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Interview One: Pure Art
Two interviews by Les Tomkins with jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal discuss his musical career. Both interviews conducted in 1979.
Source: Jazz Professional
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It was good to be back here; I haven’t been here since ‘63. Well, I’ve been here, but I didn’t work. After doing the Montreux Festival in Switzerland in ‘71, I flew to London; then I flew to Paris to do a concert with my late friend Hampton Hawes, for the television network there. Then I flew back to London, and took a train from Southampton to Morocco. So it’s been 1963 since I was here in a playing capacity: I played one night, and flew back to Basin Street East in New York. It’s a pleasure being back-having a lot of fun.
Structurally, Ronnie’s is very pleasant; he has it tiered off. It’s a nice piano there, and the club is very intimate-looking. At times, it gets a little noisy for me, but there are pleasantries that make up for the various groups who come in there, that don’t know a damn thing about music. Pete King and Ronnie are very nice to work for, and they provide the best facilities. So I’m ninety per cent enjoying it.
The response has been good; it’s going to get better, I hope, when my company starts releasing more records here in Europe. I’m a little appalled at the scarcity of my LP’s that I find in the record shops. I’ve been with 20th Century Fox, which is basically a motion picture company.
Most of the records have still been coming from my alma maters-ABC, Cadet, Argo, the whole bunch-but very little, if any, from 20th Century.
There’s been one just released, out of five LP’s-and we’ve done some tremendous things on the label, with people like John Heard on bass and Calvin Keys on guitar. There’s one particular album, “Stepping Out With A Dream”, that I think is a jewel, with the quintet-and it’s never been released over here. But the one that has now been put out-thanks to Liz Gardner, our international rep is my latest recording. I’m busy perusing the record shops for that; it’s called “One”.
Actually, it’s one of my departures from producing my own albums. I really don’t work with producers; I usually do my own things, because some producers have strange ideas.
I think the best producer, ninety-nine per cent of the time, is a musician himself-or herself, whatever. There are three things on there that I think are almost perfect records. One is a piano solo, “Sumayah”, that I dedicated to my daughter; another is “Dynamo”, a quintet track.
And there’s a marvellous piece on there by a friend of mine-just a three-note thing we develop into something rather spectacular, called “One”. The other things I’m not too much in love with, and they weren’t really slated for release; the company released them over my head. But the record stands on its own just on the basis of those three. I mean, after all, most of the albums you hear today, if they have one good track you’re lucky.. I think those three tracks are worth buying the record for. I like it with that reservation; the other tracks were ideas suggested by someone else.
For the past three years, I’ve been working back and forth, sometimes trio, sometimes quintet. But I found it rather expensive, and burdensome detail-wise, to bring the quintet this time. So I brought the trio, which is a vehicle I’ve performed with for so many years. Aesthetically, from the standpoint of pure art form, I’m better off with the trio-but it’s a lot of work. I still have to do some trio things within the quintet, but it affords me a little broader spectrum. I’ll do a duo thing with the bass and piano, a trio thing, a quintet thing, a solo thing. I can leave the piano and let some of the other soloists work; with the trio I’m constantly working. Except when there’s a drum solo, which Payton Crossley handles very well; not to be confused with Crosby-a lot of people think it’s Israel’s son or something! And Mike Taylor is a very fine bassist from my home town, Pittsburgh, which has somehow always produced some great musicians. Particularly bass players-Ray Brown being one of them. In the quintet, I have several percussionists that I use, including a marvellous player who was over here with Stan Getz-Iphraim Toro, from Puerto Rico; also Jumma Santos, and Kenneth Nash, who is heard on about three hundred different albums. My regular guitarist, who constitutes the fifth voice, is Calvin Keys, who’s done a lot of things on Black Jazz; he was over here with Ray Charles’ big band many years ago.
Yes, my birthplace was Pittsburgh -a town that has a lot of coal, a lot of steel mills, some great industrialists, as well as all the musicians. From Pittsburgh came Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Errol1 Garner, Dodo Marmarosa and myself-and we all went to the same high school. Some other pianists from there are Oscar Levant, Earl Wild, Henry Mancini; then there’s Billy May, Roy Eldridge, Joe Harris, a great drummer who was first seen with Dizzy Gillespie many years ago,
George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Art Blakey, Ray Brown-so many others.
What I really like to remember about coming up in Pittsburgh is the fact that we didn’t have this terrible separation between the classicists and contemporary musicians-jazz musicians, so-called. I rather hate the word, but for want of a replacement at this time, I’ll say there weren’t any lines of demarcation separating classical and jazz-we studied everything. Which .is what Duke Ellington subscribed to: what he used to say is: “Music is of two kinds-good or bad.” I remember vividly as a child playing both Liszt and Ellington in competition. Then there were the great jam sessions we had, which were historic and certainly priceless as far as education for the young musician was concerned -it’s something that is not happening today, there or anywhere. That’s how I met Art Tatum, in a jam session.
