Portrait of Ahmad Jamal

Photo by Tom Pich/tompich.com

Ahmad Jamal

Pianist, Composer

Bio

One of the subtlest virtuosos of jazz piano, Ahmad Jamal's uncanny use of space in his playing and leadership of his small ensembles have been hallmarks of his influential career. Among those he has influenced is most notably Miles Davis. Davis made numerous and prominent mentions of Jamal's influence on his playing, particularly in his use of space, allowing the music to "breathe," and his choice of compositions. Several tunes that were in Jamal's playlist, such as the standard "Autumn Leaves" and Jamal's own "New Rhumba," began appearing in the playlist of Davis' 1950s bands. Jamal's textured rhythms on piano influenced Davis' piano players as well, from Wynton Kelly in the 1950s to Herbie Hancock in the 1960s.

Jamal's piano studies began at age three, and by age 11, he was making his professional debut with a sound strongly influenced by Art Tatum and Erroll Garner. Following graduation from Pittsburgh's Westinghouse High School, he joined the George Hudson band in 1947. In 1949, he joined swing violinist Joe Kennedy's group Four Strings as pianist. This led to formation of his trio Three Strings in 1950-52, which debuted at Chicago's Blue Note club, and later became the Ahmad Jamal Trio. His 1958 album At the Pershing became a surprising smash hit, highlighted by his interpretation of "Poinciana." With the popularity of the album and the advocacy of Davis, Jamal's trio was one of the most popular jazz acts in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

For the most part, Jamal has worked in pianobass- drums trios, using the intricate relationship of the band to explore his sound, directing the trio through seemingly abrupt time and tempo shifts. His piano virtuosity has also been welcomed by a number of orchestras and his abilities as a composer are considerable. His approach has been described as being chamber-jazz-like, and he has experimented with strings and electric instruments in his compositions.

Among his many awards are the Living Jazz Legend Award from the Kennedy Center and the Officier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France.

Selected Discography

At the Pershing/But Not for Me, Chess, 1958
Free Flight, Impulse!, 1971
Big Byrd: The Essence, Part 2, Verve, 1994-95
After Fajr, Birdology/Dreyfus Jazz, 2004
It's Magic, Dreyfus Jazz, 2007

Interview by Molly Murphy for the NEA
January 11, 2007
Edited by Don Ball

STARTING AT THREE

Q: When did you first begin playing piano?

Ahmad Jamal: I started playing at three years old, which is not a first, but it's very unusual and very rare. Erroll Garner, who was a person from my hometown, also started playing at three. And you have other areas of expertise, like Tiger Woods. His father started him at a very young age. When you start at that young age, I don't think you make the choice. I think the choices are made for you.

Q: How is it that you started at three?

Ahmad Jamal: I just sat down and started playing. And I had a wonderful uncle, [who] passed away, and he was sitting down playing the upright in my mother's house one day and he said, "I bet you can't play this," teasing me, as grownups do to children. And of course, everyone fainted when I sat down and played every note that he was playing. And the rest is history. By the time I got to kindergarten, the teachers were just baffled. They said, "You have to take this boy to a teacher," which my mother did for a buck a lesson. She saved her car fare in 1937 and gave me the lessons at a buck a whop, and that's why I'm just returning from Thailand right now for the 79th anniversary for the king there, because of my mother. I've been all over the world. So that's a success story, because of my mother. One dollar a week in 1937, because she walked home.

Q: When you started playing, you probably don't even remember it.

Ahmad Jamal: Oh, I remember.

Q: You remember being three and playing?

Ahmad Jamal: Oh sure, sure. I have some recall at three, yeah. I also recall a gate that would keep me from falling down the steps at that age, too. Oh yeah, I have some recall, not as vivid as five or six, but I have some recall.

Q: Did you receive instruction on the instrument when you were young?

Ahmad Jamal: I was taught by two masters, one: Mary Cardwell Dawson. Mary Cardwell Dawson, who started the first African-American opera company, and there hasn't ever been one since. She was responsible for many of the Afro Americans being in the Met for the first time. That was my first teacher. When she left for Washington, DC, I had to get James Miller, who was another master. And after that, George Hudson came and made me leave my happy home, because he took me in his big band at 17 and I've been on the road ever since. But I was exposed to all kinds of wonderful music. And I had an aunt, an educator down in North Carolina, who used to send me reams of sheet music, so by the time I was ten years old, I was playing with guys 60 years old, and they couldn't believe it, because I knew all the songs. And I still draw from a large, large body of work because of my aunt. I got this in multiple directions; from my sister, from great teachers, and from relatives who were educators that sent me music. So it was a combination of things.

Q: Do you remember any one or two pivotal experiences when you were young?

Ahmad Jamal: That's an interesting question, because there are some events that certainly were inspiring. Erroll Garner's Savoy recording of "Laura" was pivotal. I heard that in the '40s, gorgeous. It still is gorgeous.

I think Art Tatum's "Flying Home" and my experience meeting Art Tatum when I was 14 years old in a jam session, because he was a phenomenal, extraordinary talent. I was working in a nightclub underage in the very wee hours of the morning, and he came through Pittsburgh and started a session. And he was the last one to play, rightly so, because you didn't play after Tatum. That was pivotal.

And of course, my appearance at Carnegie Hall, my first appearance there with Duke on his 25th anniversary was pivotal. It was Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker with strings, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and myself. I'm the only living headliner. So that was in 1952. That was pivotal.

