This piece was originally published on FYIMusicNews.
I was age 16 in 1962 when my brother Wayne, 15, and pal Charlie Craig, 16, and I were given the opportunity to open for Wes Montgomery at the old Ports of Call, a refurbished barn in Louisville, Ky. The event facility was on this occasion known as the Arts in Louisville. Why this is important to this interview is because of what was playing on the hi-fi system at the time. The owner was hooked on three recording artists: Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson and, most notably, pianist Ahmad Jamal and his exquisite recording At the Pershing: But Not for Me.
Lou Rawls was singing about the Windy City and the grinding poverty of Tobacco Road. Nancy Wilson’s words hung in the smoke-filled club like teardrops with no destination: Never Will I Marry and Guess Who I Saw Today. And in between, the most perfect piece of music to ever enter my brain: Poinciana, played as a hybrid Latin rhythm with numerous elegant refrains.
As much as we stayed focused on the opportunity to open for the greatest guitarist on planet jazz, my concentration had been abducted by those three recordings. All I wanted from this evening was to hear those magnificent artists played over and over again. By evening’s end, pianist Ahmad Jamal was my new hero. I spent the days ahead circling record bins and convincing my dad that we needed to expand the six-record collection. And that he did.
Jamal was a favourite of Miles Davis, a pianist with ample technique and taste with a right hand that could make a melody or slight improvisational pattern sing like a seasoned vocalist. Each note is carefully considered and delivered with the touch of a classically trained musician, yet never restrained by notes imprisoned on a score. The perfect pianist.
Here’s my conversation with Jamal back in 1990. He has released more than two dozen recordings since then, the latest being 2016’s Marseille.
Listening to your early sides, especially At the Pershing recorded in 1958, you hear songs like Poinciana, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top and But Not for Me, which developed into these perfect pieces of music over several years of playing them. Do you still work on material for long periods before recording?
First of all, compared to my peers I have very few records out. Most of the people who have been out here this long — I started in 1951 — like a Dave Brubeck, have 150 to 200 records out. I only have 50. I’m very fussy about recording. I’ve made mistakes in spite of my being so wary about going into the studio till I’m ready. There are still records I shouldn’t have released.
I’m more meticulous now than then. People ask which my favourite record is, I say the next one. There is one record I consider near perfect and that is At the Pershing. That’s a very rare piece of music. Out of 43 tracks, we only used eight. Subsequently, the record company went and released all of the others I had never intended [to be] released. I was so convinced that it was going to be a successful musical venture, I didn’t care how many would be sold.
I go into the studio with the concept of making a good record. If it’s a good record, it doesn’t matter whether it sells one or 100,000 copies. Instrumentalists don’t have hits anyway — it’s singers who get hits. There’s only a few of us who have slipped through. There’s been me, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Miles, Chuck Mangione, Dave Brubeck, maybe George Shearing with Lullaby of Birdland and Joe Zawinul with Birdland. You can almost count them on 10 fingers. It’s the singers that make the money and get the hits. When one of us slips through, it’s a rare occurrence.
I recently turned on the radio and heard an updated version of Poinciana copied note for note from your original recording.
Was it mine or someone else’s?
I don’t have a clue.
It has been plagiarized. So many people have done versions. It’s been done big-band-wise, small groups have done it. A young lady from Chicago did a nice recording of it note for note. There’s a big-band arrangement Frankie Crocker did. I’ve done Poinciana Revisited and it’s fairly consistent. The way I do it now is I have many variables. I wouldn’t record it again. When people ask me if I’m tired of playing it, I tell them of course not, it’s still a baby compared to Mozart. There is no such thing as old music. It’s either good or bad.
What was the first music you played on piano?
The first music was something my uncle played, a simple folk song. Then I began playing everything I heard. I began studying when I was seven years old but I don’t ever remember not being able to play anything I heard. The piano is a natural instrument for me. I’ve always had a certain touch. It’s been part of my life for so long. It has never been an effort to play it, just an effort to do all the things I want to do.
Miles Davis even complimented you for your touch.
I think Pittsburghers tend to be stylists. They all have their own approach. Whether it’s Dodo Marmarosa, whom the world’s forgotten about, or Sam Johnson, who the world didn’t know about, or Erroll Garner or Earl Hines, we all have our approach, and that one is mine. All of the Pittsburgh players are different. Mary Lou Williams was a wonderful jewel. Pittsburgh is an unusual place. That’s why we have the George Bensons, Stanley Turrentines, Art Blakeys and Kenny Clarkes, not to mention Ray Brown. It’s very different trying to get that kind of bassist these days. John Clayton comes close — he’s a student, as such. John Heard has that sound; he’s also from Pittsburgh.
Did your parents monitor your practice schedule?
