Friday, November 21, 2008

Ahmad Jamal: A national treasure speaks

Ahmad Jamal by Frank Capri
Pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal is a man of letters. He has one from President Bill Clinton congratulating him on being named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1994. In 2007, the French government made him an Officier de L'ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Officer, Order of Arts and Letters) and the Kennedy Center dubbed him a Living Jazz Legend. He holds a Duke Ellington Fellowship at Yale.

Earlier this year, he brought home a Best International Album award from les Victoires du Jazz, France's Grammys, for his latest release, "It's Magic" (2008). Here's the title track.

Home for Jamal is Salisbury, Conn., where I reached him earlier this week by phone. On Monday-Wednesday, Nov. 24-26, he will perform six sets at the Dakota. Expectations are high, and rightly so. Profoundly influential, endlessly innovative, majestic and gracious, Jamal is a national treasure.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1930, he started playing piano at 3, studying seriously at 7, performing professionally at 14 and touring nationally at 17. At 21 he formed his first trio, the Three Strings. Producer John Hammond heard them play in New York and signed them to Okeh Records.

'Poinciana' a jukebox hit
At 28, Jamal, bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier recorded Jamal's arrangement of the song "Poinciana" at the Pershing Lounge in Chicago. It became a jukebox hit, charting for more than two years and allowing Jamal to open his own restaurant/club in Chicago, the Alhambra. How long was it open? "One day too long," he laughs.

Miles Davis recorded many of Jamal's songs and arrangements and instructed his pianist, Red Garland, to play like Jamal, with spacious phrasing. Even if you don't know Jamal, you have probably heard him play — on the soundtracks of the films "M*A*S*H" and "The Bridges of Madison County."

Vibrant and elegant at 78, Jamal is traveling the world, writing new music, performing to sold-out audiences, and planning his next CD on the French label Birdology (distributed in the US by Dreyfus). He's a man of strong opinions and thought-provoking views. For the rest of this post, he has the floor.

Ahmad Jamal on why he chose jazz, which he calls American classical music:
I don't have that separation of music [classical vs. jazz]. It's either good music or bad music. I was playing Lizst when I was 10 years old, Duke Ellington when I was 10 years old. Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson — we have to know the best of both worlds. I have been playing good music all of my life — the body of European work, the body of American classical music. … When you're 3, you don't make choices. Music chose me. That's the way it has been all my life, even now.

On creativity:
We can only reflect creativity. We're not creative people. When I write something, it comes to me. What we have to do is make ourselves available. We're receiving vessels. We can't make a raindrop or a snowflake; those are the articles of creation. All we can do is reflect on the beauty of the raindrop or snowflake.

On distractions:
If you fill your life with too many distractions, you're going to dull your senses. People who have dulled their senses are walking around dead. When you dull your senses, you're not being receptive. A great artist doesn't allow himself to be distracted. As Duke Ellington said, "Music is my mistress."

On silence:
I spend time every day away from all of this flurry of activity. I have moments when I steal away, get away from the chaos that we bring upon ourselves: cell phones, Blackberries, strawberries, TVs, DVDs. If you want to call it silence, I'll accept that word. But it's more than silence. These are very profound moments, a very profound series of things I do when I steal away from this world.

On 'American classical music' vs. 'jazz':
It's a culmination of thinking about what this music is, and the terminology that is used to refer to it. … What happened was we sophisticated a very unsophisticated term ["jazz"], which now has many definitions that have nothing to do with the music. The word is used very loosely. … We all play classical music. The best of both worlds. It's an affront to go up to Wynton [Marsalis] or me and say, "I play classical music." We are the superior practitioners. Nine times out of ten, a man who's playing first chair in a symphony can't play "Happy Birthday."

On the space he brings into his music:
I never called it space. I call it discipline. … If you don't have discipline you can't have freedom. People say they're completely free, but when you see a stop sign, you have to stop or you'll crash. There's no such thing as complete freedom. You have to practice the rules that govern this earth and govern living. When you don't have discipline you have disorder.

On free jazz:
Free jazz, unfree jazz, this jazz, that jazz … Ballet, opera, hip-hop, rap … There's good and bad in everything. We have a wonderful mechanism called the human brain. It's the best tool you'll ever have, whether you're reading a book, looking at a painting, or listening to Mr. Jamal. The human brain can siphon good from bad. Just reflect a little and your mind will tell you.

On Jazz at Lincoln Center, for which Jamal opened the 2008-09 season in September:
It has one of the best orchestras in the world. What makes that orchestra so good is it's laced with the proper humility, the proper philosophical outlook. They're all gentlemen. You can't play music if you're arrogant. … Wynton [Marsalis] is a gentleman and one of the great American classical musicians. … The new Lincoln Center structure, this place that Wynton helped put together, is what is proper for housing this music. This is what it should be, in keeping with the cultural contribution this music has given to the world.

On his own recordings:
What's my favorite record? The next one. My best record? The next one.

On his hit "Poinciana" — does Jamal ever tire of playing it?
Not ever.

What: Ahmad Jamal with bassist James Cammack, drummer James Johnson III, and percussionist Manolo Badrena (some might call this a quartet; Jamal prefers "small ensemble")
Where: The Dakota
When: Monday-Wednesday, Nov. 24-26, 7 and 9:30 p.m. ($20-$40)

Originally published at, Friday, Nov. 21, 2008

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