And there were some things that were revolutionary. There was "Salt Peanuts" and "Groovin' High" by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. You had to send off for records then, and you waited and waited and waited for the delivery with all kinds of anxiety and enthusiasm to open the package with these wonderful breakables, records that were sent by mail. So those were some of the pivotal things that happened in my life experiences.

PITTSBURGH

Q: When you were taking lessons and learning music, were you gravitating towards any type of music?

Ahmad Jamal: I come from a wonderful place that has few parallels and that's Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And in Pittsburgh, we don't have that separation of the European bodywork and American body. We study everything. All we do is discard the bad. If the opera's bad, we discard that. If there's some European composer that's bad, we discard that. If some American composer's bad, we discard that.
It's all classical. I coined the phrase some years ago, "American classical music." I'm the one that started that. Duke Ellington didn't call himself a jazz musician. I'm not paranoid about the word, but I'm not a jazz musician -- I'm a musician, and we are multidimensional folk. And if you want to do what we're doing, you have to know the "Etudes" by Franz Liszt. You have to know "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck. You have to know all these things.

So this is a wonderful art form, the only art form that started in the United States besides American Indian art, both of which are pushed way back as far as exportation is concerned. We didn't have that in Pittsburgh. We studied all forms of music. And that's a wonderful place.

Q: Many great musicians came from Pittsburgh.

Ahmad Jamal: Billy Strayhorn, whose family I sold papers to. George Benson comes from there. Stanley Turrentine, Art Blakey, Ray Brown, Mary Lou Williams, Dakota Staton, the great singer, and so many people come from Pittsburgh. It's a really unusual town -- akin to New Orleans, akin to Memphis, akin to Philadelphia. There's some spots, pockets on earth like that, but you can count them maybe on two hands.

All of us come from the same town, but all of us are different, and all of us have a certain approach that's different from other artists in the world. For example, George Benson, he's different. Stanley Turrentine played differently. Erroll Garner played differently. I played differently. Art Blakely, one of a kind, Ray Brown, the same thing. No one played like Ray. Roy Eldridge is also from my home town. Earl Hines is also from Pittsburgh. All these styles indicate there must be something in the water.

THE NEW GENERATION

Q: Do you listen to much music?

Ahmad Jamal: I listen to everything. I turn off that [music] I don't like, though. But I'm also engaged in fostering the careers of some youngsters now. We're co-managing, my manager and I, some incredible talent. We're co-managing Hiromi, who is an outstanding, extraordinary musician. I have a wonderful group headed by a man from Caracas, Venezuela, José Manuel Garcia, International Groove Conspiracy. We have just signed a co-management deal with this incredible Mina Agossi from France. So I'm not only listening; I'm doing a lot of management, something I did back in the late '60s. I had a record company I managed also, but I hadn't ventured into that for about 30 years. But I'm not only listening, I'm fostering some young careers.

These are extraordinary people now I'm talking about, because now you have to be extraordinary or different in order to make it, and these people have both qualities. And it's interesting, because I listen to them and I listen to all these young lions who are out there. Technically, it's amazing what's happening now. But this is what this music has done; this music has produced all these young lions and lionesses. And it's extraordinary, the influence. Well, for example, Berklee School of Music, people come from all over, and that started with just an idea. Now Berklee is welcoming people from all over the globe. This is the strength of this art form.

Q: You said there are so many young lions and lionesses out there. Technically, do you think people are having a hard time finding their own voice today?

Ahmad Jamal: You know what it is now is there's a lot of wonderful, talented musicians, but the emergence of a Art Tatum, or a Dizzy Gillespie, or a Charlie Parker, or a Duke Ellington is very rare, you know. The statements are quite similar that we're making now. The high tech has created a lot of dissemination, but it has created a lot of sameness, in my opinion. That doesn't say there's not going to be some emerging Sarah Vaughans, or Billie Holidays, or Duke Ellingtons, but right now, it's a rarity to find that statement being made, that definitive statement that is so identifiable. I mean like Billy Strayhorn's writing. "Lush Life" is not being written now; "Take the A Train" is not being written now. There's a lot of stuff being written, but statements are another thing, a musical statement that's going to last for centuries, or years and years and years. You know, there are 6,000 kids within a few miles right now still trying to learn Mozart. Duke Ellington's a baby compared to Mozart. And that shows when something is valid, when a statement is made, it lasts a long time. So I don't know if we're making those kinds of statements now, musically.

Q: Do you ever imagine 200 years down the road, are people going to be listening to your definitive recording of "Poinciana"?

Ahmad Jamal: Well they've been listening a long time already. I recorded it in '58.

LIVE AT THE PERSHING

Q: Can you tell me about that recording session?

Ahmad Jamal: That was captured because of my colleagues at that time, my extraordinary drummer, Vernell Fournier, and extraordinary bassist, Israel Crosby, and I had a little something to do with it. And it developed to the extent, I went to Leonard Chess and said, "I have to record this on location. I'm not going to play it anymore, perform it anymore until we record it, because I'm afraid someone's going to take the idea and run with it." So that's how it developed, because I was an artist in residence, which is extremely important. When you're an artist in residence, it means a lot, because you can sit there and develop, and develop, and develop. And we were artists in residence in Chicago at the Pershing Lounge. When I left New York, I went to a man named Miller Brown and I said, "Miller Brown, I don't want to travel anymore. I want to stay in one place." He said, "Sure, I'll pay you $2 a week and you've got a job." He paid me a little more than that. I said, "But you have to get me a Steinway," so we found a Steinway somewhere with a broken soundboard with wood screws in it made in 1890, and it still sounds crystal clear on the record. So we had the Steinway there with the sculptured legs at that time, and I stayed there and recorded one of the most historic instrumental records in the history of our industry.