We used to have these tremendous sessions, till four, five or more in the morning. As young players, our lives would be enormously heightened by people like Errol1 Garner, Ray Brown and Joe Harris coming back and performing, or playing along with us.
It’s really unfortunate that you don’t get that type of camaraderie now. I respect the organisation that there is today-I think everything should be organised. But you just don’t have the comradeship. like it was before. You have total competition, of a kind that sometimes is not healthy. We were competing, but it was a healthy competition, that made you strive to achieve greatness. Now, it’s all monetary greatness; artistic greatness is in the shadows many, many times. I like money as well as anybody else-but it’s not everything.
I guess I’ve done well, but I’m not making a great deal of money. The people who are doing that are the Elton Johns, the Rolling Stones, and all the other rock groups that have to do with drama, putting costumes on, rather than with music. Myself, Art Blakey, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck-we made our share, but compared to what these non-musical rock’n’rollers are making, it’s a pittance. I’m happy as long as I know that I’m doing the right thing at the right time; as long as I can do that, I manage to survive monetarily and artistically. That’s a struggle, of course-to keep up with the pace and the philosophy of things. But it’s a challenge; life is still interesting for me, and fortunately I can enjoy each day.
As for success, I’ve had a shot at it. Which is very rare, because we know that the oldest instrument in the world is the human voice; most of the big successes and the big money are enjoyed by singers-people like Stevie Wonder, Sinatra and so forth.
However, there are some instances where an instrumentalist manages to get through. And I did that in 1958 when I recorded Argo LP 628, “At The Pershing”, with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernell Fournier on drums.
I think it was one of the most brilliant records I’ve ever done. Out of forty-three tracks, I only used eight; I spent a couple of weeks editing. I knew it was going to do something, but I didn’t know it was going to stay on the charts for a hundred-and-eight weeks-which has no parallel in the history of our music. It stayed there because of its quality. Today, records are released, and the most they’ll do is six months. But this, at one point, was beyond category; it became part of what we call Must Stock Inventory, along with an album Van Cliburn did in Russia, the “My Fair Lady” album, and about three others.
The way I always look at it is: whether it’s me, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck-if it’s quality, it’s going to get some kind of audience. Then you get this stupid thing, when, after all these struggles, a great instrumentalist finally gets through, and they say: “Well, he’s gone commercial.” As they’re saying now about George Benson. This is ridiculous. Salk vaccine is a work of art, but it’s very commercial-thank God, because it’s saved a hell of a lot of lives. Look at the audience that Charlie Parker reached-so are you going to say that he was commercial? Anything that has quality is going to reach an audience sooner or later.
When it happens, it’s always a combination of things. First of all, the material was there. And I had a marvellous man named Leonard Chess, who owned the record company; he started out with about four or five artists: me, James Moody, Chuck Berry. Muddy Waters. Bo Diddley and a few other artists around Chicago. Here’s a man who came from Poland with his shoes in his hands, and he built a fabulous company. You can have great records, but if the company’s no good it doesn’t mean a thing, because they’re not going to expose the product. So it was the combination of the right time, the right place, the right music, the right management.
Also, I was an artist who was travelling at the time; it’s very important to do some promotion on your own. I was willing to do interviews, and to make tours in order to expose the group. It’s no good sitting at home; if you have a jewel you want to expose, you have to put it on display. I had my own promo team, aside from the company’s. That’s how we did it.
I’ll tell you this, as far as quality is concerned: actually, I’m painfully slow when it comes to record companies, for the amount of time I’ve been recording. I started recording in 1951; so we’re talking about twenty-eight years-in fact, Dave Brubeck and I started our groups the same year. Now, I only have twenty-six or twenty-seven albums out, at the most, which is approximately one album per year. The average artist who has been recording as long as I have has around seventy-five to eighty pieces of product on the market. But I never made a bad record in my life, and I don’t intend ever to do so. I’m not rich today because of that; I just won’t go in the studio until I’m ready. It’s unfortunate sometimes for me, because I would like to enjoy having a little more leeway in paying the mortgage than I have, and the company would like for me to be in the studio more-but if the quality isn’t there, I simply will not record. As I said, I felt there was still some more work to be done on this latest one.
There have been instances when I have done things with a co-producer, and they haven’t come off well, because the ideas conflict. You just cannot sit down and say to yourself: “I’m going to make a hit record.” And this is what most producers want to do. We’re in the age of producers and musicians-which I don’t understand at all. Collaborations, suggestions, fine; consulting with people is one of the best formulas for success. But producers, as understood in this business, are for the rock’n’rollers, the people who have no concept, where it’s a case of trying to make something out of nothing.
A musician does not have to be produced. You can’t produce a Robert Farnon, an André Previn or a George Shearing; you can produce with them, but there’s no actual production needed-it’s already there.
What you have to do is set up studio time, maybe get the right musicians, make out some contracts-the things that they shouldn’t have to be involved with. Then maybe you suggest some songs, or whatever. But this business of the whole thing supposedly being in the hands of a producer is totally absurd. I resent it most strongly, and I’m glad I have the opportunity to say it.
Copyright © 1979 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.