Arguably one of the greatest contributors to American classical music is jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. Born in Pittsburgh, Mr. Jamal was what some might call a child prodigy. He began serious study at the age of seven under the tutelage of Mary Caldwell Dawson, founder of the only national African-American opera company that existed then.
Jamal proudly claims his humble Midwest beginnings, citing Pittsburgh as one of the most significant producers of great musicians such as Billy Strayhorn, whose family Jamal delivered papers to as a young boy. Although Strayhorn was not around during the time, they later became acquaintances once the family’s “paperboy” arrived on the professional music scene.
Further proclaiming his rich musical Pittsburgh roots Jamal hangs in his home a group photograph of some of the very greats from his city – Billy Eckstine, Earl Hines, Roy Eldridge, Mary Lou Williams, Maxine Sullivan and Erroll Garner. He can run down a long list of native musicians, including George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Dakota Staton, Dodo Marmarosa, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Earl Wild…and one gets the feeling the list goes on.
Jamal, a union member for 57 years, has fond memories of the Pittsburgh local where he was introduced to the music scene. Playing and touring regularly today, he gives high regard to the professional working musician. He also has especially strong feelings about the intellectual, technical and multi-dimensional talents of musicians who play “this thing called jazz” for which he coined the phrase American classical music. And he continues to be amazed at its growing international influence.
Local 802 Jazz Rep Natasha Jackson interviewed Ahmad Jamal for Allegro.
Natasha Jackson: What did it mean to join the union at such a young age?
Ahmad Jamal: I joined the union in 1945 at the age of 14. I was actually trying to pass for 16, but the president looked at me and knew I wasn’t quite that age. There were some historical jam sessions at Local 471. Great musicians came through there. They should have left the building as a landmark; it was so important to musicians in that area.
The great thing about working there at that time was that I was working with men who were 60 years old and well-established like Honey Boy Minor and Leroy Brown. I knew the repertoire because my aunt used to send me sheet music from North Carolina. I was a young boy who could play all this music. It was quite an experience coming up with orchestras and working for minimal amounts of money – quarters, literally. The first job I got paid $5; I was overwhelmed (laughter).
NJ: You mentioned learning your repertoire from sheet music. Was that your primary exposure to music and the door to learning to play jazz?
AJ: That was just one of the ways. I was enrolled in Mary Caldwell Dawson’s music school by my mother at the age of seven. Pittsburgh was a place where we did not make divisions between European classical and American classical music. We studied the whole nine yards. Bach along with Duke Ellington, Beethoven and Count Basie, Art Tatum with Franz Liszt.
NJ: Who were your greatest influences?
AJ: Erroll Garner. He was a pianist who went to the same grade school and high school I went to. He was one of my great influences. Our families were acquainted. He went on to become very successful of course. He was booked by Sol Hurok and was one of the first artists to do the Salle Playel in Paris. He was a great Pittsburgher and one of the great influences of twentieth century music, pianistically, and one of my single great influences.
Other influences include Art Tatum, Ben Webster, Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge, Earl Hines and Duke Ellington. I was influenced by more than just pianists. Orchestrally, by Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and I had influences outside of America, such as Maurice Ravel – a great French composer.
NJ: So orchestral composition influenced your trio compositions?
AJ: I like to think of my group as my orchestra even when I am working with three pieces, which is the format I use most often. Sometimes I expand to a quartet. I just recorded a quartet with George Coleman.
NJ: When was your first professional gig?
AJ: I was in high school, 11 years old. My first professional job was on Liberty Avenue with saxophonist Leroy Brown. It was a quartet with Bass McMahon and Ray Crawford [who later became a member of Jamal’s trio Three Strings].
NJ: Did more work come after you joined the union?
AJ: I worked with every configuration known and unknown to man. From 18-piece orchestras to a two-piece band of just sax and piano. I became quite busy after I joined the union. The union provided a network. Once people who heard you play talked about you, they would call you for jobs in and out of town. Being a member of the union was your initiation into the professional world. There was a tremendous amount of activity coming through Pittsburgh. That was how George Hudson hired me. He heard about me and came through Pittsburgh. I joined his band and went to Atlantic City – my first job away from home. Joined the George Hudson Orchestra. Hudson was from Pittsburgh although many associated him with St. Louis, another great pocket of musicians. Miles Davis was from East St. Louis.
