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Ahmad Jamal: Walking History

Ashley Kahn's in-depth profile of the legendary and influential pianist

Photo of Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal (photo: Cheung Ching Ming)
Shirley Horn
Shirley Horn (photo: Larry Busacca)

In this extensive interview with jazz piano legend Ahmad Jamal, Ashley Kahn explores his long history in the music and his remarkable ties to legends of the past, as well as his unique collaborations including one with singer/pianist Shirley Horn.

Ahmad Jamal is relaxing in the poolroom-or rather, the large room that contains a swimming pool-abutting his otherwise modest, tidy home in the rolling hills of upstate New York. The rewards of well over 50 years at his craft are earned and appropriate; his stately demeanor seems at one with his comfortable surroundings. He is gracious, offering fruit-flavored soda or water, and personable. He repeats his interviewer’s name often when answering queries like, after a lifetime’s worth of style-Ahmad Jamal’s never-ending momentum developing and legend-crossing experiences, would he ever write an autobiography?

“I doubt it,” he laughs. “I don’t have to write it. I live it every day, Ashley. Every single day, every minute.”

The white-bearded, 73-year-old, Pittsburgh-born pianist is in no mood for resting on laurels or looking back. “I’m a busy person. I’m always doing things. My life is very interesting to me-I’m making new discoveries, musically and otherwise every minute, every second. There’s a mystery to this life, there’s a mystery to music, there’s a mystery to writing, and you have to try to unlock them. I’m still unlocking, much to my delight.”

That which drives and delights Jamal has taken musical form on a new, energetic album, In Search Of: Momentum [1-10] (Dreyfus), which many jazz-watchers already hail as his best in decades. “One of the most fiery and inspired of Jamal’s career,” argues, “[a] more percussive style is in evidence…in a modern version of something that unites McCoy Tyner’s Coltrane period with the barrelhouse.” It’s an accurate assessment. From its dynamic opening, leading immediately to equal-footed interplay from drummer Idris Muhammad and bassist James Cammack, the trio-charged album easily stands as one of the year’s most compelling.

Here’s how Ahmad Jamal, ever forward-looking, measures his own satisfaction with his first studio effort in years. “I have gone back and listened to this present CD quite a few times, much to my surprise. I usually don’t do that. There are some interesting things on there-the title track, ‘In Search Of,’ the ballad ‘Should I’ and ‘Whisperings.'” Of the last title-the album’s lone vocal track featuring the recently deceased gospel and jazz singer O.C. Smith-Jamal adds: “That probably is one of the last records that O.C. made. He was one of the great 20th century voices, a phenomenal singer. A lot of people don’t know he succeeded Joe Williams in the Basie band. They know him by the hit ‘Little Green Apples.'”

Jamal also highlights one of the album’s most dramatic, suitelike tracks. “I particularly like ‘I’ll Take the 20.’ Yeah, I like the structure and what we’re doing on that one….”

Jamal describes his group not as a “trio” but as a “team.” “James has been with me 22 years; Idris has been with me off and on for the last five. We have a lot of fun when we work and a wonderful relationship. Good or bad, mistakes, no mistakes. What we do equals fun. It’s a fun happening every time we go on stage. If you’re enjoying yourself, you’re going to have a lot of commerce.”

That commerce-artistic or economic, both definitions work in Jamal’s case-is just one happy consequence of the career choices he can now afford to make for himself. “When I was 27 I was in the development years: trying to keep a group working, raising a family and trying to figure out what all these obstacles are about when life presents them and trying to overcome them. Now I’m sort of on a vacation from all those things. Now I have time to develop in areas that I couldn’t develop before.”

Today, Jamal will record only if the maturity of the music demands it: “Those are the key factors in determining when I’m going to record: new material and if I have lived with the material long enough.” He tours only for a set period at a time (“I’m still basically the same as before: I’ll be out for no more than six weeks”) and carefully selects where and how he travels. “I try to plan an intelligent itinerary for myself as well as my men and make conditions that are conducive to success. Hotels, venues, promoters-you have to work with people who like to work with you.”

