Ahmad Jamal Interview: Wax Poetics, Dec./Jan. 2008-09

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Pianist Ahmad Jamal charted a new popularity for jazztext Eugene Holley Jr.

In 1958, a small, dignified, Pittsburgh-born pianist, composer, and bandleader named Ahmad Jamal recorded a show tune entitled Poinciana at a hip, Black-owned venue called the Pershing Lounge in Chicagos South Side. His elegant, Errol Garnerstyle pianisms, buoyed by drummer Vernel Fourniers second-line syncopations and the rich, rock-steady bass lines of exBenny Goodman sideman Israel Crosby, transformed that song into something rare for the jazz worlda hit record. With the release of Poinciana as a single, and on the million-selling LP, Ahmad Jamal Trio at the Pershing: But Not for Me, Jamal emerged as major force in jazz, or as he prefers to call it, American classical music, and has been so for five decades. Jamal is a true scientist of sound: his use of space and dynamics, along with his tight, intricate arrangements, were a big influence on generations of pianists from Ramsey Lewis to Jacky Terrasson. In his autobiography, Miles Davis declared that Jamal knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrases notes and chords and passages.1 Davis was so enamored by Jamals conceptions that he recorded various compositions from the pianists repertoire, including A Gal in Calico and Surrey with the Fringe on Top. Davis and arranger Gil Evans even transcribed Jamals New Rhumba, a track from his 1955 LP Chamber Music of the New Jazz, note for note on their big band album, Miles Ahead. Born on July 2, 1930, Jamal started playing piano at

the age of three. He was heavily schooled in the European and American classics, and was working professionally at the age of fourteen when the jazz piano giant Art Tatum declared him a coming great.2 He left home with bandleader George Hudson after graduating from Westinghouse High School in 1948, and has recorded and performed in a myriad of settings, ranging from big band, choral, symphonic, to small ensembles, executing a number of styles, from straightahead and Latin to fusion and funk. He released over seventy records, and several of his songs have been sampled on hip-hop tracks: Swahililand (Stakes Is High, J Dilla and De La Soul), Pastures (Feelin It, Jay-Z), I Love Music, (The World Is Yours, Nas), and Poinciana (Stop Frontin, KRS-One). This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Jamals release of Poinciana. In this interview, conducted by phone in Paris, and from his home in Connecticut, Jamal unveils the story behind Poinciana, his early struggles in Chicago, and how his artistry lives on in the twenty-first century.What brought you to Chicago in the early 50s?

I came to Chicago in 1948 because of my girlfriend at the time. I couldnt work because there was a [union] restriction. I could work, but only at a different place every night, because there was a six-month period when you go from one union to the other. I was caught doing a job I wasnt supposed to be on, and I was told, I dont think youll ever get in this union as long as Im president, by

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Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

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Harry Gray. [laughs]How did you straighten it out?

Well, it was straightened out because the musicians started wanting me to work with them. I dont remember the name right now, [but] there was a great tenor saxophone player. He said, I want to have this man on a regular basis in my band. So Harry Gray relented, and I became a member of the union. And later on, he helped me buy my first house! He helped me get a loan from the credit union. So man cannot play God, Mr. Holley!What else did you do to make ends meet?

signed you to the Okeh label around 1951 and brought you to New York for an ill-fated Manhattan engagement at the Embers.

The Embers was a noisy club. Youre an intermission group; youre not the headliner. People are not paying you any attention. They want requests, and some drunken bum comes up and spills a drink on the piano keys, and his red wine is flowing all over the white keys. So that was it for me. I jumped up, got in my car with Israel Crosby, and we drove all the way back to Chicago.So you come back to Chicago from New York for an extended period at the Pershing. What was the club like?

I got me a job making kitchen cabinets for eighty cents an hour. Thats one of the ways I survived. I was [also] playing [solo]. I was working all over the place with various groups. Then I got a job as a maintenance man on the sixteenth floor of the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building for thirty dollars a week, cleaning up the busiest revolving doors in the worldcleaning up the snow at Monroe and State Street. I worked Jimmys Palm Garden [solo]. Ike Davis, the legendary drummer, used to come in and sit in with me. And Nevin Wilson, a bassist that I liked very much, came and sat in with me.It was during this period that you met two musicians who would change your life: Vernel Fournier and Israel Crosby.

