things I write require a lot of skill, so I have to learn to play all my compositions, and I practice every day. But I’m not interested in quantity. I’m interested in quality. I’ve never had the discipline to practice 6, 7 or 12 hours a day. But I live music, and now I’m interested in exploring the keyboard more. Steinway used to send me pianos to keep in the room so I wouldn’t have to run out or wait for the club to open. Now I’ve decided to take an instrument around with me again. I’m not ever going to practice without joy. And I don’t ever want to take this music for granted. If you do, you’re finished.

“I practice for many reasons. One, I want to do it. Two, I want to always develop my craft. Three, I don’t ever want to take this music for granted. If you do, you’re finished. Musicians have to stay on their game. And I have to devote a certain amount of time to music. Many things can take you away from the discipline of practice. You have to be very careful of losing those good disciplines.”

Jamal points to the score of “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” “Ravel wrote that about his comrades who died during the war.” The tapered finger moves to the “Lush Life” folio. “Okay? A reflection of Billy Strayhorn’s life. ‘Take The A Train.’ That’s what we are. We write according to our lives. The way I write and perform is a part of extended living. That’s what’s changed it. The more in-depth, the more in-depth.”

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For Harold Mabern’s 79th Birthday, An Uncut Blindfold Test from 2004

Pianist Harold Mabern celebrates his 79th birthday today. I had a chance to hear him last night playing bassist Gregory Ryan’s weekly gig at at a midtown steakhouse (Joe Farnsworth on drums). The piano, which is decent but was shaky in the upper register, is placed between the stairway down from street level and the bar, and to call the room noisy would be an understatement. Still, Mabern played with customary focus, power, melodic invention and soulfulness — treated the gig with complete respect and commitment, revealing his encyclopedic knowledge of the American Songbook. A son of Memphis, Tennessee, who spent the second half of the ’50s in Chicago, Mabern has been a beacon and mentor for several generations of pianists, among them James Williams, Donald Brown, Mulgrew Miller and Geoff Keezer, with whom he played in a five-piano band twenty years ago. I had several opportunities to talk with HM during my WKCR years, and had an opportunity to do the DownBeat Blindfold Test with him in 2004. Here’s the uncut version.

Harold Mabern Blindfold Test (10-1-04) – Raw Copy:

1.  Earl Hines, “Don’t You Know I Care” (from EARL HINES PLAYS DUKE ELLINGTON, New World, 1970/1997) (Hines, piano; Duke Ellington, composer) – (5 stars)

Duke Ellington’s “Don’t You Know I Care.” I can’t say that I right away recognize the pianist. I like what I’m hearing. It’s hard to tell if it’s a recent recording or something that was done a few years ago. Right now, Ted, I must say you’ve got me on this one so far, even though the sound… Right away, I know it’s not, but right now I can’t say who it is. Phineas recorded this, but I know it’s not Phineas, and Mulgrew Miller recorded this recently—I know it’s not him.  It’s not Ray Bryant, and it’s definitely not Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan or any of those people. And it’s not Art Tatum.  It’s not Teddy Wilson. So if I had to take a wild guess (I don’t know if guessing is permitted), I would have to say someone like Jay McShann, or probably someone like Earl Hines. That’s just an educated guess. Of the two, I would say Earl Hines. I like the overlapping phrases with left hand and right hand. And the touch of the right hand. His touch seems to be a little heavier than Teddy Wilson’s, whose touch was a little more velvety, like Art Tatum’s was. 5 stars. [AFTER] What I’m accustomed to do, as I tell the students: Process of elimination. Eliminate who you know it’s not, and then you feel it can only be one or two people. I possibly could have said James P. Johnson, but I didn’t, or Fats Waller. When I first came to New York City, I worked at Smalls Paradise with the MJT+3, and a couple of the old-timers were there, and they looked at me and said, “Young man, you remind me a lot of Earl Hines.” To me, that was a compliment, because I didn’t know much about Earl Hines at that point. However, we all know that was Nat Cole’s hero in Chicago. He was doing everything he could to be around Earl Hines whenever he could be. I was told that he even dressed like Earl Hines—very impeccable. As they say, Earl Hines was like the Bud Powell of his time; he just opened up everything. I had a chance to work opposite him on a Newport Jazz Festival in San Remo, Italy. George Wein produced it.  I was with Wes Montgomery. We had a chance to talk. We had some pictures taken together, if I can ever find them—little small snapshots.

Reflecting back, I don’t know if you watch the Westerns channels, but they’ve been showing a lot of the black cowboys, and they mainly talk about Herb Jeffries, who was the first one to really get some prominence. He was singing with Earl Hines’ band in Chicago. Every time I hear his name, I think about Herbie Hancock. People don’t know this, but Herbie was named after Herb Jeffries—Herbert Jeffrey Hancock. A little bit of trivia.

