Pittsburgh Jazz Legends 10: Ahmad Jamal

Tuesday, 07 August 2012 06:06 AM Written by 

"He knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrased notes and chords and passages," adding, "I have always thought Ahmad Jamal was a great piano player who never got the recognition he deserved."               -  Miles Davis in Miles: The Autobiography

Ahmad Jamal grew up in Homewood. To this day, he retains deep and affectionate ties with this city. As he told PG reporter Rick Nowlin in 2008, he even picked out the first Steinway piano for the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild.

While Jamal has always thought orchestrally in his musical concepts, his sense of economy, especially early in his career (his style has evolved), set him apart.  Other jazz piano greats require far more notes and chords to get the results Jamal achieved with his more spare approach.  For a period in the late 50's, he achieved a level of mainstream success few jazz players could equal at that time without compromising in any way, and he's inspired generations of pianists.

He began life here in 1930 as Frederick Russell Jones, or "Fritz." At three was gently teased by his piano playing uncle Lawrence that he couldn't play the same music.  His lessons started when he was seven. His instructor: the eminent African-American music educator Mary Cardwell Lawrence, who lived here at the time.  Growing up in a city renowned for jazz piano talent, starting with Earl "Fatha" Hines and continuing with Mary Lou Williams and Erroll Garner, who was nine years older. 

Like Garner, Jones attended Westinghouse High. As he played jazz and studied Classical music. At his first recital, in 1941, he played Lizst.  While still at Westinghouse, he was gigging locally and after graduating, joined the George Hudson Orchestra. 

The vehicle that truly launched him, however, was the Pittsburgh-based the Four Strings with violinist Joe Kennedy, guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Tommy Sewell.  They moved to Chicago in 1950 where Jones, embracing the Islamic faith, became Ahmad Jamal. Kennedy's departure recast them as a trio, and they reorganized with future Erroll Garner sideman Eddie Calhoun playing bass and moved to New York.

Epic Records, billing them as "Ahmad Jamal's Three Strings," signed them in 1951. The Epic years (1951-55) yielded the first recordings of "New Rhumba" and "Ahmad's Blues" and material like "Aki and Ukthay" that holds up well 60 years later.  Here from 1951-52 are "Ahmad's Blues" and the traditional tune  "Billy Boy," both arrangements that inspired the Miles Davis renditions 

With Israel Crosby replacing Calhoun, Jamal's Trio began an extended residency at the Embers, a famous Manhattan jazz club before settling in Chicago. Their final Epic session came in 1955. There was another album for Chicago-based Parrot Records and one for Argo, a subsidiary of the famed Chess label, in 1956, just before Crawford left. 

Replacing him was drummer Vernell Fournier, which completed the group recognized today as the "classic" Ahmad Jamal Trio, settled into Chicago's Pershing Hotel. The pianist and Chicago jazz DJ Sid McCoy prevailed on Leonard Chess to record the Trio at the Pershing in 1958.

From those sessions came the album that put Jamal on the map: But Not For Me: Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing which  reached # 3 on Billboard's Top LP charts that year.

1958: "Poinciana," which the band had recorded for Epic, became a special favorite.

At the time, some jazz critics dismissed At the Pershing as mere cocktail lounge fare, in part because they missed the innovative nature of Jamal's playing, in part because some felt the album's widespread popularity compromised its integrity, a specious argument then and now.  It doesn't really matter. Over the past 50-plus years Jamal's Argo material has more than stood the test of time. A couple years ago the Connecticut jazz reissue label, Mosaic Records, working closely with the pianist, reissued his complete Argo output on a box set. This is a promo video for the collection with some very cool and rare photos from the booklet.

1960: Early video of the "classic" Trio with Crosby and Fournier is rare, but they played these two numbers on "Jazz from Studio 61," an episode on the 1960 CBS arts anthology The Robert Herridge Theater that demonstrate the Trio at their best with Jamal's magnificently understated playing, minimalist voicings, driven by the light, unflagging swing of Crosby and Fournier.  The first time I saw this (on VHS and later on DVD), it brought a smile to my face. It still does.

The first is "Darn That Dream." 

From the same show: "Excerpts From The Blues," not "Ahmad's Blues." 

Oh, and the stocky musician you see with cigarette in mouth is tenor sax master Ben Webster, who was playing on the same show.

1981: Jamal and his trio with vibes virtuoso Gary Burton playing "One." The drummer is Crosley Payton, the bassist Sabu Adeyloa.

1993: "All The Things You Are," from 1993's Summer Piano Festival in Munich, Germany.

2001: "Acorn." James Ciddrick bass, Idris Muhammad, drums.

2011: A promo video for Jamal's Blue Moon album.

Time has mitigated Miles Davis's concern about Jamal's lack of recognition. He's finally (if belatedly) received ample accolades.  In 1994, he was named a Master of Jazz by the National Endowment for the Arts, one of many international awards he's received.

The music speaks for itself, and explains better than I can why the man, still active and vibrant at 82, remains a worldwide beacon for Pittsburgh Jazz. 


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