It was a million seller, which was unheard of. It was on the charts for 108 weeks, not because it was something that was pitched to the public, no, because it was a 7:35 record, which was diametrically opposed to airtime. No one's playing a 7:35 record, forget about it. You were not going to get any airplay. It was too long. We got AM, all the AM/FM airplay we wanted, and not only that, they made an EP from it. And it launched for the first time instrumental 45s. Before it was only Perry Como and Dinah Shore, people like that were getting EPs at that time, extended play records, but this launched the beginning of instrumental EPs.

Q: What is it about the performance?

Ahmad Jamal: It had all the spontaneity and all the excitement that happens when you do a record, but particularly, on location. They called it a live performance. All performances are live, whether they're in the studio, but I call them remote recordings, removed from the studio. The Van Cliburn concerts, what got him over was a location concert, it was removed from the studio, so there are certain things that happen with an audience that don't happen. The studios become very surgical at times. And with the audience, all the mistakes are there. You have to live with them. But the whole setting is one that dictates sometimes the best results.

AUDIENCES

Q: And so when you're performing, do you have a preference between an intimate club setting or a large audience?

Ahmad Jamal: I don't do many nightclubs now. I only do some special clubs. I do Blues Alley [in Washington, DC]. I've been doing that for 25 years. I used to do it every year with Keter Betts but we lost Keter Betts, extraordinary musician. So Blues Alley, I do the Regatta Bar in Boston, because I love Cambridge. I like the atmosphere there. Here [in New York City] I started doing the Blue Note. But right now, we do a lot of stuff in France. We do a lot of venues in France, but they're all theaters.

Q: Why is that?

Ahmad Jamal: Because I think I've graduated to the point that I like that discipline. I like the discipline that goes with working in theaters and venues that are not nightclub settings. But I'm not against nightclubs. There are certain things I enjoy about sitting down, as Ben Webster used to say, "Taking your shoes off for a week." And so I can take my shoes off, according to Ben, for a week when I'm in the nightclub and we can develop certain things, as well.

Q: So it's just a more intimate setting and less pressure. Is that what you mean?

Ahmad Jamal: There's the same approaches involved, whether I do theater, or whether I'm doing Thailand, a big hall there, whether I'm doing Milano, or I'm doing the Blue Note in Milano, because I've done that room before. It doesn't matter if I'm doing one of the great halls in Perugia. It doesn't matter. My approach is basically the same. I am a person who tries to be consistent and this is an acquired skill or something that's acquired over a long period of time. I'm thinking about what I'm going to do on my next engagement, and I'm drawing from a large body of work, as well. I'm drawing from the South. We lived in several eras. I was a kid listening to Jimmy Lunsford, Duke Ellington. And I was a teenager listening to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. I'm in the so-called electronic age. And I studied both the European body of work, to a certain extent, as well as the American body of work, so I'm drawing from a large body of work, as Gil Evans did when he started writing for Hal McIntyre years ago, and then he graduated up to writing for Miles [Davis]. He was extraordinary. Thad Jones was the same way; he was drawing from all his experiences with the big bands, and Thad's writing used to make your hair stand on end. So these are people that are drawing from a large body of work. So you know, I have the same presentation, whether I'm doing a nightclub or a concert hall, because I have a certain programming technique that I've developed through the years and it works.

THE AHMAD JAMAL SOUND

Q: Can I ask you just a little bit again about your approach or your voice? I think that especially your use of space reveals a confidence. You have to have confidence as a musician. Was that something that you consciously planned, or was it just the way that you communicate?

Ahmad Jamal: Well they call it space. They call it space. I call it discipline. It's part of my discipline. And I acquired this discipline because of working so many configurations. I've played with every configuration known and unknown to man. I've played with just saxophone and piano, when I was growing up, no drums. Big orchestras, big bands, I grew up in big bands. I've played for singers, accompanying singers.

So and then I had to become a leader, so I had to write, because 90 percent of my stuff was written. I used to sit and write for guitar, bass, and piano. My early recordings were written arrangements. Of course, there was a space there for improvisation and soloists. So I think what they're hearing, I call it my discipline that I acquired over the years, a certain amount of holding back. You know it's just like dynamics. I don't think you can play loud all the time. I don't think you can play soft all the time. And I don't think you can play all the time. You have to respect what they call a rest, and you have to respect openness, as well. If it's too congested, when it gets too complicated, something is wrong. I think I acquired that discipline that people call space over the years, because I've worked in so many configurations and I've been a leader a long time. I've had a group for 55 years.

Q: Miles Davis was certainly influenced by your work -- did you two ever talk about it?

Ahmad Jamal: I would rather have an emulation than being completely ignored. Miles is my biggest fan, but that was a mutual admiration society, because Miles was an extraordinary historic musician. You know he used to hang with Charlie Parker and he began very early. He comes from a town also that's famous for musicians, St. Louis. It's a remarkable place for musicians. A lot of guys come from there and ladies that can play. That's another pocket. So Miles's background dictated a lot of his success, just like Pittsburgh dictates a lot of your success in music.