It was located on Sixty-fourth and Cottage Grove Avenue. And it drew everyone from Lena Horne and Billie Holiday, with her Chihuahua dog, to Sammy Davis Jr.he was in the Pershing the night before he lost his eye in Las Vegas in that car accident. Everyone came to the Pershing.The classic Ahmad Jamal sound emerged during your long association at the Pershing. What were your musical influences during that crucial period of your development?

Vernel was from New Orleans, one of the great musical towns in the world, like my town, Pittsburgh. He had that wonderful New Orleans [Creole] mixture, which speaks to this ridiculous concept of ethnicity that we have. They say races. Theres no such thing as races. Theres only one racethe human race. And one of the proofs is the wonderful, wonderful mixture you have, complexion-wise, coming out of New Orleans. I was Israels pianist at Jacks Back Door: a marvelous guy, a wonderful musician, and he had a wonderful sense of humor. He liked my worklike a lot of people didand, thank God, they did, because thats how I survived. He hired me as his pianist, and I stayed at Jacks Back Door with him and [saxophonist] Johnny Thompson for I dont know how long.Isnt it true that you started working at the Pershing as far back as 1952?

I had my Pittsburgh influences. I grew up with all sorts of orchestras playing in venues all around the surrounding area. I worked with [pianist/saxophonist] Carl Arter, one of the prominent musicians around Pittsburgh, and Joe Westray hired me. He was one the more successful bandleaders. I was playing at ten years old with people like Honeyboy Minor, a legendary drummer who had all of the best jobs. My aunt sent me a lot of music from Wilson, North Carolina. So I had a vast repertoire. When I was eleven years old, I could play with guys sixty years old. I was making more money in the eleventh grade than my father was making in the steel mill!So you were a child prodigy.

Live at Bakers Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, circa 1976. Photography by Leni Sinclair.

ful man and an exponent of Liszt.So now youve established the Jamal sound. But before you recorded your monumental record with Crosby and Fournier, you were part of an influential, drumless trio called the Three Strings with guitarist Ray Crawford.

with [engineer] Mal Chisholmone of the spectacular, great engineers at that timeand that was it. Four nights and forty-three tracks later, here comes At the Pershing!What about disc jockey, Soul Train producer, and voice-over artist Sid McCoy?

I was able to get in there one night. They didnt want to hire me. But I begged [manager] Sonny Boswell to let me work there. I think he paid me fifty-one, fifty-two dollars for one night [laughs]. But I had to go to Harrys Show Lounge. I was working in the back room there. And then I ran into Miller Brown and Grant Smith, who bought the Pershing, and they gladly hired me. But that was after I left New York and decided to come back to Chicago.The record producer/impresario John Hammond

Well, whatever you want to call it. I studied Art Tatum, Bach, Beethoven, Count Basie, John Kirby, and Nat Cole. I was studying Liszt. I had to know European and American classical music. My mother was rich in spirit, and she led me to another rich person: my teacher, Mary Cardwell Dawson, who started the first and only Afro-American opera company in the country. Thats were I met violinist Joe Kennedy, one of the great masters of all time. She put Afro-Americans in the Metropolitan Opera. And she surrounded herself with all ethnicities. She worked out of the New England Conservatory of Music. She was a unique person: always dressed to the max. You could hear her heels coming down that stairway. If you didnt have your lessons ready, you were in trouble. [laughs] She was wonderful. And I went to another teacher, [pianist] James Miller: a wonder-

The group was a carryover from the Four Strings with violinist Joe Kennedy. I joined his group. And after he decided to go back home [to Pittsburgh], it became the Three Strings: Ray Crawford, [bassist] Tommy Sewell, and myself. So we had string instruments only. Ray Crawford started playing the percussive effects on the frets of his guitar. And everyone adopted that, [including] Oscar Petersons group, with [guitarists] Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis. Many, many people emulated Ray Crawford. He was replaced, because he stayed in New York when it didnt happen [for me] in the Embers. He didnt come back to Chicago, and thats why I added drums.Talk about some of the people who helped make At the Pershing in 1958, starting with Leonard Chess. Who decided that it was a good idea to record there?

