Ahmad Jamal has been in the spotlight for most of his 88 years. Discovered as a child prodigy, he once played with musicians five times his age. Though his fingers still flow effortlessly across each of the 88 keys on the piano, he now speaks out with his voice as the legendary jazz master still has something to say.
Jamal is an institution in the world of jazz, accepted by audiences from Moscow to Mississippi. He’s seen so much in his lifetime.
Born to working parents in the steel town of Pittsburgh, by age 10 Jamal was making as much playing the piano as was his dad sweating daily in a local mill. Though perhaps the most famous jazz player living today, he has never left Pittsburgh nor abandoned the humble manner that made him famous.
“Paradise lies at the feet of mothers,” says Jamal, who still speaks with reverence of his parents. Though his values have not changed, he is more concerned about the world around him.
“People are the same everywhere,” claims Jamal, explaining that an audience in the Ukraine is not very different than an audience in Chicago. “They all have a nose, eyes and ears,” says Jamal, adding that the current discourse over race is foolish.
“There is only one race,” he said. “The human race.”
Jamal, who is touring less and less, will be back in California Oct. 19 for a one-night performance at the Segerstrom Center. He will appear with his quartet, which includes James Cammack on bass; Herlin Riley on drums; and Manolo Badrena playing percussion. Jamal quickly adds that he is not touring less because of his age, but because traveling has become a “very big hassle.”
According to Jamal, the world today “seems to be on a very slippery slope,” a point where he pauses and is deeply saddened by his own words. “People have more in common than not,” he says, adding though “common sense is not so common anymore.”
According to a SCFTA press release, Jamal began playing the piano at age 3 and started his formal studies with Mary Cardwell Dawson, a significant personality in the development of talented African American singers and musicians in the first half of the 20th century.
She was a noted musician, teacher and founding director of the National Negro Opera Company. She was the person responsible for placing the first African Americans in the Metropolitan Opera, including Robert McFerrin, father of jazz vocalist and conductor Bobby McFerrin. After Dawson moved to Washington, DC., Jamal continued his studies with James Miller, a contemporary of Earl Wild, both Pittsburgh natives.
He left home at the request of the George Hudson Orchestra at the age of 17 and began touring the country. The George Hudson Orchestra included Clark Terry and orchestrator Ernie Wilkins. The touring schedule included major theaters throughout the United States. Notably, the historic Apollo Theater in NYC, and The Howard Theater in Washington, DC. Jamal arrived at The Apollo with the orchestra at 18 years of age. He formed his own group in 1951 and, with the help of John Hammond, started his recording career with Okeh Records.
That career has continued for more than six decades and has resulted in one of the most successful recordings in the history of Instrumental music, At The Pershing: But Not For Me. It was used by Clint Eastwood in The Bridges of Madison County and featured prominently in The Wolf of Wall Street. It is also used in dance companies all over the world and continues to make musical history.
His many awards include The NEA Masters Award, awards from the governments of France and Malaysia, and an honorary doctorate from the New England Conservatory of Music that reads, “Ahmad Jamal, Jazz pianist, one of foremost leaders of small ensembles. An innovative great, who drew from and influenced idioms from the big band era to bebop to cool jazz to electronic styles. An American Jazz Master who inspired such important figures as Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock. Renowned for his exquisite touch, profound grace, and mercurial improvisational choices. For seven decades he’s been sharing his inimitable and unique voice with jazz lovers the world over.”
Before becoming a teenager, Jamal was composing and orchestrating and performing works by Franz Liszt and exploring the music of Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Nat Cole, Erroll Garner and a host of others, learning the repertoire that comprises the American Song Book. He became so proficient, amassing a huge repertoire, that he was employed by Pittsburgh masters three and four times his age and joined the American Federation of Musicians at 14, although the minimum age requirement at that time was 16.
Jamal prefers to refer to jazz as American Classic music, believing that it was born from suppression, saying suppression leads to exponential expression. “If you want to see someone succeed,” says Jamal, “just suppress them.” He thinks American classic and native American music are the only two truly indigenous forms in America.
Jamal decries today’s corporate culture (for instance, a pharmaceutical industry that he says proclaims, ‘if it kills you, stop taking it”) and he is saddened by the limitations of social media. “Where are all the great leaders,” he rhetorically asks himself, “where are the great scientists like Jonas Salk, the great statesmen, humans making profound statements,” he wonders, noting they are nowhere to be found in our modern “tweets” and “lack of culture.”
Though outspoken, Jamal says even at 88, he lets his fingers make the most profound statements when he sits down at the piano. In fact, he doesn’t always know what they will play and that’s why he still performs. Though he now has a key on the piano for each year of life, Jamal says it is the love of exploration and connection with human emotion that drives his performances. For him, little has changed over his eight decades on the stage. “I sit down, say a prayer and begin to play. Some new things always come out.”
“I love the discovery,” said Jamal adding that music is a “God given talent. “If I can reach the hearts of people, that is profound enough for me.” For more information, visit www.ahmadjamal.com or www.scfta.org.