Q: Did he talk with you about your influence on him?

Ahmad Jamal: We had a quality relationship, not quantity. We lived a block-and-a-half from each other for a while, because I lived at 75th and Riverside Drive. He was on 77th Street with his brownstone. But as we needed to hang, we had the mutual respect and I prefer it that way, because Miles was a different kind of guy. And all I knew from Miles was his admiration of what we were doing and his wonderful recording of "New Rumba," and his support of my career at a time when it was very important. But as I said before, I was a big fan of Miles as well.

IMPRESSING ONE'S SELF

Q: Do you aspire for your peers, musicians to perceive you in any specific way?

Ahmad Jamal: No. This is dangerous when you're thinking about how people perceive you. It's good to want to make a good impression, but I want to impress myself first. Then if somebody's impressed further or somebody besides myself, then fine, I'm very happy. I'm still discovering my own potential at 76 years old. I'm still doing things. Of course, you know, you don't ever achieve everything that you have in mind, but you can reach a happy medium, so I'm trying to reach that happy medium. And I'm writing. I'm doing some things I want to do solo-wise in my home. I'm setting up something with my engineer where I can do some solo work, some archival things. But I don't ever think, "I want to impress this guy." You can't be preoccupied with it. To me it's an abnormal aspect of our art form to have to have applause. I mean it's wonderful, but when you don't get applause, it's something that can hurt. And it might be that what you're doing is very valid.

Q: Do you ever find yourself in that position?

Ahmad Jamal: I have been around mild applause. I've been around standing ovations. So I know a little bit about both. It's something when you have to live for applause, you know? That's a little abnormal, but that's one of the things in our business, so one has to be careful about being concerned with impressing others. You have to impress yourself. If you're pleased with what you're doing, if you're happy on a bandstand, people can feel that. There's an exchange between you and your audience, always, without fail, because people say, "Hey, they're having a ball. Let's have a ball with them!"

Podcasts

Ahmad Jamal

Music hot, fade sunder

That was pianist, composer and 1994 Jazz master Ahmad Jamal playing Morning Mist; it's from his new cd Blue Moon.

Welcome to Art W orks that program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works, I'm your host Josephine Reed.

Ahmad Jamal combines subtlety and virtuosity in his music. His playing revolutionized the use of time and space in jazz. Jamal knows when to hold back and when to go for the big effect..  His extraordinary use of space in his playing, his allowing the music to breathe has been been hallmark of his influential career.  According to cultural critic Stanley Crouch, Jamal is second in importance only to Charlie Parker in the development of jazz after 1945.  Jamal certainly had a champion in Miles Davis who credited the pianist many times for influencing his own approach to music.

Ahmad Jamal is another of the many great jazz artists who was born in and raised in Pittsburgh. It's fair to say he was somewhat of a prodigy. His piano studies began at age three, and by time he was 11 he made his professional debut with a sound strongly influenced by Art Tatum and Erroll Garner.  He joined the George Hudson band in 1947 and two years later began playing with swing violinist Joe Kennedy's group Four Strings. This led to formation of his trio Three Strings which debuted at Chicago's Blue Note club, and later became the Ahmad Jamal Trio. 1958 was a banner year for Jamal with his remarkable live recording of "Poinciana" which stayed at the top of the charts for over 100 weeks. And with that, Jamal's Trio not only won great critical acclaim, but it became one of the most popular jazz groups playing.

Although Jamal has mostly worked in trios with piano, bass, and drums, his pianistic virtuosity has made him an honored guest with many orchestras. Jamal has also won considerable acclaim with his many compositions. His approach has been described as being "chamber-jazz-like," and he has experimented with strings and electric instruments as he's collaborated with musicians across genres.

He has won many awards and honors including recognition in 1994 as an NEA Jazz Master.  In fact, I caught up with Ahmad Jamal right before the 2012 Jazz Masters Concert in January.  We spoke in the studios at Jazz at Lincoln Center.  Here's our conversation:

Jo Reed: First of all, we welcome Ahmad.

Ahmad Jamal: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Jo Reed: Okay, here's my burning question: What is it with Pittsburgh and music? Is it something in the water there?

Ahmad Jamal: That's what a book is being written, titled...

Jo Reed: Pittsburgh and the Water?

Ahmad Jamal: It's a phenomena, like New Orleans, like East St. Louis, like Kansas City. Philadelphia's Pittsburgh, because that's Pennsylvania, so we've grouped those together. But when you have this grouping-- Billy Strayhorn sold papers to his family when I was a kid. He had gone with Duke. Erroll Garner and I went to the same grade school. He's my senior, of course, but we're in the same league: Pittsburgh. Earl Wild, the exponent of Liszt; bass player named Ray Brown; pianist named Earl Hines; trumpeter named Roy Eldridge; two drummers, one an expatriate--Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey; and a newcomer, George Benson. The great Stanley Turrentine, and a little dancer named Gene Kelly, and Andy Warhol's there somewhere, and I can go on and on and on. That's just the beginning.

Jo Reed: It's amazing.

Ahmad Jamal: And don't forget Billy Eckstine, the great musician and balladeer and legend, and he still is remarkable. And when I pick up his compilations, I just shake my-- the "Great B," who created a style in his clothes alone, let alone his singing. Those are for starters. <laughs>

Jo Reed: What was it like when you walked down the street? Were you just hearing music everywhere?

Ahmad Jamal: Exactly. Exactima. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Now, when did you start playing piano?