Even Jamal’s choice of his Paris-based label results from a go-with-what-you-know approach. “Jean-Louis [Dreyfus, head of Dreyfus Jazz and Birdology] is a real genuine record man, which you don’t run into too often, the same cut of cloth as Leonard Chess-whose company I helped build-and [Atlantic Record’s] Ahmet Ertegun. He’s a music man, a record man-he’s done some compilations that nobody else is doing: Don Byas, Billie Holiday. I’m very comfortable with that. Those are the people that I grew up around.”

Familiarity-a guiding factor in Jamal’s current path-certainly steers his conversation as well. In sharing his own history, what initially seemed reluctance (“I’m a look-aheader; I don’t look back too much”) becomes a trickle as the dialogue develops, then an outpouring of random recollections. His first professional forays around the Midwest while still a teenager. His extended run at a Chicago hotel, signing with Chess Records and rocketing to renown with a best-selling album that, as it turned out, offered only a scant selection of a mother lode of recordings from that residency. (“I only picked eight out of the 43 tracks for the live At the Pershing album.”) His early start as a piano prodigy in Pittsburgh, meeting and urged on by Art Tatum.

Jamal invokes his hometown with a smile, proud of many tributes received- “It’s a mutual admiration society; they’ve honored me, and I’ve honored them. I produced a CD called Pittsburgh that’s used in the science museum”-and in being part of the city’s long musical tradition. Jamal offers his oft-spoken litany: “You’re talking about Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, Roy Eldridge, Dodo Marmarosa-who is forgotten-Johnny Costa, who remained in Pittsburgh all his life, and when people watched Mr. Rogers on TV, they heard Johnny playing piano. Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Earl Wild. That’s what my hometown gave me: a rich legacy.”

An avid record collector during his teen years, Jamal sent away for what he could not find in Pittsburgh. “We had to send for them mail order. I did all my collecting in my formative years, which would have been in the ’40s and ’50s. I was real eclectic. Georgie Auld and Boyd Raeburn recordings with Erroll Garner. Savoy records with Don Byas. Those early things Martial Solal did for Contemporary. The old Comet 12-inch masters with Art Tatum and Tiny Grimes and Slam Stewart, and Nat [Cole], and Lester Young playing ‘Body and Soul.’ Lucky Thompson, all that kind of stuff.”

His prized collection now resides safely with Jamal’s brother in Pittsburgh. Does he pull the old 78s out when visiting? “No, very rarely-now it’s even hard to get a turntable.” But, he adds philosophically, “there’s no such thing as old music. It’s either good or bad.”

So much has been said of Miles Davis and his embrace of Jamal’s ’50s sound that it seems fitting to ask what the pianist thought of the trumpeter.

“Well, I was a great collector of Miles’ recordings going back to the Capitol years. We grew up listening to each other, no question about it. We had a quality relationship, not a quantitative one, not one that was full of a lot of hours spent together. We were always too busy to hang out!”

In his autobiography, Davis made much of catching Jamal at the Pershing in 1953. Does Jamal recall this encounter?

“A lot of people came in and out of the Pershing: Billie Holiday, Miles and dozens of others because it was a popular spot, and we helped to make it that way. What I remember more vividly than that is in the late ’50s Paul Chambers-who looked like he was 12 years old-coming down to Cadillac Bob’s [a two-level steakhouse featuring music in a black section of Chicago.] Because we would go downstairs where the bands were and they would come upstairs where we were.

“I also remember Miles once came in the Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland, and at the Pori festival in Finland, for example. And we lived a block and a half from each other in New York: I was on 75th Street; he was on 77th. But we never did get into any hanging out or any extensive conversations.”

Those days in the late ’50s-when some dismissed Jamal as a cocktail pianist, while some like Davis championed his use of space and subtlety-seem practically ancient when listening to the vibrancy and depth of his current efforts. So much has changed, and yet there are moments when a telling constancy in Jamal’s style becomes apparent on In Search Of-moments of contemplative hesitation and smoothly executed rhythmic shifts; drop-offs in dynamics and harmonically rich chordal approach; surprise melodic fragments, like the “Stolen Moments” quote spicing “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.”

Noting that the pianist continues to cover songs by the likes of Frank Loesser and others (a version of Monty Alexander’s “You Can See” also made it onto In Search Of) leads him to comment on what it is that deems a tune worthy of a Jamal treatment.

