Q&A with Ahmad Jamal: Continuum of Influence

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Ahmad Jamal will release a new album, Marseille, on July 7. (Photo: Courtesy DL Media)

For nearly seven decades, Ahmad Jamal has influenced generations of pianists, from Red Garland to Aaron Diehl. His profound piano style is an amalgam of Art Tatum’s improvisation prowess, Erroll Garner’s ebullient flourishes and Franz Liszt’s prodigious technique. His 1958 hit LP, But Not For Me: Live At The Pershing, spent 108 weeks on the Billboard charts.

For the last few years, Jamal, 86, was rumored to be retired. But now he is back with a new album, Marseille (Jazz Village/PIAS). Supported by drummer Herlin Riley’s Crescent City cadences, Manolo Badrena’s atmospheric percussion and James Cammack’s rock-steady bass lines, the album, due out July 7, features Jamal’s trademarked use of dynamics and spatial discipline, ranging from a rocking rendition of the traditional “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” and the maze-like “Baalbeck” to the title track, performed as an instrumental with lyrics delivered by French rapper Abd Al-Malik and chanteuse Mina Agossi.

DownBeat spoke to Jamal by phone from his Massachusetts home about his time off, his return to the studio, his legacy and his love of France. 

Let’s talk about your retirement.

Well, I never actually said that I retired (laughs). In 2014, at a concert in Prague, I disclosed to my men that I wasn’t going to accept any more engagements. That’s why I never came out with a blanket statement saying I retired.

By the way, I was semi-retired from 1969 to 1972. I founded a record company on 57th Street in New York City. I was producing records and managing. I’ve been touring since I was 17 years old (laughs). I left home as a kid. That’s much too young. Instead of going to Juilliard, I jumped on the road, and I’ve been on the road ever since.

The musicians you work with have been an integral part of your career, on the road and in the studio. Talk about the musicians in your current quartet, starting with James Cammack.

James has been with me for 35 years. He came to me from the Army Band at West Point, where he played bass and trumpet. James is one of my great line of bassists, including Johnny Pate, who did the score to Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to Superfly; Richard Davis; Wyatt Ruther, who ended his career with Erroll Garner; and Eddie Calhoun, who also played with Errol Garner. And there’s Reginald Veal, who alternates with James Cammack.

The prototype for all of the bassists you’ve worked with was Israel Crosby, who was part of the historic Live At The Pershing recording.

Israel Crosby wrote “Blues For Israel” when he was 16 years old, working for Gene Krupa! And he was one the first African American studio musicians in New York City. [And early in my career] I was his pianist in his group!

And then there’s Herlin Riley, who worked with Wynton Marsalis, and first appeared on your 1985 recording, Digital Works.

When I was in New Orleans, I needed a drummer. And a wonderful trumpet player said I’ll find someone for you, and found me Herlin. That was around 1982–’83.

Riley is the latest in a long line of New Orleans drummers you’ve employed, starting with the impeccable Vernel Fournier, whose second-line syncopations pulsed your biggest hit, “Poinciana.”

There’s James Johnson. He’s from Pittsburgh, but he was born in New Orleans. And of course, there’s Idris Muhammad. But the first one was Vernel Fournier. I found him in Chicago. He was one of the most sought after drummers there. It took some time for me to him to join my group because he was so busy. He was one of the most emulated drummers in the world. People are still trying to figure out how he played “Poinciana” on Live At The Pershing, because he sounded like two drummers.

On the subject of drummers, you were one of the first jazz musicians to incorporate Afro-Latin percussion in your music in the early ’50s.

There are only two people that I know of who employed percussionists in the manner we did at that time: Dizzy Gillespie—with Chano Pozo—and me. I had Badr Uddin in Chicago. And if I didn’t have congas, I had Ray Crawford, who lived in my mother’s house in Pittsburgh. He was a saxophonist who learned to play guitar while recovering from a lung disease. He got that percussive sound on the instrument that you heard on my early recordings like “Billy Boy” and some other things.

Everybody emulated him: Oscar Peterson used to come to see me with Herb Ellis … they emulated what Ray Crawford was doing. I’ve always utilized percussionists.

Which brings us to the Puerto Rican percussionist Manolo Badrena, who, with his elaborate set of hand drums, cymbals, whistles, gongs and chimes, is a one-man United Nations of rhythm.

He was in and out of my group since 1986. And he worked with Joe Zawinul and Weather Report. And he was the staff percussionist for A&M in California with Herb Alpert. Manolo’s very gifted and very musical. He plays piano and guitar every day. To get that chemistry between drummers and percussionists to work, it takes a certain amount of skill to bring that to fruition.