Ahmad Jamal: I took a long time to decide: three years old.

Jo Reed: What kept you for three years? <laughs>

Ahmad Jamal: One of my great influences, Erroll Garner, he started at three, as well. It happens, but... doesn't happen every day, but it happened with me. It happened with Earl.

Jo Reed: And you studied classical piano at first?

Ahmad Jamal: Well, that's a word that rubs me the wrong way. <laughs> I studied European classical and American classical, because this word we call "jazz," it leaves something in me wanting.

Jo Reed: Tell me what.

Ahmad Jamal: The only two art forms that developed in the United States, in my opinion: American Indian art, and this thing we call jazz. I'm not paranoid about the word, but they never intended for this to be a sophisticated, to say the least, art form, and one that's instrumental in putting up buildings like the one we're in: the JALC Building. This is what happens in the jazz community, so it's up to us to redefine what we want to call it. I coined that phrase some years ago-"American Classical Music." Duke didn't call himself a jazz musician. George Shearing is multidimensional, like all of us are. He could play a Mozart concerto, and he could write Lullaby in Birdland [sic]. You're not going to find that in the European classical community, this multidimensional ability. One-dimensional most of the time-- 90 percent of the time--when you talk about European classicists. In order for us to be successful, Jo, we have to know the best of both worlds. I was playing Franz Liszt when I was 10 years old, in competition, and I can't play it now because I have to stick to what pays the bill, and the American classical music is what I prefer. And I still am able to run through my basic repertoire when it comes to the European classical music, but I also can run through the repertoire of American classical music, as well. So when people come to me, say, "Oh, I play classical music," get away from me. I don't want to hear that. I play classical music, too. Duke played classical music. Ben Webster, who gave me a pair of cufflinks when I was a kid, he played classical music, and Paul Gonzales--all of us are classicists. But it's up to us to redefine what we want to call our art form. I'm the one that took a straightforward, pioneering approach, and called it "American classical music." I just talked to a man who calls his program-- Al Cartabayan in Chicago-- he calls it "American classical music in a jazz idiom." So I don't care who gets credit for it; it's being echoed all over the world now. That's what it is. Long explanation, but I hope it works for you.

Jo Reed: Yeah, well, I'm mindful of what Duke Ellington said when somebody had said, "You write jazz." And he said, "Look, there are two kinds of music."

Ahmad Jamal: "Good and bad."

Jo Reed: "Good and the other kind." <laughs> And I think that's right. American classical music is very challenging to play. And I mean that in the best possible way, because it's so multifaceted and so complex.

Ahmad Jamal: Hmm. It's a study, that's for sure. And they say, "Oh, you improvise." So did Mozart. So did Bach. All musicians are improvisers, <laughs> and to confine that to the American classical genre is ridiculous, because there's so many things that we don't have that Mozart wrote that are thought about, but he didn't necessarily write it down. Now, I'm the same way; if it's very, very important and I think it's going to make a statement in music, then I'll write it down, Jo. But we're all improvisers. But that's an acquired skill. Improvisation is an acquired skill. You just don't sit down and improvise. That's an acquired skill. That's one of the facets of this wonderful American classical music world, is that we've perfected improvisation down to a T, some of us. But it also is evident in the European tradition, too. So we're all improvisers.

Jo Reed: Now, I want to go back and talk about Three Strings. Three Strings, when you first started that.

Ahmad Jamal: Quite historical.

Jo Reed: It's quite historical. And you didn't have a drummer. You had a guitarist...

Ahmad Jamal: Ray Crawford, a wonderful guitarist from my hometown-- again, Pittsburgh.

Jo Reed: Pittsburgh. A bassist, and you. Was that unusual, not to have a drummer?

Ahmad Jamal: Well, it was first master Joe Kennedy, violinist. He was the leader of The Four Strings, which group I joined after Sam Johnson left. He was the first pianist with The Four Strings, a group that Mary Lou Williams deemed her favorite. And the only recordings of record, something that Moe Asche did on disc-- records, I believe. Moe Asche I think, was the entrepreneur at that time. And Joe's group was called The Four Strings, so when Joe left Chicago and decided to go back to Pittsburgh, I inherited The Three Strings, so that's how it came about.

Jo Reed: And eventually you let go of the guitarist and brought in a drummer.

Ahmad Jamal: Well, that happened because we work in The Embers, on 54th Street...

Jo Reed: In this fair city.

Ahmad Jamal: And someone came up to the piano-we were an intermission group at that time, Jo. Place was packed. People-- Jackie Gleason, Peggy Lee, everybody used to--Joey Bushkin was the featured artist. So I'm the intermission artist, intermission act, whatever you want to call it. We're an intermission group. Someone comes up to the piano, evidently wanting a request in his drunken state, sets a glass of red wine, and spills it all over the keyboard. So I jumped up, went downstairs, put on my coat, and Israel Crosby and I drove all the way back in my station wagon, at that time, all the way back to Chicago, and Ray stayed in New York. That's how the addition of the drummer picture entered. Ray stayed in New York, so I had to get a replacement for him. The replacement happened to be drums, because I figured at that time maybe it was a little too subtle with a guitar, bass. That's a very subtle group, and some of my most interesting recordings were made with Ray Crawford, Israel Crosby, and myself. My first Poinciana was a lovely thing we did in 1955 for Epic Records, and that's one of my favorite recordings of Poinciana, but it wasn't a multidimensional hit that came about in '58 and sold a million copies. The thing stayed on the charts for 108 weeks, which was a first in the history of instrumental music in my genre--108 weeks. But the first recording of Pointciana was done with Ray Crawford--gorgeous.

