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lime Music Interview: Ahmed Jamal

Lime interview - Music

Ahmed Jamal

words by

Semper - Azeez -Harris

Reporter: Semper - Azeez -Harris

When you meet someone that truly has the right to use the term ‘legend’ or indeed the “greatest” it’s a brilliant experience and when that person carries the tags with such grace it’s mind blowing.

Ahmad Jamal is just such a man and at the age of eighty you would not be surprised if he thought the world owed him unmitigated respect just because he was an octogenarian but he is far from that.


“There is no such thing as the greatest piano player, or the greatest saxophonist or the greatest trumpet player because they all have different finger prints. We use that term ‘greatest’ which is sick to me there is no such thing as greatest when applied to man. You can have a great photographer, great writers; Chekhov, Hemingway, August Wilson from my home town a great play-write-a great writer but not the greatest!”


He’s that romanticised idea of what we would all want from a grandfather-full of interesting and engaging stories from his years in music and a personality that exudes comforting warmth that makes everything “alright”. It was not just me. A PR lady called Yolanda who I met at the Jazz FM awards where he was to be given a Life Time Achievement Award  felt the same- “oh I wish he was my grandfather he’s just so lovely” she gushed. Indeed others like Courtney Pine, Rosemary Laryea (a DJ on Jazz FM) and others flocked around the man.


Ahmad has been widely recognised as probably only second to the great Charlie Parker in his influence on jazz music from 1945. To put it in perspective greats such as Miles Davis pointed to his enigmatic compositions as an inspiration. Maybe these are words of a person in awe of Ahmad but what the hell indeed I was.


Entering his rather expansive and grand room at a hotel in London for my Lime interview with him, Ahmad (who remains a prolific composer of jazz) is busy writing a new composition. It’s just as you might expect: a study lamp on a rather large brown wooden table is emitting a warm light, the table is partially covered by a number of music papers with the occasional note written on them, the papers in turn lie in a state that suggest he had just been working on them.


“This composition is actually for a friend of mine” he lets me know after I enquire about the music papers on the table, “he lives in France with his wife. The composition is actually called Edith’s Cake because I promised her I would write a song for her and so she baked me a cake. Edith is a lovely person and so the music embodies the cake and the person. It took me a little time to finish (about two months) but it is about finished, I am just writing the parts for my players, like right now I am writing the part for my bassist. If I like it enough then I will record it and put in on record.”


Initially I have to get a bit of history of the man himself and that in itself would warrant a filmed biography. A musical prodigy at the age of three it was “music that chose me” he states.


“Well at three years of age you do not make decisions- decisions are made for you. My beloved mother started me with magnificent master teachers at seven years old and so I started studying with one of the masters in my home town and when that happens then you already decide to go in a certain way.” That “certain way” meant that the gifted Ahmad at only a young age [seventeen] found himself touring across America.


“I was happy leaving home to go on the road with a band. When you are seventeen and someone comes along and takes you to Atlantic City (that is where I spent December with the band) touring the old country with the band and the major artists at the time; Dana Washington and all those big theatres Apollo Theatre, New York you are excited but over whelmed at the same time.” he adds, “I always say that you should not leave school at a young age because you are too impressionable. You need that foundation because you are going to be open to some of the trappings of that life and so many times those trappings abort a great career-the education is a buffer against these issues”


Jazz and race are inextricably connected and the spectre of the treatment of blacks is a subject that we readily talk about.


“I experienced many facets of the ethnic differences and this kind of ignorance. I was headlining a tour with a group called the Hollows a very famous group and they were a supporting act and we were travelling together-they were Euro-Americans we were Afro-Americans. We left the bus every two hours the Hollows would go to the Euro-American section or the restricted sections I experienced the race problems on a very wide scale.” Unsurprisingly his reaction to my question: “How bad is the use of the word nigger in music?” is forthright.


“It’s terrible that people use this word ‘nigger’ in music! You do not need to use that word. It actually comes from the word ‘niggardly’ which has nothing to do with ethnicity it speaks of ignorance. The people that came up with this word were heathens and ignorant, so why would anyone want to imitate ignorance?”


After the 1940’s the issue of racism (which had previously been ignored to an extent) became prominent. It was a somewhat paradoxical but strangely positive situation where the performance of ‘jazz’ for a brief moment allowed the issue of race to momentarily be ignored as whites and blacks enjoyed virtuoso performances from people like Charlie Parker, Ramsey Lewis and of course Ahmad Jamal.


“Any art form like jazz is a gift and this music has made an impression worldwide and people have imitated it worldwide. From coast to coast people embrace this thing called jazz it is a powerful thing.”


As the interview draws to a close I have to ask him about some of the jazz greats who would feature in his super group of sorts-it’s literally fifteen of un-interrupted dialogue as he trawls his bright mind to gift me with an impromptu history lesson of jazz names that he has worked with.


“Great players Art Tatum is one, Duke Ellington-my great band would also include great writers, orchestrators-Billy Strayhorne who wrote Duke Ellington’s greatest hits Take The A Train (1939) and so many others a great piano player would be Phineas Newborn a man who the world has forgotten about. Phineas was just as big as any of the great piano players that were around. Bass player would be Ray Brown from my home town; Tony Kay from the modern jazz quartet, the great Idris Mohammed-there’s just so many”


Ahmad is undoubtedly a living legend in my mind and while my history of jazz is negligible (at the least) I felt that for those few moments that I was vicariously experiencing jazz and the great protagonists that made and continue to make up this genre of music. With his active mind (and in the time I was with him) his apparent generous spirit I have now adopted him as my grandfather. I think I have the right anyway. When I met him again at the Jazz FM Awards he greeted me by my first name, “hey hello Semper hope you’re well”. Everyone looked a bit aghast that I seemed to know him so I played up and gave him a hug- he reciprocated. He did not know but at that moment we had sealed the deal, he was now my second grandfather!


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