NJ: Speaking of Miles, did you and he have a relationship, outside of mutual admiration of one another’s music? Did he influence your playing?
AJ: Miles certainly influenced a lot of people; he was a special kind of guy. One of those great contributors to twentieth-century music. Our relationship was quality not quantity. We never hung out. Miles was first attracted to my music in 1951 when he recorded “New Rumba” with Gil Evans. I didn’t even know they were going to record it – it was something I composed and recorded in the early 1940’s. Miles and Gil Evans recorded it using my trio parts adapted to a big band. That was Miles’ early discovery of me. He used to come to the Pershing Lounge in Chicago when I was working there. I was the artist in residence. Everyone used to come in there from Art Tatum to Billie Holiday. This was a guitar, bass and piano trio featuring Israel Crosby, Ray Crawford and myself. Then I changed the guitar to drums with Vernel Fournier to make my 1958 album At The Pershing. That recording, which included “Poinciana,” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody ‘n’ You,” is still being used today. Clint Eastwood used it for Bridges of Madison County with Meryl Streep.
NJ: Was this your favorite album?
AJ: It’s hard for it not to be my favorite. My favorite record is always the next one (laughter). That is certainly one of my monumental achievements. If you can do that once in a lifetime you are fortunate. Some of us don’t have that happen even once – but it happened and it is still carrying me through. In fact it is still being emulated and plagiarized (laughter), which is a tribute to an artist when people try to duplicate – that says that perhaps you have made a mark.
NJ: It seems that your trio format and trio compositions influenced others in jazz to follow; wouldn’t you agree?
AJ: That was my Pittsburgh influence. And certainly it has had far-reaching influence by the grace of God.
NJ: So many great musicians came from the Midwest. What do you attribute this to?
AJ: Well, there were pockets. As far as I am concerned, those included Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Kansas City, Detroit, St. Louis, Memphis and Philadelphia. These are the extremely strong pockets for music in this country. I mean it is really a phenomenon. All of these cities made phenomenal contributions.
The migration from the South had a lot to do with these concentrations in certain areas and culture from the South transforming in response to the new environments in the North and the Midwest.
NJ: I guess this is part of what makes it a truly American classical music.
AJ: Now you got it.
NJ: How do you describe jazz?
AJ: In order to qualify I think you have to know the best of both worlds. We have to have the best of both worlds. We have to know Bach; we have to know Duke Ellington. We have to know the various forms in order to be successful, whereas some of the guys sitting in the first chair of these symphonies are not multi-dimensional. In order to be successful in this field you have to have a broad base.
I think the origin of the word “jazz” speaks volumes, but not necessarily musically. If you look up the word jazz it can mean many things. In fact there is a piece of software out now called “Jazz” – it has nothing to do with music. I think musicians who work in this field have to be classified as American classicists – just as European classicists are called exactly that.
There are a lot of reasons I think we should focus on our being musicians. We don’t call ourselves jazz musicians; I don’t think you will hear a musician come out and say, “I’m a jazz player.” We are artists, not entertainers. I think you have to have a certain intellectual prowess to understand what we are doing. I think what we are doing is thought provoking. I think it starts the intellectual processes.
NJ: So are you against the word “jazz”?
AJ: No. Guys like Arthur Davis, a foremost music educator on the West Coast, can work with the New York Philharmonic and also McCoy Tyner. There are many instances in which so-called “jazz musicians” are qualified in so many areas of European classical music. That is why we should not separate musicians: it is limiting. Some people are put off by the term without really understanding anything about the music. According to Duke Ellington there are only two types of music: “good music” and “bad music.”
I started the term American classical music as opposed to jazz. I am not offended by the term and I am not paranoid about it but I coined the phrase years ago and the media has since caught on to it. In fact, I made an album titled American Classical Music at the Great American Music Stand in San Francisco.
There are only two art forms that developed in the United States and that’s American Indian art and this thing called “jazz.”
NJ: Where do you see this music going? Is it becoming more limited?
AJ: Any art form that is valid will not be confined geographically or intellectually. We have wonderful teachers like Jimmy Heath, Jackie McLean and so many professors now in the institutions that have tenure (some are even retired). The New School University also has great educators coming out of our field. Jazz has proven to be one of the only American art forms to grow and get the attention worldwide. They will be whistling Duke’s “Sophisticated Lady” long after some of these other fads are gone. That is where it’s going. It has promoted itself by virtue of its authenticity.