Ahmad Jamal Interview
By Paul J. MacArthur 03/23/2000 Houston Press.Com
Pianist Ahmad Jamal may have had a bigger impact on jazz than you think.
Caught up in the end-of-the-millennium hoopla last year, Jazz Times asked 300 musicians to vote for Jazz Artist of the Century. The ballot included five obvious names: Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, and space for write-in votes and comments. Many comments were published in the December 1999 edition, but none were as provocative as this left-field salvo from pianist Hal Galper: “Ahmad Jamal has had as much influence on jazz as Louis, Duke, Bird, Coltrane and Miles. Sure, Miles gave him the nod from time to time, but Ahmad’s major contributions have yet to be recognized.”
Widely respected and influential as a pianist, the 69-year-old Jamal is not usually put on the same pedestal as Ellington, et al. Sure, Jamal’s 1958 album, Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing, stayed on Billboard’s album chart for 108 weeks, going as high as No. 3. Sure, he has contributed some important songs, such as “Ahmad’s Blues,” to the jazz repertory. But when it comes to jazz history books, encyclopedias, magazines and textbooks, Jamal rarely gets elite treatment. A review of exactly what Jamal did during the ’50s suggests he should.
Raised in Pittsburgh, Jamal started playing the piano at the age of three and began his formal studies when he was seven, about the same time he started delivering papers to Billy Strayhorn’s family. Jamal attended the same elementary school and high school as his idol, Erroll Garner. Many of Garner’s ideas rubbed off on Jamal, including his sense of formality and use of dynamics. Aside from Garner, Jamal’s main influences included Nat “King” Cole, Earl Hines and Art Tatum; he incorporated aspects of their styles into his playing, including Cole’s light, open, airy beat and Tatum’s harmonic inventiveness.
In 1951 Jamal moved to Chicago. His trio featuring bassist Israel Crosby and guitarist Ray Crawford, who would be replaced by drummer Vernell Fournier in 1956, eventually took up residence at the Pershing Hotel, where the trio became a local hit and Jamal refined his style. It wasn’t long before the innovative Jamal started getting the attention of other players.
Jamal’s most important contribution was his use of space, something he skillfully employs to this day. Compared to the piano kings of the early 1950s — Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Bud Powell — Jamal seemed almost minimalist, playing fewer notes and using silence to his advantage. By allowing the music to breathe, Jamal made fast runs even more dramatic. His arrangements were inventive, and Jamal often drove crowds into a frenzy with simple embellishments, powerful dynamics and a thrilling use of tension and release, all of which were new at the time.
Ramsey Lewis, whose trio was also playing in Chicago during the ’50s, was one of the many pianists paying close attention. “Many times we would hightail it out to the South Side [after a gig] to see Ahmad Jamal, Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier, because the trio was really playing great music as a very cohesive unit,” says Lewis. “Having the occasion to go and hear him was simply a delight, because he had the room rocking. It was always packed, and it was always a happy feeling at the Pershing when Ahmad was playing there.”
Jamal’s style floored other pianists such as Bill Evans, Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan. Among his many other contributions, Jamal redefined chord voicings. “Ahmad was the first one to introduce the new left-hand voicings on the piano [in the ’50s],” Galper says in a telephone interview from his home in Boston. “Bud Powell’s left-hand voicings were very simple and very open. They allowed the right hand a lot of freedom. Ahmad Jamal had more notes in the left hand. They were richer left-hand voicings, which meant you had to play more disciplined lines in the right hand. Everybody was flipping out over these new voicings, like, ‘What are those?’ ”
While Jamal influenced several pianists, he seems to have had the biggest impact on trumpeter Miles Davis. The chameleonlike Davis, a champion of Jamal’s ideas and styles, integrated elements of them into his horn playing, most notably the use of space and melodic understatement. Davis had applied these influences during the Birth of the Cool sessions of ’49 and ’50 before he even heard Jamal, but noticeably ignored them during his heroin-plagued early-’50s work. Upon hearing Jamal, Davis refocused his energies on those concepts.
