When I was an undergraduate many moons ago, I used to listen to Ahmad Jamal’s Argo lp Naked City Theme when going to bed. The album, never reissued on cd, was a lullaby helping me drift off to sleep, perchance to dream.
I am still a devotee of his music. His conception, his ideas, his playing is so unusual, so unique, that few pianists have really tried to copy him. Perhaps out of respect, perhaps just because his musical signature was so different. Has anybody tried to copy Jackson Pollock? Of course not.
Many pianists have been influenced by Herbie Hancock’s angular curves as well as McCoy Tyner’s use of powerful block chords, fourths, and minor keys. You can hear their powerful imprint in a new generation of pianists both here and in Europe.
Ahmad is more like Errol Garner. Inimitable. Perhaps that’s why Miles Davis was such a big fan of Jamal’s. He once said that “all my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal”.
Jamal grew up in Pittsburgh and was playing piano from an early age. Charles Teenie Harris, the great Pittsburgh photographer who chronicled life in Steeltown, took a photo of an ten-year-old Jamal sitting at an upright piano.
Long before Malcolm X became famous, Jamal was a practicing muslim. He opened a club in Chicago called the Alhambra, that served fruit juices, coffee and tea but no alcohol (ironically al-cohol is an Arabic word). The bar made no money and the club closed before long. Any club, jazz or otherwise, makes its coin from the bar.
Many of Jamal’s great early albums have recently been reissued in a Mosaic box set produced by veteran jazz archeologist / speliologist Michael Cuscuna, who descents into the caves to mine the dusty archives of jazz for long-forgotten gems. He’s done that for Blue Note and other labels for years. Mosaic’s 9-disc box set contains all of Jamal’s first trio sessions with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier (the trio featured in the “Darn that Dream” youtube video). Many of Jamal’s later Argo and Cadet lp’s still have yet to be reissued. I’ve purchased vintage vinyl at Amoeba or wherever I could find it. When in Japan ten years ago, I went to Tower and the HMV (His Master’s Voice) stores but found nothing in the way of cd reissues. The masters, now owned by Universal Music, will hopefully get licensed by a quality company, on both vinyl and cd.
Jamal comes to The Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts in Costa Mesa on Saturday, November 24th. He’s 82 now and who knows when he’ll be back in LA? So I’ll be there for sure.
Here’s a 1959 youtube video of Jamal playing the old chestnut “Darn that Dream” on the Robert Herridge television show. Note his fluidity, his finesse. And his audience is a bunch of jazz heavyweights. Ben Webster is up front, smoking a cigarette. Papa Jo Jones, drummer with the Count Basie orchestra, is there. So is pianist Hank Jones. Nat Hentoff is smoking his pipe next to an attractive young woman.
Like Miles Davis, they were big admirers of Ahmad Jamal too.