“Take ‘Whisperings,’ by Aziza Miller, who wrote the words. It helps to have an in-depth study of the melodic line. And if you know the lyrics as well as the melodic line, you’re going to approach it differently. If you’re playing ‘Lush Life’ and you don’t know what the lyrics are, you’re not going to be able to really do as good a job as a person who does know them, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, you’re an instrumentalist, but you should know what the human voice is saying, too. That’s the oldest instrument in the world. If you don’t respect that, you’ve got a problem.”

The conversation shifts from repertoire to the subject of career crests and changes. As is his wont, Jamal responds with metaphor.

“Of course, you wouldn’t expect a doctor not to use certain developments that weren’t in existence 20 years ago. Music is the same way. The approach to music changes according to the times. As life changes, so do you. Now I have time to try to write, so I’m doing maybe 80 percent my compositions. It used to be the other way around-80 percent the compositions of others. You have a basic foundation, yes, but you’re supposed to build on that. You don’t stay in one position in life. You have many peaks. One of my peaks of my career was my emergence at the Pershing.”

By “peaks,” does he mean what fans and critics have celebrated as defining signposts along the road of Jamal’s progress: the Pershing, his return to New York at the Village Gate in the early ’60s, his excursions on electric piano in the late ’60s and late ’70s?

“Maybe I use the term loosely. I was referring to mass acceptance, if I can call it that. The little acceptance that we get as instrumentalists-be it Miles or Herbie Hancock or Dave Brubeck-are peaks. For example, there was a period of my career where I worked Carnegie Hall with Dakota Staton, the wonderful lady who went to the same high school I went to. She was at her peak with ‘The Late Late Show’ [in 1957] and I had it at the Pershing-we were very much in demand at that time. But ‘peaks’ can also mean how you feel about yourself, so right now is a peak too.”

Jamal’s current self-satisfaction spreads wide. Life is good, and as he has done during career heights in the past, he has taken on new projects. In the late ’50s it was a restaurant in Chicago, alcohol-free as per his Muslim faith. In the late ’60s, he formed a management company and ran three record labels (Cross, Jamal and AJP), producing titles by Shirley Horn, Sonny Stitt and others. Today, it turns out to be a gig managing a young pianist Jamal was turned on to by his former bassist.

“Hiromi-she’s Japanese and only 23 years old. Richard Evans, who is head of the orchestra department at Berklee, called me up on the phone, and I heard two minutes of her playing and that was it. She’s doing graduate work, but she’s already a pro, and does it all-playing ensemble, writing. She can do stride. I comanage her along with my manager, Laura Hess-Hay, and the Yamaha Music Foundation. I have her doing two of George Wein’s festivals this year, Bryant Park and Saratoga, and Tanglewood. And she has a release on Telarc [Another Mind].”

Ahmad Jamal excuses himself and returns with an advance copy of the album, being sure to point out one of his favorite tracks. “She wrote ‘The Tom & Jerry Show’ when she was a little kid, listening to the cartoon music. That’s Hiromi. When you hear that, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. So I’m very busy managing her now.”

And busy handling interviews with persistent writers with just one more question focusing on the past. How does it feel being one of a vanishing few active in the days when jazz giants ruled and scuffled? The pianist accommodates his interviewer good-naturedly.

“It feels like I’m walking history, Ashley. I was fortunate, and I caught most of the giants. I met Art Tatum when I was 14 years old. We went to a jam session together at the Washington Club up in Pittsburgh. I have some cufflinks somewhere that Ben Webster gave me. Great man-what a player! I had occasion to finally meet Billy Strayhorn, whose family I sold papers to when I was seven years old. I remember a Carnegie Hall concert from 1952. It was Duke Ellington’s 25th anniversary, and it had Charlie Parker with strings, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and myself. I’m the only one remaining headliner from that billing. So I’m a bit of walking history-that’s what it feels like.”


“I’ve been with Steinway since 1960-that’s 42 years. I went over to [New York’s Steinway showroom on] 57th street with Fritz Steinway on my right and John Hammond on my left, and I’ve been with them ever since. I have two in my playing room there-9-footers-my black beauties.