In the mid-’50s Davis even once told his pianist, Dallas-born Red Garland, to play like Jamal. The trumpeter was so enamored with Jamal’s sound that he studied every aspect of the trio, even telling his drummer, Philly Joe Jones, to emulate Crawford’s percussive effects and accents. Davis recorded songs from Jamal’s set list and in many instances used Jamal’s arrangements. Some of Davis’s versions, according to Galper and Jamal, were note-for-note copies of Jamal’s arrangements.
“Miles is the great promoter of Ahmad,” says Galper. “It is through Miles’s promotion of Ahmad that the music got changed, but it was Ahmad’s ideas that set it all up. Miles kind of overshadowed Ahmad. He didn’t give Ahmad enough credit.”
By the mid-’50s a now-clean Davis was leading jazz’s most potent and most copied ensemble, one often credited with several innovations, including techniques and concepts borrowed from or inspired by Jamal. Of course, Davis’s group did forge its own identity, and made its own innovations, and Jamal was just one of many influences on Davis. “Miles made no qualms about the fact that at that point he thought Ahmad was the freshest thing out there,” says Lewis. “In jazz, it’s sort of like building blocks. What came before and sometimes during contributes to all of us, no matter who it is. We’re all a hodgepodge of everything that was before and still is.”
Davis’s infatuation with Jamal may have even been the catalyst for jazz’s modal revolution. On October 25, 1955, Jamal recorded an arrangement of Morton Gould’s “Pavanne” (available on the 1989 CBS/Portrait reissue Poinciana). In the middle of the arrangement is a brief interlude in which Jamal plays a D minor 7 vamp, then modulates the vamp up to E-flat minor 7. The vamp bears a striking similarity to Davis’s “So What,” which uses that same progression. Jamal’s “Pavanne” predates “So What” by three and a half years.
Plus, as Jamal vamps, Crawford plays a melody that is note for note the same as John Coltrane’s on “Impressions.” Crawford’s melody predates “Impressions” by six years.
Considered one of the most revolutionary pieces in jazz history, “So What,” which appeared on Davis’s 1959 landmark album Kind of Blue (which itself featured Coltrane), popularized the concept of modal jazz, in which songs and improvisations are based on modes/scales instead of chord changes. This concept would be thoroughly embraced by Coltrane and other pioneers of the ’60s.
While there is a difference between Jamal’s interlude and the melody of “So What,” it’s probable Davis pulled the concept for “So What,” consciously or subconsciously, from Jamal’s “Pavanne.” “Impressions,” another jazz standard and important modal tune, is a different story. While the accepted history is that Coltrane created “Impressions” as an extension of “So What,” the tale sounds suspect when you compare Coltrane’s melody to Crawford’s interlude: They’re exactly the same. Jamal has never been given composition credit but seems content to sit on the sidelines regarding the historic controversy. “I’m not going to make that declaration,” says Jamal. “If someone else wants to do it, that’s fine, but I haven’t made that analysis.”
It may be a bit of stretch to say Jamal had more than a fleeting impact on modal jazz. He has never been a modal player and was not a modal player at the time “Pavanne” was recorded. Davis, however, was already experimenting with modes before “So What,” most notably on his 1958 recording Milestones. While not ready to take credit for “So What” or “Impressions,” Jamal does acknowledge his trio’s importance.
“We’ve had some major influence on the music scene,” Jamal says. “I’ve had some spectacular players throughout the years. Historic players. Vernell Fournier, Israel Crosby. Vernell Fournier was perhaps the most imitated drummer in the world. I had Ray Crawford, the giant of the guitar who used to get percussive effects on the frets of his guitar, and he was widely imitated. The trio was not only imitated for its content but for its individualism.”
Throughout the ’50s Jamal’s trio was met with uneven critical response. Many writers understood Jamal’s brilliance. Others lambasted him as little more than a cocktail pianist and showman, a criticism that never stood up to scrutiny. Change in opinion has been a long time coming. “Everybody in Chicago loved Ahmad,” Lewis recalls. “But I noticed, nationally, critics were slow to come around until Miles Davis came through town and made his remark about Ahmad being a major influence to him. Of course, at that point, all the reviewers and critics jumped on board. Musicians, we all looked at each other and said, ‘Well, they’re late, but at least they caught the train.’ ”