No, they were too busy working. My mother walked to work in order for me to have a dollar for my music lesson. She watched me closely till I reached kindergarten. When the teachers fainted hearing me perform, she followed their recommendations that I take formal lessons. Her sacrifices were made every day.
Was it Liszt, Czerny and Hanon the next few years?
Oh yes. I was playing the Erotica Étude when I was 11, and that’s difficult work.
What sparked your interest in jazz?
Economics. You could make a living. There was also support: morally, economically and spiritually. The fact is this is an American art form. Brahms, Bach and Beethoven are European art forms, so there are many reasons why one would play jazz. Jack DeJohnette, Art Tatum or I were able to go in any direction, like an André Watts who chose classical music. I chose this because it’s part of my heritage.
I hear the history of jazz piano unfold when you play — bits of Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Nat Cole and so on. How close did you listen to these giants?
That’s why I came up with the term American classical music. I was shunned when I coined it; people looked at me strangely. I did a recording from the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco called American Classical Music. Now the term is being used often.
There’s a transition in language, and you don’t use the terms you used before. I’m concerned with the title of jazz because I don’t think it’s broad enough. What we’ve done is sophisticate a much-unsophisticated word. It was meant to be a downer when they called it jazz. Even now if you ask some people if they like jazz, they’ll say no immediately because of their prejudice to the word. The musician who is a so-called jazz musician [or] American classical musician has to know the best of both worlds. We have to know Mozart and Duke Ellington, and we have to know Bach and Count Basie. You have to know Art Tatum, and you have to know Liszt.
You have to be a hell of an artist to play your music in night clubs with rattling dishes and noisy doors. The symphony players enter a building that is silent where the musicians perform before a captive audience. They are going to sit and be attentive because they know it’s the proper thing to do. When you have an artist that can bring the same environment into a nightclub, that’s incredible. You have to know the best of both worlds.
I noticed you like to stand throughout your performance.
If you see a motionless drummer, you’re going to see a bad drummer. There has to be movement. In this business, you cannot be rigid and inhibited.
Are you demanding?
Of course. Every leader who is doing his job is. Music is my mistress, as Duke Ellington said. It demands everything. Short of that, I don’t want to be bothered with you.
Miles [Davis] did an interview in a magazine and I laughed until I cried. Miles is Miles, he is his own man. The interview was great. He said, “Music drives me crazy. It’s all I’m thinking of all the time.” In any profession, if you want to become a great purveyor of the craft, you’re going to have to put in a lot of time and make many sacrifices. What we think philosophically is the most important part of our lives. That’s paramount.
Prepare yourself to have options. Many of the greats were lost because they didn’t have options. If there is one exit door when a fire breaks out chances are you’re going to get trampled to death. You can conduct, perform, teach, arrange, produce, go to an institute of higher learning and get the options, and avoid the one exit door.
Nat “King” Cole is one of the most impressive and one of the most important eras in jazz piano history. He succeeded John Kirby in the small, cohesive, well-prepared use of the trio as an instrument. The whole thing was one instrument. He was the model. Oscar Peterson used him. Monty Alexander used him and so did I. There are a lot of things he did with Lester Young. Besides his great voice, he was a great pianist. One had to be touched.
Do you think his commercial success overshadowed his contribution to jazz?
No, he had already made his contribution as far as I’m concerned.
Has he been properly recognized?
No one is properly recognized, unfortunately. You have stupid people in charge of media in most instances. The general public knows Nat “King” Cole as a singer, as well as George Benson, but that doesn’t negate the fact he’s a hell of a guitarist. Critically, there has been some mention George should go back and do this and that, he’d be a great guitarist. He’s already a great guitarist! If Cole had continued in the trio context without singing, the mark he had made would be more obscure.
What are your thoughts on jazz in the classroom?
I haven’t been in the classroom. I have some friends like Hale Smith, one of the great composers in the world, who are. Max Roach is there, Jaki Byard, Archie Shepp, the great Art Davis — a bass player no one mentions anymore. He was on the early dates of McCoy Tyner. Davis is one of the great bassists in the world. Richard Davis, one of my ex-bassists, is also teaching somewhere. If they have people with these kinds of credentials, I’d advise them to add more. They have to be doing something right. I know all of these men, and they are very competent people.
There’s always a criticism that many of the programs turn out too many Coltrane clones.
That’s kind of a stupid criticism because right now there are 6,000 people in some area of Tokyo who are trying to play Mozart. They are all going to play the same damn thing. That’s been going on for the past 200 years. If a guy sounds like Coltrane, he’s chosen a good person to emulate. Art Tatum is almost impossible to emulate.
The point is it’s always the day and age of the stylist. Out of that group studying the European tradition, there are a few who are going to be a Vladimir Horowitz. Horowitz is playing the same repertoire as 100,000 other people, but his approach was the thing that made him Horowitz. The same thing applies, so all of the students who play like Coltrane, the one who has the purest approach will be the one to stand out.