What would it take for you to consider yourself “successful?” When do you think you will finally “arrive?” Is success a destination, or simply a journey? What is your measure of a “successful” life? Pianist Ahmad Jamal has seen and held that slippery thing called “success” in many forms. One of the most influential pianists in jazz history, but somehow perennially and undeservedly overlooked these days, he’s been recording some of his most impressive music ever the past few years, with his latest disc, Blue Moon, a delicious mix of originals and standards puree’d through his signature sound and approach to the piano. From top selling records, to selling out upscale shows in nightclubs, to owning his own jazz club, Mr. Jamal has seen fame and success for all of its glory and false promises.
We caught up to the energetic 82 year old jazz sage, all the while drinking in from the waters of his fertile mind.
IT’S BEEN AWHLE SINCE YOU’VE BEEN TO LOS ANGELES. YOU USED TO PLAY FAIRLY REGULARLY AT CATALINA’S JAZZ CLUB.
I talked to (Catalina) not too long ago. We go back to the old times when she first opened on Cahuenga, years ago. Then, she and Bob built that new place, and Bob passed on a few years ago. I even wrote a song about that place, called “Catalina.” Every time I played it, she just loved it. It was also one of (drummer) Idris Muhammad’s favorites. He loved me to play it there as well.
YOU USED TO BE A BIG MOVIE AFICIANADO, LEARNING MANY OF THE SONGS THAT YOU PLAY FROM THOSE CLASSICS OF THE 40s AND 50s.
I don’t go to movies anymore, I used to go to movies a lot, but I like the real thing now. A documentary or a good book is for me. I sure used to go a lot when I was a kid, that’s for sure. I used to go then because I was a loner, so that’s how I used to spend my time. I’d go to the Enright theatre, and two or three other theatres a day. I was a loner then, and I still am pretty much, but I’m a bit more of an extrovert nowadays.
The movies were different back in my day. They were more realistic, in my opinion.
JUST LIKE IN THE OLD MOVIES, JAZZ MUSICIANS USED TO HAVE THEIR OWN STYLE AND VOICE. THAT SEEMS TO BE LACKING THESE DAYS. WHAT’S AN IMPRESSION OF MATT DAMON OR KEVIN COSTNER SOUND LIKE? NO ONE SEEMS TO SOUND UNIQUE IN EITHER FILM OR MUSIC.
That is because of the electronic age in which we now live. There’s a sameness nowadays. How many people do you see on cell phones every day? As soon as you hit the ground when you’re flying EVERYONE leaps onto the cell phone. I never do it. What do you really need that cell phone for. As soon as they hit the ground! Right to the head. That’s a type of sameness, all over the place, and it’s kind of monotonous, isn’t it?
HOW DID YOU DEVELOP YOUR OWN PERSONAL SOUND AND STYLE?
Well, I’m a Pittsburgher; I’m a native of Pittsburgh, and all of us natives of Pittsburh had our own sound there. You know, we had George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Billy Strayhorn or Dodo Marmarosa and Earl Hines. Then, we also had this little guy named Gene Kelly, who had his own “sound” as well in tap dancing! And who plays like Ray Brown?!? Or Art Blakey; all natives of Pittsburgh. We all had this certain quality. These were the newcomers, so I get my distinction from my native town of Pittsburgh. I used to sell papers to Billy Strayhorn’s family when I was a kid. They never forgot that; I was 7 years old at that time, delivering papers to his house when he was gone with Duke by that time. I didn’t meet Billy until much later in life when I’d made a name for myself. But who’s writing songs like “Lush Life” anymore. Billy wrote that when he was just 16 years old. Pittsburgh people are unique. Like New Orleans, that’s another pocket of unique people.Like Art Davis, is from Harrisburg, Jimmy Smith is from PA, I group all those guys in the same way.
YOU’RE ONE OF THE FEW REMAINING ACTIVE JAZZ ARTISTS THAT PRECEDED THE ROCK ERA. WHAT AFFECT DID THE ROCK AND ROLL ERA HAVE ON YOUR CAREER?
Well, in order to play rock and roll properly, you have to have the best musicians. You know who Steely Dan used? The Jazz Crusaders! Every great rock band had a great musician, because all of that music emanated from what we do. All of it emanates from American Classical Music: Louis Armstrong, New Orleans, the marching bands, and so forth and so on. All of it emanated from our music. In order to play rock properly, you have to have a great musician behind you.