“On the road I take a digital piano-Technics SX-P50-just to have in my hotel room so I don’t have to go searching for a piano. With the amp, it gets a bit heavy-about 73 pounds-but with earphones, it doesn’t disturb anybody. I used to have Steinway send me a piano in the room, years ago, but I stopped that. It’s very important that I have a piano visible at all times because I want to be able to write any time I get ready.”

<h2>Ahmad Jamal & Shirley Horn</h2>

When Shirley Horn’s latest, May the Music Never End (Verve), hit the shelves this past June, astute fans of the dulcet-toned singer might have noticed a rare listing on the cover: piano on two tracks courtesy of Ahmad Jamal. His guesting on another’s album-especially one known for her own laconically phrased keyboard work-speaks to a number of things: a long-lasting friendship, an enduring mutual admiration and a serious health issue.

Photo of Shirley Horn
Shirley Horn (photo by Jimmy Katz)

In January 2002, Horn lost her right foot due to diabetes, a serious impediment for one whose playing relied heavily on manipulating the instrument’s pedal. But by May, the 69-year-old had already returned to performing, singing from a wheelchair, with favorite pianist George Mesterhazy at the keys (“He was a godsend-he’s right there for me.”) By 2003, Horn had recovered to the point that she was flying around, back to her normal monthly touring schedule. Audiences in Miami, Las Vegas and New York found her gregarious as ever, a bouquet of welcome-back roses inevitably in her lap. Such a severe, life-saving procedure normally demands a longer recuperative period. “Well, I’m impatient!” Horn admits.

After appearing for a weeklong engagement at New York’s Iridium this past February-two, hour-long sets a night, Tuesday through Saturday-Horn remained in town to record the music for May the Music Never End. It’s classic Horn: sparse, seductive, with her trio (Mesterhazy, bassist Ed Howard and drummer Steve Williams). The material diverse, evocative and unexpected: Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away,” Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday,” Harold Arlen’s “Ill Wind,” Duke Ellington’s “Take Love Easy.” (The latter two are tastefully laced by Roy Hargrove’s trumpet.) The title track is again by Artie Butler, the songwriter who delivered Horn her late-career anthem, “Here’s to Life.”

And of course, there are two tracks-Percy Faith’s “Maybe September” and Gordon Jenkins’ “This Is All I Ask”-with an old friend.

“He’s my Debussy, you know? We had the same manager for many years- [former bassist] John Levy. I first heard Ahmad on a record in his office in the early ’60s-and it just knocked me out. Then I met him in New York on several occasions. Once he was playing in Washington when I was about to have a baby. I was having labor pains and I told my husband I had to go see Ahmad and he said, ‘No, you can’t do that!’ He took the [car] keys from me.”

Their connection, as Jamal adds, “has continued through the years. I’ve known Shirley for a long, long time. She recorded for my company in the late ’60s. I discovered Shirley on my own and vice-versa. She’s one of the great voices of the present age and still remains brilliant. You know, we were supposed to do a session in Paris about five years ago, but it didn’t come off because I was tied up with some other things. So when she asked me to do these tracks with her, I consented.”

Anything to the choice of tunes they covered together?

“They were her choice,” Jamal notes. “I don’t know what inspired her to do ‘This Is All I Ask,’ but she always asked me to do ‘Maybe September’ when she would come in the clubs.”

“He did an album and this song was on it [Heat Wave, Cadet, 1966] and it haunted me,” Horn recalls. “I never did it myself, but I said, ‘One day I want to sing this particular song with him. We met up in France and I had witnesses. I said, ‘Do I have to throw a net over you? You’re going to do this with me’ [laughs]. And I love that ‘This Is All I Ask.’ It all just seemed to fit.”

Undaunted as ever, Horn continues to juggle performances, housework and therapy sessions, learning to work with a set of custom-designed prostheses that will eventually have her playing piano full time again. “There are three: one for walking, one for sitting and one just for playing the sustaining pedal on the piano. It does take a little more time, and I’m always into cooking and tending my home and doing all my work around the house. I fight with the prosthesis daily, but my target date is tomorrow. I will win!” she laughs. “I have to because I have to play for myself. That’s all I know.”

(This article originally published in 2002.)

Read Michael J. West’s review of Marseilles album by Ahmad Jamal.

Check out latest releases and upcoming performances by Ahmad Jamal.

  Originally Published