Ahmad Jamal has been a singular and influential voice in jazz for more than six decades. He’s also one chatty cat.
At 88, Jamal chooses his performance dates more carefully now (his four public appearances this year include one night in Orange County, so that must mean we’re way cooler than we imagine). But his smooth, minimalist sound hasn’t changed much since his heyday in the late 1950s. And his mind – as this interview attests – is as sharp as B major.
Jamal, a Pittsburgh native, started piano lessons at at the age of three, when his uncle Lawrence challenged him to duplicate what he was playing on the keyboard. He could do it, of course.
Jamal reached his stride in the early 1950s with his popular trio, The Three Strings.
The trio’s sound changed significantly when drummer Vernel Fournier joined in 1957 and it began a stint as the house band at Chicago’s Pershing Hotel. The trio’s live album, “Live at the Pershing,” stayed on the charts for 108 weeks. Jamal’s best-known song, his version of Simon and Bernier’s “Poinciana,” was first recorded for this album.
Voice of OC sat down last week for an extended interview with Jamal, one of the only ones he granted for his Southern California visit.
Voice of OC: Where does your unusual approach to jazz originate?
Ahmad Jamal: That’s the Pittsburgh influence. You can hear it in Billy Strayhorn’s writing or George Benson’s playing or Erroll Garner’s, who went to the same elementary school as me. Pittsburgh produced a guy named Gene Kelly, who sure danced different. All Pittsburghers are different. We’re creative.
VOC: Who are your biggest influences?
Jamal: Art Tatum is still a phenomenon. You don’t try to play like Tatum. He was way ahead of his time. Erroll Garner is still the maestro of the piano. Teddy Wilson is unique. My influences go beyond pianists. I loved big bands as well. Duke Ellington. Dizzy when he first had his band. I’m also influenced by Ben Webster, the master sax player.
VOC: You’ve said your music draws from many eras and styles.
Jamal: I draw on four eras of music. People forget the past. But we have to also remember Bach and Beethoven as well as Duke Ellington. They’re still programming Mozart everywhere. I love the orchestral style of some big bands. I grew up in big bands. Left home at 17 with a big band. Went on the road, and life hasn’t been the same since. The big band era was revolutionary. The electronic era – I draw upon that. And whatever the present day is. That’s my bag.
VOC: You’ve taken regular breaks from playing in public.
Jamal: I’m always taking hiatuses. I started a record company in New York years ago, and I produced Sonny Stitt and a number of other people. That took about three years. Then I had my restaurant in Chicago. I’m on a semi-hiatus now. I took only four engagements this year. At 88 I’m very selective. I did go to Ukraine – that was very interesting. These days I’m more of a homebody.
VOC: Tell us about your relationship with Miles Davis.
Jamal: We respected each other. Miles lived on 77th St. near Riverside Drive. I was on 75th St. Miles used to come to see me when I was the artist in residence at the Top of the Gate. I had a room when I moved to New York in 1960. Miles would come to see me there with other people. He was a great admirer of mine; he recorded my rumba. I heard it this morning as I was eating breakfast. But there was no hanging out with Miles. He wasn’t the kind to hang out.
VOC: Did you know that “Live At the Pershing” would be such an influential recording?
Jamal: It’s one of the most plagiarized records in the history of instrumental music. Most of the stuff comes from the Pershing. When Clint Eastwood did “The Bridges of Madison County,” he used two things from that album. He opened with “Poinciana.” “The Wolf of Wall Street” used it. Artists are always remembered for one or two things. If I don’t do “Poinciana” people are extremely disappointed
VOC: What is still challenging for you?
Jamal: Ballads. They’re hard to play well. They’re hard to interpret properly. One of the things I learned is you should know the lyrics even if you don’t sing. You can’t really interpret a song without knowing them.
VOC: Jazz – where is it going?
Jamal: I look at who is making a statement – a profound statement that wasn’t made before? I’m not saying there is nothing being stated any more, but there were certain statements made by Parker and Gillespie and people like Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong. Writers too. Ira Gershwin. Musically the talent now is unbelievable. But who is making the statement that Louis or Miles made? And vocally, who is doing what Ella did? When will we come back to the making statement that lasts forever — something you don’t forget? That’s what concerns me about the future.
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.