Jo Reed: And it is beautiful. I actually listened to it this morning. Poinciana is a phenomenon in so many ways because it was critically acclaimed, and at the same time stayed on top of the charts, as you said, for so long, and this is very unusual for instrumental music. It's-- you can, what, count on, what, two hands?

Ahmad Jamal: Well, we don't get the hits. The human voice gets the hits, and it's very difficult for instrumentalists to get that kind of reaction. Yes, the human voice-- yeah. The singers get the hits, but we don't. There're a few of us-- Herbie Hancock, myself, Dave Brubeck--and then you have to start counting. There're a few more. On a cumulative basis, Oscar Peterson and others--but this was one record that stayed on the charts, top 10, for 108 weeks.

Poinciana up and hot

Ahmad Jamal: And the Grammys they owe me a special award for that, because Grammys were initiated a couple years hence, but the right thing to do was to give me an award for that record that stayed on the charts for 108 weeks, instrumentally. Unbelievable.

Jo Reed: You have the touch. The touch you have, it's so light, so sweet. You play with dynamics on the keyboard. There's quiet, there's loud. I mean, you really move throughout the keyboard. And as Miles Davis said famously, "You have space. You let the music breathe." How did you develop this?

Ahmad Jamal: Pittsburgh. <laughs>

Jo Reed: <laughs> Back to Pittsburgh.

Ahmad Jamal: That's the key. All of us from Pittsburgh, we have our—Erroll had his approach, pianistically. Billy had his approach when it came to compositions, orchestration. George Benson has his. No one plays like Stanley Turrentine, no one plays bass like Ray Brown, and no played like Kenny Clarke or Art Blakey, and no one sang like Billy. So we're Pittsburghers. We're unique, <laughs> if I may say "Pittsburgher" instead of "Pittsburghites," or whatever.

Jo Reed: I like "Pittsburgher." I think it's much better. <laughs>

Ahmad Jamal: Anyway, it works for me. So that's here, again, that's my answer, because we grew up in a tremendous environment for the fledgling, or the person aspiring to be a musician, like New Orleans. You know, all my drummers come from New Orleans, and not purposely, but it just happened. There was a great drummer, Vernell Fournier. And Herlin Riley left home, his first job on the road was with me. And the phenomenal Idris Mohammedwho wrote the drum music for Hair he got sick of playing in Hair and just went out with Roberta Flack. But these are some of the drummers that have shared the stage with me, and I'm thankful for that. So there's another phenomena.

Jo Reed: Yeah. What do you think that's about, Ahmad? I mean, do you think there needs to be a critical mass?

Ahmad Jamal: It's a history of-- it-- well, first of all, not to be redundant, but that's it's phenomena. Some-- it's happens that way, and that's New Orleans. New Orleans is perfect. It's a perfect showcase for nourishing talents like the Marsalis family, Vernell Fournier, Louis Armstrong, going back, back, back. Come on, that's New Orleans, and Pittsburgh's the same way. And St. Louis is no second bass. That's East St. Louis--Miles Davis. And St. Louis, where my first band was headquartered. That was my first job, at 17 years old, on the road with a St. Louis band. And who came out of that band? Clark Terry, me, Ernie Wilkins.

Ahmad Jamal: So St. Louis is another one of those areas. We-- it's very interesting.

Jo Reed: It is interesting. You're-- I think the first composition of your own that you recorded was Ahmad's Blues.

Ahmad Jamal: That's correct.

Jo Reed: Nineteen fifty-one.

Ahmad Jamal: That's correct.

Jo Reed: What was that like, going into a studio with your own work?

Ahmad Jamal: Well, I was, Ahmad's Blues came about-- I was working with a song-and-dance team called the Caldwells, out of St. Louis, again, and I guess I was blue because I had to be the drummer, I had to be the guitarist, had to be the pianist, everything, because they just held instruments. They didn't play them, so you had to be really on the job to support this group. And the pianist that followed me was one of my favorites: Ray Bryant, the late Ray Bryant. So Ahmad's Blues was written when I was 18 years old in Philadelphia, when we had a layover and I was very sad. <laughs> And I wrote Ahmad's Blues then. The catalyst was my career with the song-and-dance team, the Caldwells. And of course it became one of the numbers used in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway for two years. Did you know that? But it wasn't my recording. It was Miles's recording, with Red Garland. And then later on, Marlena Shaw, bless her, sang the lyrical version, the lyrics done by Bob Williams, the late Bob Williams, then Natalie Cole did a later version. So it's a good copyright for me.

Jo Reed: What's the difference for you between going into a studio and recording, doing work there, and performing live?

Ahmad Jamal: Your question was studio vs. remote recording.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Ahmad Jamal: That's the correct name. People say "live." They're all live. The correct term is "remote"-- removed from the studio. I like both. Sometimes the studio gives you a more clinical, sterile thing than the remote recordings. So I do both. I just did a studio CD here in New York. I don't record in New York often. I did the recording at Avatar Studios-- Blue Moon.

Ahmad Jamal: A lot of fun in a studio, a lot of fun doing it remote. I like them both. They both work.

Jo Reed: Do you have a favorite album or CD?

Ahmad Jamal: The next one.

