Ahmad Jamal Remembered A tale of two sisters and a lesson about understanding good art

That’s the way to play the piano. If I could play like Ahmad and Bill Evans combined with one hand, they could take the other off. Jamal once told me he’s been playing in nightclubs since he was eleven. Listen to how he slips into the other key. You can hardly tell it’s happening. He doesn’t throw his technique around like Oscar Peterson. Things flow into and out of each other. Another reason I like Red Garland and Bill Evans is that they play a chord, they play a sound more than a chord. [Emphasis Davis]

Listen to the way Jamal uses space. He lets it go so that you can feel the rhythm section and the rhythm section can feel you. It’s not crowded. … Ahmad is one of my favorites. I live until he makes another record. I gave [arranger] Gil Evans a couple of his albums, and he didn’t give them back.

—Nat Hentoff, “An Afternoon with Miles Davis,” December 1958, Jazz Review




When I was young, that is, as I was becoming a teenager, my family had a few jazz records around the house. I think it was mostly my younger sister, Rosalind, older than me but younger than my oldest sister, who bought them. There was a Gerald Wilson big band record called The Golden Sword which she liked quite a bit because some of the tracks had what pianist/composer Jelly Roll Morton called the “Spanish tinge,” and she liked all things Spanish at the time, was reading Federico García Lorca and learning all about the Spanish Civil War and such. I did not know who Franco was but I learned from her that he was not good. She studied Spanish in high school which probably intensified her interest and there seemed to be a bit of a Spanish craze in America at the time, some prominent bullfighting movies, as I remember.

There was a green-covered album by pianist Oscar Peterson called The Sound of the Trio that she did not play much, so I assumed that someone recommended Peterson to her and it turned out to be a lame suggestion. There was Miles Davis’s famous Kind of Blue, which was played fairly often as was Sketches of Spain, once again, the Spanish tinge and all that. Plus, it sounded like truly intellectual, high-class music, something that showed you had taste if you owned it.

Call it soul jazz, groove music, whatever. Jamal was in the category, even if he did not quite have that sound. It was surely hip to own some of his records. And because he was a Black who was also a Muslim, something Black about it too, a kind of mystique.

Finally, I remember an album by Ahmad Jamal called But Not for Me which had a tune called “Poinciana.” I was told this song was Jamal’s signature tune. It did not do much for me at the time of my first hearing, neither the tune nor the record as a whole. But my sister, while she did not play it a lot, played it much more than she did the Peterson record. She told me that Miles Davis liked Ahmad Jamal and that seemed to carry a lot of weight with her. I learned the famous Davis quote: “I’d love to have a little boy some day with red hair, green eyes and a black face—who plays piano like Ahmad Jamal.” (A boy who looks like the Black Liberation Flag and plays like Jamal seems some kind of vision of exquisite Blackness to me even now.) She also told me he was a Muslim which is why he had an odd name, but he was not the same kind of Muslim as the Black Muslims. The name was odd but not that odd, as she also had a record by saxophonist Yusef Lateef, who was also Black and a Muslim but, as I was patiently told, not a Black Muslim. I learned enough for my needs at that time.

Once I realized that there was a musician on the planet named Ahmad Jamal, I found out that most of the Black adults around me liked him very much and he was highly spoken of. He occupied a sphere that included organists like Jimmy McGriff, Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott, Jack McDuff, and Richard “Groove” Holmes, guitarists Kenny Burrell (my sister liked him too) and Wes Montgomery, pianists Ramsey Lewis, Bobby Timmons, and Les McCann, saxophonists Stanley Turrentine and David “Fathead” Newman, groups like the Jazz Crusaders. Call it soul jazz, groove music, whatever. Jamal was in the category, even if he did not quite have that sound. It was surely hip to own some of his records. And because he was a Black who was also a Muslim, something Black about it too, a kind of mystique.