2.  Uri Caine, “Stiletto” (from LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD, Winter & Winter, 2004) (Caine, piano, comp.; Drew Gress, bass; Ben Perowsky, drums) (3 stars)

Right now you really got me, because he could be anybody, blanket statement. I don’t hear enough of the concept to really say. We know it’s avant-garde, or controlled or uncontrolled freedom, whatever way you want to look at it, and I’m not really into it that much, even though I can appreciate some of the things I’ve listened to by Cecil Taylor over the years. Well, I can see at least it has some kind of form to it, even though I still don’t recognize the pianist. I don’t think it’s Cecil Taylor, because the form is a bit on the traditional side…whatever that means. It’s more of what I would call, as I said before, “controlled freedom,” because it has some kind of theme to it. But as to who it is, at this point it’s hard to say. Conceptually speaking, I think it’s probably somebody on the younger side, one of the younger generation guys. To take a guess (because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything by this pianist), Matthew Shipp. That’s just a guess. Or another pianist who I also don’t really know a lot about—Jason Moran. Again, that’s just a guess. It’s definitely somebody who’s been influenced by McCoy Tyner and Herbie, even though, as I said before, it’s a little bit on the free side.  But it swings. I like the sound of the drums. See, with this kind of music, at least if it swings, you can get some kind of musical enjoyment out of it. As I said, not to be redundant, I hear traces of McCoy and Herbie and them. Is it possible it could be a female? I don’t think Geri Allen, but perhaps someone like Rachel Z—even though I’m not that familiar with her playing. It’s definitely somebody younger than I am. One person comes to mind, but again I haven’t heard a lot of him—Eric Lewis. But I don’t think he’s recorded yet. Or possibly Marcus Roberts. That’s just a guess. 3 stars, because it swings. [AFTER] I know who he is, but I’m not familiar with his playing at all. Once they got into the form, I enjoyed it. It was swinging. It took on a theme of its own, so it was something I could grab onto.

3. Danilo Perez, “Overjoyed” (from …TILL THEN, Verve, 2003) (Perez, piano; Ben Street, bass; Adam Cruz, drums) (5 stars)

I like the song, Stevie Wonder, “Overjoyed.” But I have to figure out who the pianist is. So far, I like what I’m hearing. It reminds me a little bit of one of my favorite pianists, but I don’t think it’s him. I hear it in the left hand-right hand. Geoff Keezer comes to mind, but I don’t think it’s Geoff. I like the sound of the recording, too. The bass is in tune, good sound on the drums. Very interesting.  Here we go again; educated guess again. It’s not Geoff Keezer. It’s not Mulgrew Miller. Possibly somebody like Brad Mehldau.  That’s just an educated guess. I enjoyed it, so I’d say 4 stars for the performance, and another star for the genius of Stevie Wonder. So 5 stars. [AFTER] Isn’t that something. I should have known it, because I think I heard it recently on the radio. I’ve heard Danilo do some wonderful things with Roy Haynes.

4. Alice Coltrane, “Walk With Me” (from TRANSLINEAR LIGHT, Verve, 2004) (Coltrane, piano; James Genus, b; Jeff Watts, d) – (4 stars)

It’s a good sound coming out of the instrument. So far I haven’t heard enough to put my finger on anybody that I recognize. It has what you call a gospel type theme to it. Whoever the pianist is, they have a good sound out of the instrument, good technique, good chord voicings in the lower register. But right now, I don’t know who it is or who it could be. Something about the theme reminds me a little bit of Keith Jarrett, but I don’t think it’s Keith. Some parts of it remind me a little of Stanley Cowell, one of my dearest and closest friends and a true musical giant, but I don’t think it’s Stanley. 4 stars. [AFTER] I noticed the harp-like qualities in the right hand. Alice Coltrane, nice. Very, very well played.