It’s a wonderful thing to work with these gentlemen of high character. And the result is what you hear.

Let’s talk about the new album, Marseille.

I’ve written many songs about cities and countries, including “Perugia,” “Tucson” with [guitarist] Calvin Keys and “I Remember Italy.” But I haven’t dedicated many CDs to cities, except to my hometown, Pittsburgh. And about two years ago, in my studio, I came up with some tonalities that I liked. And I called [the song] “Marseille.” And after that, another composition came to me … and the lyrics came out almost instantaneously. … That’s “Marseille,” and there you have it.

How did Marseille inspire you?


I’ve spent time in Marseille. It’s a very impressive city. It’s the gateway to Europe. It’s the oldest city in France. And it reminds me of San Francisco. I can walk the streets of Marseille—that’s in the lyrics [of the title track].

Talk about your lyrical inspirations and your work with voices.

There’s a young lady, Aziza Miller. She’s an amazing lyricist. She used to conduct for Natalie Cole. I met her through Richard Evans. She inspires me. She wrote the lyrics to “Picture Perfect,” and “Whispering,” which was O.C. Smith’s last recording. And she sang on and wrote lyrics to “My Latin.” I’ve done several projects for the human voice [including the 1967 LP] Cry Young, with “Nature Boy,” [scored] by the wonderful composer Hale Smith, with the Howard Roberts Chorale. The human voice is my favorite instrument.

On Marseille, you feature two French vocal artists on two versions of the title track, starting with the popular French-Congolese rapper Abd Al-Malik, who delivers your lyrics as a spoken-word tribute to the city. And Mina Agossi, who sings the lyrics in French and English.

Abd Al-Malik is one of the most recognized rappers in France. He’s performed for 20,000 people and with the French Symphony at Salle Pleyel—one of the most prestigious halls in France. My lyric-manuscript first went to Mina Agossi, a vocalist we used to manage for a minute. We had her at the Blue Note [in New York]. She’s one of the great divas. She’s French, but her family comes from Benin; very interesting lady.

The rest of the tracks on Marseille are all instrumental, starting with the title track, performed in a bossa-nova, bolero-friendly tempo. You also included a new Afro-Cuban rendition of “Pots En Verre,” which was originally recorded on Ahmad Jamal With The Assai Quartet in 1998.

“Pots En Verre” means “glass jars” in French. In fact, I may write some lyrics to it and send it to Mina. It’s one of my favorite tracks. And the [rhythmic] structure here is in 6/8.

You also perform the standard “Autumn Leaves,” which has been in your repertoire for decades.

It’s a very interesting composition, and it’s the only non-original track on the disc. It’s been around for years. Miles recorded it. I recorded it. Israel came up with a beautiful bass line in one of my early recordings. It has great feel, and James is great on it, along with Manolo and Herlin. It works very well.

Your ballad “I Came to See You/You Were Not There” rings with the French impressionism of Ravel, with some Erroll Garner phrasing. Your pianism is more of a continuum of influences than a style.

That’s interesting. There are some Ravel-ish tones in the “Pots En Verre” as well. See, my hometown Pittsburgh has few parallels in producing people like George Benson, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Ray Brown, Billy Eckstine, Roy Eldridge, Stanley Turrentine and Gene Kelly. I sold papers to Billy Strayhorn’s family. And Errol Garner and I attended Larimer elementary and Westinghouse High School. We didn’t have the separation between European and American classical music. … But when we grew up in Pittsburgh, we had to study both forms. When you hear a player from Pittsburgh, you may hear Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Debussy and Ravel. 

You’ve recorded mostly for French labels for over two decades, and you were inducted that country’s prestigious Order of the Arts and Letters in 2007. What makes France special to you?

What made France special to Johnny Griffin, Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell and Sidney Bechet? All of those aforementioned notables moved to France because [the French] appreciate this music more than we do. Do you see Duke Ellington or Art Tatum every day on TV [in the U.S.]? You have to go to France to do that.

Thankfully, you are also getting recognized in the United States. You became an NEA Jazz Master in 1994. And on July 11, you will be presented with a Lifetime Grammy Award at the Beacon Theatre in New York. And next year marks the 60th anniversary of Live At The Pershing.

How have you been able to perform at such an optimum level for all of these years?

There’s only one way: I try to have constant communications with the Creator every day. I pray five times a day or more. That’s how I managed to survive (laughs). There’s another Pittsburgher, Andy Warhol, who said that everybody has 15 minutes of fame. And that’s how I achieved mine. DB


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