Jo Reed: <laughs> You and Miles Davis had a mutual admiration society. He also spoke so highly of your work, and was influenced by it.

Ahmad Jamal: Sort of a fan, wasn't he?

Jo Reed: Yeah, he was.

Ahmad Jamal: <laughs> Yeah, well, we accept that. Miles was one of my well-wishers, and of course him and one of my favorite writers, Gil Evans--Miles Plus 19 did New Rumba, which is another one of my good copyrights, the few I have. I wrote that in 1951 or thereabouts, and Miles recorded that. And the nice thing about it is when I write, I think, orchestrally, so it was not too difficult for that to be adapted to big orchestra. So that's what Gil did, and I admire Gil, because a lot of people don't know about Gil Evans, but he goes back  many years. I used to listen to his arrangement with other bands that he wrote for. But they did-- Claude Thornhill. I think he was writing for Claude Thornhill, way, way back. So they did a wonderful job, don't you think so, with New Rumba?

Jo Reed: Oh, yeah.

Ahmad Jamal: Have you listened to it?

Jo Reed: I have listened to it.

Ahmad Jamal: Well, thank you.

Jo Reed: It was wonderful.

Ahmad Jamal: Merci beaucoup. <laughs>

Jo Reed: It was just wonderful. Okay, you wrote that in the fifties. You've been at this for a long time. How has the recording industry changed in…?

Ahmad Jamal: Is there a recording industry now?

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Ahmad Jamal: Just for a few of us.

Jo Reed: It seems that way, doesn't it, in some ways?

Ahmad Jamal: Yes. It's another thing now. Some of the stuff out there has nothing to do with music. it's terrible, this assault on intellectual property. And we have all these things. They have the iPods, the Strawberries, the Blackberries, the Blueberries, download, upload, the computers, the this, the new phones. Has the quality of life improved? And where's the record industry? Even the movies are being assaulted. People are downloading movies, this is not right. So what happened to the culture of ethics? You can't legislate honesty. You can't do that. If it doesn't come from the integrity inside the person, you're not going to do that. I don't care how many laws you pass. So we got a problem. The record business, except for a few of us, a few of us are still able to go into the studio-I'm talking about instrumentally. There are all sorts of stuff out there. They're still making records. But I'm talking about the music business, not other things that have very little to do with music. And unless you're established, it's very difficult for a youngster to get a record contract now. They're nonexistent. Unless the youngsters make their own records, that's it. They have to make their own records. They have to sell them at the venue. The distribution-- what happened to the big record stores? You had the big record store here on Broadway.

Jo Reed: Tower Records.

Ahmad Jamal: What happened to Tower? It's gone.

Jo Reed: What I wonder about is record producers. I'm thinking about a Norman Granz or a John Hammond, and the shift away from that to much more, I think-- and I don't know if you agree-- a business model. They're not necessarily musically inclined.

Ahmad Jamal: We just lost another one. I've done recording for French companies for the last 15, 16 years, and I had gone from Jean-Francois Du Baire's company, which is Brodologie [ph?]. We were distributed by PolyGram and others, and we were distributed by Francis Dreyfus-Francis Dreyfus. Francis just passed. A nd you talk about an endangered species. Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, Ralph Kaffel is still around. Leonard Chess, whose company I helped establish-- Chess, Checker, and Argo-- now they have Cadillac Records, a movie out there about Leonard Chess's. But the jazz division-- the so-called "jazz division"-- I started with Leonard. He had four artists-- basic artists. He had Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and me. And $52 million later, he sold the company, and the people he sold it to lost every dime. When you talk about these kind of record people, they're endangered species.

Jo Reed: I don't think I'm being nostalgic, but when I hear you talk about coming up in Pittsburgh, or when you talk about St. Louis or New Orleans, there seems to have been a great camaraderie among musicians that I'm not sure I see as much today. And I could be wrong, but it doesn't seem to quite be there in the way that it was for you.

Ahmad Jamal: You're absolutely right. That's one of the signs of the present era in which we live. The camaraderie is disappearing, and we are suffering because of that, because I learned a lot from my older predecessors, the people that came before me. I'm a piece of history. Duke Ellington's 25th anniversary, Carnegie Hall in 1952. Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker with Strings, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and myself. I'm the only one living of the headliners. That's history. So you think that was camaraderie? Of course, and that has stayed with me since, because these are the people who went before me and who paved the way for artists such as myself, and Herbie Hancock, and McCoy Tyner, and on and on and on. So the camaraderie is disappearing. It's running down to a precious few.

Jo Reed: So talk about your experience with Blue Moon, making that.

Ahmad Jamal: Blue Moon-- the concept for Blue Moon came on one of my wonderful Steinways at home. I have two at home, and I love them. I've been with Steinway for years. I went over there on 57th Street with John Hammond on my right and Fritz Steinway on my left. They're both gone, but I'm still here. That was in 1960. That's a few years back. So Blue Moon, I heard a line and I was playing a line on the piano at home. I said, "This is Blue Moon."

Blue Moon up and hot and under

Ahmad Jamal: And the rest is history. Nine tracks later, we're releasing it at the Chatelet in Paris.

Jo Reed: And the experience in the studio?