5. Eric Reed, “La Berthe” (from E-BOP, Savant, 2003) (Reed, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Rodney Green, drums; Elmo Hope, composer) (4 stars)

Nice little theme. It reminds me of something that maybe Thelonious would have written, theme-wise and the way it’s syncopated. I like the performance. I like the pianist.  Nice touch. The concept reminds me of the kind of stuff that Woody Shaw used to play. But I don’t have an idea who it could be. I like the piece. I like the concept. It’s a good touch from the pianist. It’s the kind of song I would enjoy playing. But I can only take a guess on who it might be. Like I said, I hear a lot of Monk influence in the performance and in the theme itself. Possibly someone like Jessica Williams, but that’s just a guess. I think it’s an original composition. That’s the feeling I get. What period? It sounds like something that could have been written within the last year or so, conceptually speaking. Both the piece and the performance sound very up-to-date. 4 stars. [AFTER] Sorry, Eric. But he’s one of my favorites. That just shows music is never dated. Because conceptually speaking, it sounds like it could have been written last week. Eric Reed is a tremendous young musician. I have a lot of respect for him. He understands all phases of the music. I told him he’s one of the few young pianists who understands the difference between blocked chords and locked hands, and he looked at me and said, “Oh, do I really?” and we laughed. But he’s a tremendous young man. Stride, boogie-woogie, everything. I have a lot of respect for him.

6. Don Pullen, “Warriors” (from NEW BEGINNINGS, Blue Note, 1988) (Pullen, piano; Gary Peacock, bass; Tony Williams, drums) (5 stars)

Right away, it sounds like a pianist I always enjoyed, because he proved he could play on the edge of being out, but he could play inside, he could play tradition. He was also a very good organ specialist. Just listening to the theme and the pianistic things he’s doing, it reminds me a lot of Don Pullen. Bingo!  At last! He was a tremendous musician. [Who do you think the drummer is?] I get a feeling it’s someone like Ed Blackwell. I don’t know if it’s him, but… The thing I like about Don Pullen… One night at the Vanguard years ago, before they got the new piano, and the upper register was a little bit out, I asked him, “Don, how did you hear up there without… You make it sound so…” He said, “I just play it.” The upper register can be a little tricky. He did wonderful things, and it didn’t seem to detract from his performance. I had a lot of respect for Don Pullen. Great musician. You can hear his classical training in his piano playing. I guess the obvious thing to say about the drummer, since they worked together, would be Dannie Richmond, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be him. Something about him reminds me a bit of Roy Haynes. I don’t hear enough of the snare sound and the cymbal, but rhythmically it reminds me a little taste of Roy Haynes. Or possibly Tony Williams. Ah, see, that’s that Massachusetts connection with Alan Dawson, Roy, Tony. Boy, could Tony play. I’ll give it 5 stars for the overall performance. To me, that’s what you call controlled freedom. The things he was doing on the piano made sense because you can hear the skills he had developed through his classical training coming through.

7. Geoff Keezer, “Gollum’s Song” (from WALK ON, Telarc, (Keezer, piano; Scott Colley, bass; Karriem Riggins, drums) (5 stars)

I like that. Geoff Keezer comes to mind. The concept of the song, the touch in the right hand, the ideas in the right hand. At first, a little bit, it reminded me of Mulgrew; they have a similar kind of thing at times.  But listening, it reminds me a lot of Geoff. But I need to listen a little bit more to the right hand. If I had to guess, I’d say Geoff Keezer. Give him 10 stars, if there’s such a thing. I mean, he’s that good. He’s a tremendous musician.  The one thing I love about him is that he’s really captured the essence of Phineas Newborn, Jr., more than any pianist that I can think of. Naturally, Mulgrew and Donald Brown. But Geoff has captured the little nuances. Not just the obvious stuff, which is hard enough, but Geoff has captured those little nuances that Phineas used to do. And consider the fact that Geoff never met Phineas, and all he had to go by was what he heard on records and the one video.  But I have tremendous respect for this young man. He never ceases to amaze me. I like the interplay with the bass and drums. I heard Scott Colley once with Herbie Hancock at the Blue Note; he’s a very good bassist. Geoffrey Keezer. Eau Claire. Wisconsin. 5 stars. He’s even found a way to get into his playing a lot of those Latin montuno rhythmic things. He’s been getting into that a lot.

8. Herbie Hancock, “Blue Otani” (from THE PIANO, Columbia/Legacy, 1978/2004) (Hancock, piano, composer) (4½ stars)

I like it. Naturally, it’s the blues. You can’t go wrong with the blues. Now I’ll try to figure out who it is! Oh, I like it. It’s a lot going on. When it first started out, the chord things reminded me a little bit of Herbie Hancock. Then it reminded me a little bit of Ray Bryant. But I’m sure it’s neither one. I enjoyed the performance, but I must say I’m stumped on that one. I have no idea. But 4½ stars. To play like that is very hard to do. That’s the thing that separated Art Tatum from all of us. To play fast or slow, and play it where the consistency of the time is still going on. He had some nice ideas, too. Good technique, good ideas—I liked the overall performance. But I have no idea. [AFTER] You’re kidding! See, I got half of it right! Years ago, we used to talk about solo piano and stride and stuff, and years ago he wasn’t really interested so much in the stride aspect.