Look at King Curtis. King Curtis on sax made all of the hits for those early rockers. He wasn’t in the jazz tradition like John Coltrane, but he and all of it was from the foundation, which is American Classical Music/jazz. It started all these other genres, what I call ACM.
A LOT OF JAZZ ARTISTS COULDN’T FIND WORK TO SAVE THEIR LIVES DURING THE EARLY DAYS OF ROCK. EVEN MCCOY TYNER HAD TO DRIVE A TAXI FOR AWHILE.
In the 60s, you couldn’t into the Peacock Alley in St. Louis, where we were performing. You just couldn’t get in there. It was the same thing The Blackhawk in San Francisco. When they finally convinced me to play clubs then (I wasn’t playing clubs then, as I’m mostly not now) to play at the Blackhawk, which was owned by the founders of Fantasy Records. You couldn’t get in there. All of my shows were packed to the rafters. The same with Carnegie Hall. We sold it out. Same with the Apollo Theatre. Sold out in the 60s. The clubs, concert halls…we were packing them in. The Pershing? You couldn’t get in there. You know where Sammy Davis Jr. was the night before he lost his eye? In the Pershing!
YOU NEVER WERE ONE TO TOUR MUCH, WERE YOU?
I don’t have to tour around anymore. I only play special events like I just did the Chalet in Paris in conjunction with the release of my latest release Blue Moon. I never did like to tour; that’s why I built my restaurant. I was never “the migrant musician,” I always liked to stay home! I’m still staying at home!
YOU HAVE ALWAYS HAD A UNIQUE APPROACH TO INTERPRETING THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK. ARE THERE ANY CONTEMPORARY COMPOSERS THAT ARE WRITING MODERN DAY STANDARDS?
I hope what I’m writing will become a standard some day. I just wrote a song called “A Love is Lost.” I wrote a couple of songs that the great singer OC Smith recorded, “Whisperings” and “Picture Perfect.” He was something else. I hope that THEY become standards. It takes time for a song to sink in. They’re still trying to absorb Mozart and Ellington. So, they’re still writing standards out there, of course.
DOES SUCCESS CHANGE YOU?
Success changes most people. What it did in my case was sort of overwhelming. That’s what it does in most cases. Look at Joe Louis. Was success overwhelming to him? It was overwhelming. Especially when we come from a certain economic strata and economic level. When a poor guys goes from nothing to being able to buy lobster like Emile Zola did after he wrote Nana, it changes everyone, from me to Anton Chekhov. The thing is, is it a change for the better, or a change for the worse.
HOW CAN YOU PREPARE YOURSELF TO HANDLE SUCCESS PROPERLY?
You have to be “philosophically” sound. You have to have wisdom. That’s the only thing that will keep you from changing for the worse. Wisdom! Look at what’s happening now. Look at all of your stars. Look at all of the people who are “successful.” Do you see any “wonderful, wonderful” results of their making millions, or do you see negativity? I see negativity. They can’t handle it. They don’t have the wisdom.
A SOBERING FACT IS THAT SO MANY INNER CITY KIDS WANT TO BE BASKETBALL STARS, YET SPORTS ILLUSTRATED RECENTLY PUBLISHED THAT 75% OF BASKETBALL PLAYERS DECLARE BANKRUPTCY WITHIN 3 YEARS OF RETIRING.
There’s a young guy right now who’s just signed a major deal with the Bulls. He had a hit man kill his fiancé, and she was carrying his child. And he’s in jail. And then the famous story of this basketball player (Len Bias?) who had his first try at crack in the Washington/Baltimore area, died right away. Just after signing a multi-million dollar contract. The man’s body (and I’m just making an assumption) was so sound, that the electricity in his body couldn’t stand the foreign substance. The thing is, if you’re not sound, if you don’t have the wisdom, there’s no way that you’re going to handle success.
FREDDIE HUBBARD’S LAST SHOW WAS SO SAD. HE COULD BARELY GET A SOUND OUT OF HIS HORN. AFTER HIS SET, HE HALF-JOKINGLY TOLD THE AUDIENCE, “IF I KNEW HOW LONG I WAS GOING TO LIVE, I WOULD HAVE TAKEN BETTER CARE OF MYSELF.”
