An American Institution

Editor’s note: Ahmad Jamal was known the world over for his ability to play and create jazz on the piano since his first album was released in the 1950’s. Jamal lived a full life performing and producing the kind of jazz music that will stand the test of time. He passed away in April of this year, and this interview first ran in October 2001.

MMF 2 Ahmad_Jamal in 2019
Ahmad Jamal is one of the most respected and influential jazz pianists and composers from the immediate post-bop era to be still performing. At 71, Jamal has lived and absorbed a vast majority of jazz history and has influenced a great deal of it. He was one of Miles Davis’ favorites and he continues to compose and perform remarkable music to the laudatory praises of critics and fans worldwide.
Currently, he is touring through the United States this fall. In this interview with Jupiter Index, Jamal discusses his busy schedule, an upcoming live album, his roots and the instrument he would play other than the piano.

Michael Aiuvalasit: What are you up to these days?
Ahmad Jamal: I am busier now than I have ever been. We just did five and a half weeks in Portugal, Italy, Germany, Finland, Spain, and France. I just finished a concert in Lexington, Virginia Saturday night, so we are very busy.

M.A.: Any album plans coming up?
A.J.: I have a CD that is being released on October 23rd, The Olympic Concert in Paris. It is a very famous hall. This performance is with the Quartet featuring George Coleman.

M.A.: What are your opinions of the continuing popularity of jazz music.
A.J.: In spite of the negligence on the part of the media to promote this music, it is still goes on and on. You don’t see Duke Ellington on the tube each day, you don’t see John Coltrane on the tube every day, you see a lot of stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with music, but this art form still keeps getting stronger and stronger. It speaks to the validity of what we are doing.

M.A.: What were your impressions of the Ken Burns’, Jazz documentary that aired last spring?
A.J.: I didn’t watch it.

M.A.: Did you have a chance to?
A.J.: I had a chance but I didn’t watch it. It had too many oversights and stuff that was left out.

M.A.: You were the first to call jazz, “American Classical Music,” how did this term come about?
A.J.: That was a term I came up with some years ago, it was my brainstorm. As the feminist movement has created some change in lingo, you can’t say chairman now you say chairperson, now we have hundreds of radio stations and hundreds of newspapers using my term, “American Classical Music” and they are recognizing it as a valid caption of it.
I came up with that some years ago when I came out with a record called, “American Classical Music at the Great American Music Hall” in San Francisco, that is when that started. It certainly is the definitive term for this music.

M.A.: You are from Pittsburgh and it has obviously been important to you, considering your album, “Pittsburgh” a tribute to your hometown. How has your hometown of Pittsburgh influenced you?
A.J.: It has influenced the world. We have had some of the most outstanding musicians in the world from Pittsburgh, including Billy Strayhorn, who wrote, “Take the A-Train,” and ”Lush Life,” whose family I used to deliver papers to when I was a kid, though Billy had already left and gone on the road then. Just Billy Strayhorn alone we could talk volumes. We had Oscar Levant, Earl Wild (the exponent of Lizst), Roy Elridge, Ray Brown, the late Stanley Turrentine, and myself. We had Art Blakey, Terry Clark, Maxine Sullivan, George Benson the list goes on and on. Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, it goes on and on. There are very few parallels in the world like Pittsburgh, very few.

[Editor’s note: Mr. Jamal recently lost a nephew during the World Trade Center attack.]
*M.A. note: Ahmad Jamal and I discussed the Islamic faith, of which Mr. Jamal is a member. Though, Mr. Jamal is reticent, and justly so, to speak of his personal beliefs he did share some of his pride in the history of his faith, and in his concerns with the misunderstanding of Islamic culture.*
A.J.: Islam has been one of the most profound influences in the world in medicine, architecture, mathematics, and the Islamic world is still contributing, and it has never stopped contributing. Certainly, when you speak about the Moors you have to mention one of the Seven Wonders of the World you have in Spain. I just left Granada not too long ago, the Alhambra is still there, and in fact I built a restaurant called the Alhambra. The Alhambra is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and it was contributed by the Moors (who were Muslim). So the contributions are far-reaching and still felt. In fact the little culture that you still have in Spain was put there by Islamic peoples. Spain is still benefiting from the culture that the Moors put there many, many years ago. They had streetlights in Cordoba when the rest of Europe was in darkness.
It is unfortunate that more Americans are not exposed to Islamic culture, because it is quite misunderstood. It is unfortunate, very tragic, and very costly for the world. When you misunderstand a culture and you begin to think things that have nothing to do with the culture a lot of damage can be done. It is unfortunate that we are so ignorant of one of the great and still growing philosophies of the world. Still growing by leaps and bound.
The more you study the more you will be amazed when it comes to this great philosophy.

MMF 1 Ahamd Jamal in 2019
M.A.: With your career having spanned six decades, you have seen many changes in the record business. How has the way you control the production of your music and the packaging of it changed over time?
A.J.: I have always had control over my product, there has been only one period that I didn’t have control. That was during my relationship during my career that involved 20th Century Fox. I was with 20th Century Fox for a short period of time, that is the only time that I relinquished control. Other than that I had complete control of my product. For the most part that was the only exception to the rule. Personally, I have complete control of my product. Most of my recordings are done in France, I have very little recording activity in the United States. The company that I work for is also in France. So, I am in complete control of my product; graphics-wise, selection of compositions, the time I want to go in the studio, all of that is under my control.

M.A.: When you compose music is it conceived for the solo piano or for the ensemble?
A.J.: I have an orchestral sense that comes from my hometown. I have always had the orchestral approach whether I am working with a small ensemble or a large ensemble. Therein lies the reason why Gil Evans was able to orchestrate my composition, “New Rumba,” and Miles Davis, “Plus 19,” one of my compositions I wrote while I was a kid, it was one of Miles’ favorites and “New Rumba” was one of Gil’s favorites.
All of my things can be utilized for a full orchestra, for a hundred pieces or three pieces. That’s the way I write, that’s the way I think. I think orchestrally.

M.A.: I assume that comes from your early years and your training.
A.J.: Exactly, I had a lot of exposure to big bands. I left home with a big band when I left Pittsburgh at 17 years old. I worked with a big band with 17 pieces. The big band produced great people like Clark Terry, Ernie Williams, and me. I left home with a big band. Before that, I was working in Pittsburgh for a big band around that time. I grew up in high school playing with the beginner orchestra, the junior orchestra, and the senior orchestra. We had a jazz band in our high school in Pittsburgh. So, I have always been working with the orchestral aspect of music, and also I enjoy writing for the oldest instrument in the world, the human voice. I have two albums I did for the Cadet label, The Bright the Blue and the Beautiful, and Cry Young. These were written using 17 or 18 of the most talented voices in New York City.

M.A.: Do you play any other instruments? Can one be proficient at more than one instrument?
A.J.: One instrument is enough for anyone. Very few people are even proficient in the one instrument. When you talk about doing two or three instruments you are really asking for it. If I had elected to play some other instrument, if I had time to learn, it would be have to be either the trumpet or the cello. My daughter plays cello. I have a cello; I have always had a cello in my home. But the piano is enough for me, that’s enough. It’s a big, big job keeping proficiency on the piano.

by Michael Aiuvalasit, © 2001