9. Brad Mehldau, “Anything Goes” (from ANYTHING GOES, Warner, 2004) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jorge Rossy, drums) (5 stars)

Hmm, “Anything Goes,” huh?  Nicely done. Cole Porter. Yeah, I like that. I like the concept. I like the fact it’s odd-metered; it sounds like it’s in 5/4. It’s nice to take a song like that, which is unique in its own way. At this point, I don’t know who the pianist is, but I like what I’m hearing. Good right hand, good left hand. I’d guess Brad Mehldau because of the ideas in the right hand, and the way he uses his left hand. You can tell he has a good left hand also. And the overall concept of the piece. Good harmonic concept also. I’ll tell you, with the quality of the crop of pianists coming out within the last 5 to 10 years, if I had to start now, I wouldn’t choose the piano.  There are some rough guys out there, man. And ladies, too. 5 stars.

10. Denny Zeitlin, “E.S.P.” (from SLICK ROCK, MaxJazz, 2004) (Zeitlin, p.; Buster Williams, b; Matt Wilson, d) – (5 stars)

Right away, I know I like the composition. I don’t want to give the wrong composer credit, but I know it’s either Herbie’s tune or Wayne Shorter’s. Sometimes I get them a little mixed up. But that much I know. The tune is either Herbie’s or Wayne’s when they played with Miles.  There’s some stuff there chordally that reminds me of Ahmad. Another one of these two-handed pianists. It reminds me a little bit of a gentleman that I used to hang out with in Chicago, when he was studying at Johns Hopkins. Denny Zeitlin comes to mind because of the harmonic concept and the ability to use both hands equally well. But that’s just a guess. Again, process of elimination, I know who it’s not, but he comes to mind. The cymbal beat from the drummer reminds me a little bit of Tony Williams. I just heard something from the bassist that reminded me a little of Ron Carter, but it’s not Ron Carter. Oh, that’s Buster Williams. Tremendous musician. Unsung hero. Would that possibly be Matt Wilson? So it’s Denny Zeitlin. A couple of years ago, I saw that trio working at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in Chicago 5 stars, mainly because of our Chicago connection and the love we both have for Chris Anderson, Ahmad Jamal and Billy Wallace. He had a lot of respect and still has a lot of respect for Billy Wallace, Dr. Denny Zeitlin.

11. Anthony Wonsey, “Darn That Reality” (from BLUES FOR HIROSHI, Sharp-9, 2004) (Wonsey, p; Richie Goods, b; Tony Reedus, d) – (5 stars)

Sounds like “Darn That Dream” but rearranged. I like it. The pianist sounds very familiar, but I can’t quite call him. David Hazeltine comes to mind because of the arrangement of the song, for some reason, but I’m not sure. The drums sound like it could be Joe Farnsworth, but again I’m not totally sure. It sounds like David Hazeltine to me, even though a lot of the stuff he’s doing in the right hand is a little out of character. By that I mean it’s not normally the way he would play.  But because of the arrangement, I would have to say David Hazeltine, possibly Farnsworth, maybe Peter Washington. 5 stars. It’s not? Well, I still give it 5 stars. I hear a lot of Phineas Newborn type of influence in the right hand with the triplets and things. Swinging. [AFTER] Oh, Mulgrew Miller’s ex-student. That’s why I could hear a little of the Phineas Newborn influence. Wonsey. I’ll still give him 5.

12. Bud Powell, “Tea For Two” (from BIRDLAND ‘53, Vol.1, FRESH SOUND, 1953/1991) (Powell, piano; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Roy Haynes, drums) (5 stars)

I know it’s an older recording. Just listening to the concept, I’d have to say Bud Powell, off the top. I’ll stand by Bud Powell, and give him all the stars you can muster up. “Tea For Two.” As an educated guess, I’d say the drummer is Max, and the bassist is either Mingus or George Duvivier. Possibly Arthur Taylor? Just an educated guess. Bud definitely opened stuff up. He and Nat Cole. Two different schools, but very influential. 5 stars.

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Filed under Alice Coltrane, Anthony Wonsey, Blindfold Test, Brad Mehldau, Bud Powell, Chicago, Denny Zeitlin, Don Pullen, Earl Hines, Eric Reed, Geoff Keezer, Harold Mabern, Herbie Hancock, Phineas Newborn

It’s Ahmad Jamal’s 81st Birthday

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

* * *

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?

AJ:    Westinghouse.

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.

Sure.

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?

Of course!

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 [1995] 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)]

[-30-]

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.

Richard Davis:

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.

Herlin Riley:

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.

Harold Mabern:

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.

Tommy Flanagan:

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.

Mulgrew Miller:

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.

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