Look at the wonderful voice we just lost, Whitney Houston. Wonderful diva. Was she successful or not? Certainly she was successful. The best version of the Star Spangled Banner I’ve ever heard was her version that was arranged by the great bass player John Clayton. Was that brilliant or not. And now she’s gone. She’s made the transition. So that’s a tragedy; it’s a tragedy sometimes when we become successful. If you don’t have the wisdom to handle it, it’s never a neutral position. It’s either negative or positive. Only two positions, there’s no such thing as the ocean being still. Same with us, it’s either a negative or positive flow of thoughts.
MOST PEOPLE DON’T REALIZE THAT THERE IS NO “NEUTRAL ZONE” IN LIFE. THERE ARE EITHER BLESSINGS OR CURSINGS.
You can’t be neutral in a moving train! Who said that? I heard that quote from the guy on Wink Television, one of the few shows I watch, as the rest of television is horror stories!
HOW DO YOU KEEP HEALTHY
That’s a good and interesting question. I try very hard (laughs). I pray five times a day. That’s number one. You have to have a spiritual health as well as a physical health. The two go together. Another thing; in order to be healthy, you have to have enthusiasm about life. You can walk around for years and be dead. You’re walking around, but you’re a zombie, because you don’t have any enthusiasm. That’s a terrible thing to wake up every day and be dis-interested in living. So my praying five times a day is numbero uno. You have to be in tune with your Creator in order to get in tune with yourself physically. At 81 years, I’ve learned one or two things.
The guy who professes to be a scholar, I’m going to walk away from him, because a scholar never says that he’s a scholar. A scholar is known by his actions, not his words. A person who has arrived never says that he’s arrived. That’s nonsense. Every day is a learning process. Every single hour, if you’re fortunate. Some of us never learn!
Those are some of the keys to success. Success is NEVER about how much money that you have. Success is how much peace you have. How many fathers do you hear about, and they are the REAL successes. You never hear about them. I’m looking right now at a picture of my mom. God bless her. She was a successful person, and she’s the reason I’m able to talk to you today. She’s the reason that I was inducted into the Order of Arts and Letters. The French government made me an officer in The Order of Arts and Letters, and I have the plaque on my wall. Who’d have thought that, and it’s because of my mom. She went to work, and gave this young boy lessons for a dollar a week. A dollar a week, that was a lot of money back then. She was a successful mom. Paradise lays at the feet of mothers.
IF YOU HAVE PEACE WITH GOD, A ROOF OVER YOUR HEAD, BREAD ON THE TABLE 3 GOOD FRIENDS, AND PEACE IN YOUR FAMILY, YOU’RE A SUCCESS
Peace of mind. That’s the key to success. Without that, I had a 16 room house in Chicago years ago in the area in Hyde Park where I think Obama used to live. Joe Louis’s ex-wife was living there too. Sixteen room house, six baths, a powder room, my own gas tank (laughs), and had a restaurant as well. I was busy doing this and that, but I wouldn’t say I had peace of mind. I wasn’t in the right state of mind mentally.
AS IT SAYS, ‘WHAT DOES IT PROFIT A MAN TO GAIN THE WHOLE WORLD IF HE FORFEITS HIS SOUL?”
It’s a very interesting life that we live. That’s why I won’t go to movies anymore. I want the real thing. I lived in a dream world back then, and so I went to movies because of it. But some of my dreams came true.
WHAT WERE THOSE DREAMS?
To be successful spiritually, physically, financially, musically and socially. Those are still my goals. Those are the five things that I pray for. It’s a terrible thing to be sick, and to be financially secure is a wonderful thing.
THEY ALL TAKE DISCIPLINE TO ACHIEVE.
My social health. I want to do the right things socially, because we are human beings. We have to interact with each other whether we like it or not. A lot of people misuse the word religion, which is why I use the word “philosophy,” but that’s important too.
YOU APPRECIATE ENTHUSIASM.THE WORD COMES FROM THEOS MEANING GOD, SO ‘EN THEOS’ MEANS GOD IS IN YOU. THAT’S WHAT THE ORIGINAL MEANING OF ENTHUSIASM MEANT.
I’ll have to look that up. That’s very interesting. It’s a gift. I’ll start saying the Greek word for enthusiasm now. I learned something!
It’s that constant discipline of searching, learning and growing that has made Ahmad Jamal such an important figure in jazz. Always follow a searcher, and Ahmad is one of America’s best!
By George W. Harris