Sid McCoy was instrumental in encouraging that session. He was very prominent in Chicago. He had one of the very, very important shows in Chicago. Great speaking voice he had a manner about him and was a nice man.I want you to set the record straight: in Len Lyonss book, The Great Jazz Pianists, which also features you, Sun Ra claims that he worked downstairs in the Pershing when you were there and implied that you were influenced by some of his concepts.

He had nothing do with my career. I had nothing to do with his. Nothing! We never worked together, and never socialized, and never interacted musically. He was on another planet. And I was another level!When did you first hear Poinciana?

I decided! I told Leonard I want to do a recording on location at the Pershing. Leonard was always cooperative when it came to whatever I wanted to do musically; he never interfered, so he said okay. He sent a two-track machine out there

I was introduced to Poinciana by way of Joe Kennedy [in the late 40s]. That song was a part of his repertoire [with the Four Strings]. Joe Kennedy was a master at composition, a master at playing the violin, a master of orchestration, and so many things. So he introduced me to a different type of repertoire.Your first recording of Poinciana was made in

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1955 and reissued on The Legendary Okeh and Epic Recordings.

We did the [LP] version with Ray Crawford, Israel, and myself. It was one of my favorite recordingsgorgeous! It was so pure and so elegant and great to listen to.The song, by Buddy Bernier and Nat Simon, was originally from a Broadway show.

Yes, I dont know too much about Song of the Tree, better known as Poinciana. It was a hit, of course, but we revived it. I dont think anything was ever as big as Poinciana was on 628 [the original label number of Ahmad Jamal Trio Live at the Pershing] turned out to be. And so many people tried to cover that and tried to emulate that. When we developed Poinciana, we developed it chorus after chorus, until it got to the point where I said, We got to record this.The biggest change from the epic, drumless trio rendition of Poinciana to the Pershing version was, of course, Vernel Fournier. Talk about how he anchored you and Mr. Crosby and created the Poinciana that made you into an international star.

the government and ended up owing the government taxes. And I dont know if they relented or whatthe rumor is that Frank Sinatra bailed him out. Maybe Im just talking nonsense. But Joe Louis had all kinds of people come along and tell him to invest in this, and invest in that. So most of us in the Afro-American community werent educated as to the whys and wherefores of how to handle money, and, in many instances, thats still true.After At the Pershing, you did something that most Black people at that time didnt do: in 1959, you went to Egypt and the Sudan. There was a New York Times report of your trip.

Oh, Ive been planning the trip since I was eleven years old. I always had some great, philosophical dreams of going to Africa, because I knew thats the background of our folks here in the United States. So I was planning this way before the Pershing [LP]. What the Pershing did was implement that [trip].Who told you about Africa at eleven years old? Thats extraordinary.

It was a combination of things: Israel Crosbys lines, what I was playing, and Vernelif you listen to his work on Poinciana, youd think it was two drummers! [laughs] He was so multidimensional: a master of brushes, master of content, master of metronomic time, and feeling. All of those elements from all three of us made that recording. [The song] was seven minutes and some seconds long. There are five different choruses, and each chorus is an entity into itself: a statement that builds and builds and builds. Each chorus became a stepping-stone to something higher. And when we got to the fourth chorus, [laughs] that was it! We had a hit on our hands!The album stayed on the Cash Box and Billboard charts for 108 weeks. How did it change your life?

I was always thinking. I was always an introvertalways a loner and a thinker at that time, and music made me more introspective. And I thought of faraway places. My faraway dream was to go to Africa, and I accomplished that by way of my recording. I broke Count Basies record at the Blue Note in Chicago. Frank Holzfeind was going under, and I saved his club. Frank gave me an extra five hundred dollars to enjoy my trip to [Africa], and there I went. The ex-minister of the interior of the Sudan hosted me, and Dr. Mahmoud Shawarbi was my host in Egypt. I didnt play a note, and that what was so surprising to the New York Times reporter, because I didnt go there to play piano. I spoke at Al-Azhar, the oldest university in the world.Another benefit of your Poinciana success was your own South Side restaurant, the Alhambra, which opened for a few months in 1961.

You mean, how is it still changing? [laughs] Its still changing, Eugene! It never stopped because of that. Im sitting on the phone with you, talking from Paris, and youre in Delaware, so Im all over the place because of that record.Yes, but at least financially your life changed?

Well, life has many challenges than it did before. Success ha...

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