I was probably in my last year of high school when I bought an Ahmad Jamal album called Extensions. I bought it only because it was in a remainder bin and cost ninety-nine cents. The title seemed intriguing, and here was someone I thought that I ought to like or ought to learn to like since so many people around me did. I thought the record was great, not immediately but in waves of exposure. At first, the only track I liked was “This Terrible Planet” and I played it over and over and ignored the rest of the record. The tune seemed dramatic, rhythmic in a way I was to learn was unique to Jamal, churchy with its tambourine-like percussion opening over the bass vamp, if you went to a Pentecostal church. After owning the record for a year, I began to listen to the title track and began to like it too, although it seemed much more experimental, but I learned that Jamal could be experimental, sometimes surprisingly so for someone who was sometimes denigrated by the jazz-knowing coves as a cocktail pianist. (I had started reading a few jazz critics like Amiri Baraka, Martin Williams, Marshall Stearns, and Joe Goldberg and no one was recommending Jamal records. I had to become my own critic.) As there were only four tracks on the record, I was now listening to half the album. In two years, “Dance to the Lady” and “Whisper Not” seduced me and I was a fan of the entire record. Then, in college, I added a second Jamal record to my collection, The Awakening, which I liked immediately, instantly, fanatically. I played it over and over, every track. It reminded me of pianist McCoy Tyner, not because he sounded like Tyner or because Tyner sounded like him, but because of the moment of jazz grand piano playing in the early 1970s. There was something in the sound of both men that seemed, well, redemptive, for lack of a better word, restorative of a kind of Blackness. This, at the time, I thought was a good thing for me, good art for me. I was hungry for good art, ravenous, even desperate. Jamal was teaching me, giving me equipment for living, to use a phrase.

By this time, my oldest sister, Lenora, who had been living in San Francisco, moved to Great Neck, New York, to teach school there. She often invited me to spend the weekend with her and we would go together to the City. I look back on this as her efforts to provide me with a cultural education as she never failed to take me to concerts, museums, plays, and movie festivals. On one trip, she took me to Avery Fisher Hall to hear a jazz concert that featured Keith Jarrett, Gato Barbieri, and Ahmad Jamal. Neither Jarrett nor Barbieri were very well known at the time. I had not heard of them and it was not until much later that I realized it was something to see these musicians on the same bill. We sat in the balcony. The seats were not expensive but I did not pay for them, so I was grateful, whatever they cost. I do not remember in what order they performed but I was quite excited to hear Jamal play and hoped he would play pieces from the two albums I owned. He played “Extensions” but nothing else that I recognized. He did not play “Poinciana.” What he played was fine but I supposed I suffered from what many people who have only heard a musician on a record suffer from: the shock and awe, and the disorder and clutter, the sense of work, of a live performance, the wondrous imperfection of it. Nothing sounds as you think it ought to sound. You can hear it both as better and worse than a record, more authentic and more untrue. I was also thrown by the fact that Jamal kept going back and forth between a grand and an electric piano. I did not quite know how to absorb or understand the electric piano, tinkly and loud and distorted, like a set of vibes that seemed out of tune. I kept wishing he would play either one or the other, preferably the grand piano because that was the only kind of piano I had heard him play on record. I was impressed by his look, smallish, a bit dapper and a bit scholarly, gentlemanly and urbane. There seemed something charming and sophisticated about him. His playing seemed effortless, relaxed, impossibly technical and virtuosic, yet accessible. There was something about his being a Muslim that impressed me, colored, no pun intended, how I heard his music as something disciplined and clean, faintly eastern or what I imagined to be eastern, not exotic Orientalism, and, well, ennobling for me as a Black person to hear. Maybe that is why I linked him with Tyner, because I knew Tyner was a Muslim too.

I was hungry for good art, ravenous, even desperate. Jamal was teaching me, giving me equipment for living, to use a phrase.

The audience, as I remember, liked his performance very much and so did I. I saw him perform about a half-dozen more times over the years. His playing changed over the years. It had in fact changed from But Not for Me to Extensions and from Extensions to The Awakening, though less strikingly. I liked some performances better than others, although I liked them all to a greater or lesser degree. He never gave a bad performance. I remember one critic called a performance I attended bombastic. It was a late set, and a lot of musicians were in the audience. Maybe he wanted to play for them. Perhaps he did flaunt his technique a bit but it was all right with me.

About ten or so years ago, Gene Dobbs Bradford, then the executive director of Jazz St. Louis, asked me if I would interview Jamal for a public program. Part of me was eager to do this. Part was not. It is difficult to ask people like Jamal anything that they had not been asked many times before but in an attempt to ask novel questions, the interviewer might wind up being either too clever by half, annoying, or stifling responses instead of stimulating them. I think the interview went reasonably well, although we disagreed about something in the end. I cannot remember quite what it was, and he was too urbane to show irritation, but I think he was secretly irritated with me. I thought he was sly, elusive, in his answers. Part of me wished I could have talked to him privately, not in front of an audience. Part of me wished not to have done the interview at all. Yet it was very gratifying to be in his presence. Here, I thought, is a great man, a hard-working, accomplished artist, no matter how clumsily I am bringing this out for the audience, I am in the presence of a great man. How often can I make that claim! I think of it whenever I listen to Jamal now and I listen to, honestly, nearly every day. The interview taught me that I have a lot to learn about good art and about how to talk to the people who make it. There is, after all, a limit to what your sisters can teach you.