Ahmad Jamal: It was great because I had some remarkable musicians: Manolo Badrena, who's one of the world's great percussionists, and a man I love very much--I think a few of his musical buddies; and a man that is certainly sought after in many places, Herlin Riley, who was with Wynton for 17 years and Reginald Veal was with Wynton before Herli n joined the band. They were my studio musicians, and musicians of record on Blue Moon: Reginald Veal, bass; Herlin Riley, drums; Manolo Badrena, percussionist; and myself.

Jo Reed: You said, "The more rules you observe in this life, the more soul you're going to get."

Ahmad Jamal: The more what?

Jo Reed: Soul.

Ahmad Jamal: Well, the more freedom. You can't get freedom unless you observe the rules. If you don't observe-- people say that, "I want to be free, so I want to be"-- that's hogwash. You have to observe the rules. If you see a stop sign if you're driving a car, do you stop? Of course, because you want to be free. You don't want the police stopping you, and killing someone, so you have to observe the rules in order to be free. So there's a joy in discipline that's much overlooked.

Jo Reed: Do you think music has to have a message?

Ahmad Jamal: For me, it always has a message. When I play, I'm playing years and years of hard work, years of ups and downs, years of grief and joy and peace, and so it tells a story. So a musician's telling his life when he's on the concert stage. He's performing his life.

Blue Moon up and hot

Ahmad Jamal: Maybe people don't know that, but that's what he's projecting: his life. And a lot of us, even though we don't sing, some of the compositions that we've interpreted beyond the wildest dreams of their composers, that's another thing that makes up this great business of American classical music. We've interpreted the compositions of some of the composers beyond their wildest dreams. Look at John Coltrane. A little trivia: My Favorite Things, that's how you know John Coltrane; not by his compositions, necessarily, but by his interpretation of a little trivia thing, My Favorite Things. Poinciana is not my copyright, but what happened? I made a bigger hit out of a hit. And it got the Sarah Vaughans, the Paul Gonzaleses, and the Ben Websters, who were so lyrical, and the Lester Young's-- Polka Dot and Moonbeams [sic]-- all those wonderful things. Those are storytellers. All storytellers, every one of them. Coleman Hawkins, Body and Soul—storyteller. Coleman, he came up with this record. It's a historical record. That was a model, not only for a musician, but for the record business. And people like Stuff Smith, and all the wonderful things that Ray Nance used to do with Duke, it told a story. That solo on the Take the "A" Train that Ray Nance did—classic. We're telling the story of our lives, though, you know? Hopefully, we get to one or two people, and sometimes we get to thousands. It happens. Sometimes we get to millions.

Jo Reed: What advice do you have for a young jazz musician now, a young musician coming up?

Ahmad Jamal: That's okay. You can say "jazz." <laughs> The young person aspiring to be an American classicist?

Jo Reed: Yes.

Ahmad Jamal: I say this all over the world when I do interviews. Have more than one exit door, because if you only have one exit door, a fire breaks out, you may get trampled to death. What do I mean by that? If you want to be a performer and the doors are closed temporarily, don't get frustrated because you've gone to school and you learn how to write, or you learn how to teach, or you learn how to conduct. Prepare yourself with more than one exit door so you won't get trampled to death, and you can be places because you want to be, not because you have to be. And the only way you're going to do that is education. Not all the schools are perfect, but the value in seeking knowledge, even if you got to go to China, is much more important than being out in the street, wandering aimlessly on at a too impressionable young age. And most of the times when you're that young and you're out here, and you're not in the educational system, you get destroyed because you don't know how to say yes, you don't know how to say no. And that's the sad story of so many of our youngsters that get caught up in the world, as opposed to being equipped for the world. Only way you can do that is to get education, and I mean, spiritually and temporally, on both sides.

Jo Reed: Ahmad Jamal, thank you so very much, and thank you for so many years of glorious music.

Ahmad Jamal: Thank you, Jo.

Jo Reed: That was pianist, composer and 1994 jazz master, Ahmad Jamal. You've been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpts from "Morning Mist," "Autumn Rain," and  "I Remember Italy" from the cd Blue Moon composed and performed by Ahmad Jamal used courtesy of DL Media/Jazz Village.

Excerpts from "Blue Moon" written by Richard Rodgers, from the cd Blue Moon performed by Ahmad Jamal used courtesy of DL Media/Jazz Village.

Excerpts from "Woody 'N You" written by Dizzy Gillespie, from the cd Blue Moon and performed by Ahmad Jamal used courtesy of DL Media/Jazz Village.

Excerpts from "Poinciana," written by Nat Simon and Buddy Bernier, performed by the Ahmad Jamal Trio in 2005.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. Next week, it's Jazz Master Benny Golson.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

I Remember Italy up and hot.

ADDITIONAL PUBLISHING CREDITS

Excerpts from "Morning Mist" and  "I Remember Italy" composed by Ahmad Jamal used by permission of Mayah Publishing Inc [BMI]. 

Excerpts from "Autumn Rain" used by permission of WARNER-TAMERLANE PUBLISHING CORP. o/b/o AHMAD JAMAL PUBLISHING and

ELLORA DESIGNS (BMI) 100% 

Excerpts from "Blue Moon" written by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, used by permission of EMI Publishing. [BMI] 

Excerpts from "Woody 'N You" written by Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Passman, used by permission of Wren Music Co/Eastman and Eastman o/b/o MPL Communications. [BMI] 

Excerpts from "Poinciana," written by Buddy Bernier and Nat Simon, used by permission of Chappell & Co., Inc (ASCAP) 50% and Bernier Publishing/Songwriters Guild of America (ASCAP) 50%.