Over the years, I have seen many jazz musicians receive the coveted $625,000 MacArthur “Genius” Awards. Some recipients I wondered about, quite frankly; others, like pianists Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, as well as the late saxophonist Steve Lacy, I was delighted to see win.
There are three great pianists on the scene whom I feel have demonstrated a lifetime of jazz excellence and innovation. Each artist possesses a distinct sound and musical style. While the average listener might mix up a Hank Jones with a Tommy Flanagan, these three pianists have their own unmistakably unique style and sound.
And now, with the record industry in its sorry state, and the challenges of touring for these octogenarian musicians, I feel they deserve to be honored with this prestigious award in a timely way. Keep in mind that they’re not getting any younger (Kuhn, the youngest, is 77).
Ahmad Jamal: First is Ahmad Jamal. Now 85-years-old and born in 1930, he burst onto the jazz scene in the 1950s. He has always been one of the most original, polished, and elegant pianists. Miles Davis esteemed Jamal for his lightness of touch and spare use of notes. A lifetime admirer (by contrast, Miles did not like Oscar Peterson, whom he thought overdid it, by which he meant too thick a musical canvas, too many notes), Miles even recorded several of Jamal’s compositions, such as “New Rhumba”. Jamal has numerous albums to his credit and still does worldwide tours. His latest album, Live in Marciac was recorded in Southwestern France last summer.
Paul Bley: Then there is Paul Bley (now 82). Born in 1932 in Montreal, he studied modern classical music in Paris before recording his first album of very modern bebop music in 1953 with Charles Mingus and Art Blakey. He also performed with Ornette Coleman at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins in 1958. A dreamy and introspective player in his later years, Bley also has prodigious technique and a fertile imagination. His improvisations are both soulful and edgy; his unusual musical language was an analogue to the beat writers’ use of English: elliptical, offbeat, fun, and always right on. Check out his songs “Opus One” and “Teapot” from his 1953 album Introducing Paul Bley). He has recorded many albums of original compositions, as well as standards by Coleman, Annette Peacock, and Carla Bley.
Steve Kuhn: The youngest of the three at age 77, Steve Kuhn was born in Brooklyn in 1938. He began piano lessons at age five and later studied in Boston under the great jazz pedagogue Margaret Chaloff, from whom he adapted the “Russian Classical” style into his jazz improvisations. After graduating from Harvard, he recorded countless albums, including ones with John Coltrane, Gary McFarland, Joe Lovano, and many others.
I’m not trying to convince anyone vis-à-vis these terrific pianists, only the MacArthur nominators and judges. I’ve been a fan of their music all my life, know their work very well, and think it’s high time they be considered for this great award—while they’re still active and alive.
Here’s one more video that I feel compelled to include: A beautiful 1959 video of a very young Ahmad Jamal performing the ballad, “Darn that Dream,” before an admiring audience of jazz heavyweights that includes Ben Webster, Papa Jo Jones, and Nat Hentoff.