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Photo via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Gold Standard

Pianist Ahmad Jamal charted a new popularity for jazz

published online
Originally published in Issue 32
By Eugene Holley Jr.

In 1958, a small, dignified, Pittsburgh-born pianist, composer, and bandleader named Ahmad Jamal recorded a show tune entitled “Poinciana” at a hip, Black-owned venue called the Pershing Lounge in Chicago’s South Side. His elegant, Errol Garner–style pianisms, buoyed by drummer Vernel Fournier’s second-line syncopations and the rich, rock-steady bass lines of ex–Benny Goodman sideman Israel Crosby, transformed that song into something rare for the jazz world—a hit record. With the release of “Poinciana” as a single, and on the million-selling LP, Ahmad Jamal Trio at the Pershing: But Not for Me, Jamal emerged as major force in jazz, or as he prefers to call it, “American classical music,” and has been so for five decades.

Jamal is a true scientist of sound: his use of space and dynamics, along with his tight, intricate arrangements, were a big influence on generations of pianists from Ramsey Lewis to Jacky Terrasson. In his autobiography, Miles Davis declared that Jamal “knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrases notes and chords and passages.” Davis was so enamored by Jamal’s conceptions that he recorded various compositions from the pianist’s repertoire, including “A Gal in Calico” and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” Davis and arranger Gil Evans even transcribed Jamal’s “New Rhumba,” a track from his 1955 LP Chamber Music of the New Jazz, note for note on their big band album, Miles Ahead

Born on July 2, 1930, Jamal started playing piano at the age of three. He was heavily schooled in the European and American classics, and was working professionally at the age of fourteen when the jazz piano giant Art Tatum declared him “a coming great.” He left home with bandleader George Hudson after graduating from Westinghouse High School in 1948, and has recorded and performed in a myriad of settings, ranging from big band, choral, symphonic, to small ensembles, executing a number of styles, from straightahead and Latin to fusion and funk. He released over seventy records, and several of his songs have been sampled on hip-hop tracks: “Swahililand” (“Stakes Is High,” J Dilla and De La Soul), “Pastures” (“Feelin’ It,” Jay-Z), “I Love Music,” (“The World Is Yours,” Nas), and “Poinciana” (“Stop Frontin’,” KRS-One).

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Jamal’s release of “Poinciana.” In this interview, conducted by phone in Paris, and from his home in Connecticut, Jamal unveils the story behind “Poinciana,” his early struggles in Chicago, and how his artistry lives on in the twenty-first century.

What brought you to Chicago in the early ’50s? 

I came to Chicago in 1948 because of my girlfriend at the time. I couldn’t work because there was a [union] restriction. I could work, but only at a different place every night, because there was a six-month period when you go from one union to the other. I was caught doing a job I wasn’t supposed to be on, and I was told, “I don’t think you’ll ever get in this union as long as I’m president,” by Harry Gray. [laughs]

How did you straighten it out?

Well, it was straightened out because the musicians started wanting me to work with them. I don’t remember the name right now, [but] there was a great tenor saxophone player. He said, “I want to have this man on a regular basis in my band.” So Harry Gray relented, and I became a member of the union. And later on, he helped me buy my first house! He helped me get a loan from the credit union. So man cannot play God, Mr. Holley!

What else did you do to make ends meet?

I got me a job making kitchen cabinets for eighty cents an hour. That’s one of the ways I survived. I was [also] playing [solo]. I was working all over the place with various groups. Then I got a job as a maintenance man on the sixteenth floor of the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building for thirty dollars a week, cleaning up the busiest revolving doors in the world—cleaning up the snow at Monroe and State Street. I worked Jimmy’s Palm Garden [solo]. Ike Davis, the legendary drummer, used to come in and sit in with me. And Nevin Wilson, a bassist that I liked very much, came and sat in with me.

It was during this period that you met two musicians who would change your life: Vernel Fournier and Israel Crosby. 

Vernel was from New Orleans, one of the great musical towns in the world, like my town, Pittsburgh. He had that wonderful New Orleans [Creole] mixture, which speaks to this ridiculous concept of ethnicity that we have. They say “races.” There’s no such thing as “races.” There’s only one race—the human race. And one of the proofs is the wonderful, wonderful mixture you have, complexion-wise, coming out of New Orleans. I was Israel’s pianist at Jack’s Back Door: a marvelous guy, a wonderful musician, and he had a wonderful sense of humor. He liked my work—like a lot of people did—and, thank God, they did, because that’s how I survived. He hired me as his pianist, and I stayed at Jack’s Back Door with him and [saxophonist] Johnny Thompson for I don’t know how long.

Isn’t it true that you started working at the Pershing as far back as 1952?

I was able to get in there one night. They didn’t want to hire me. But I begged [manager] Sonny Boswell to let me work there. I think he paid me fifty-one, fifty-two dollars for one night. [laughs] But I had to go to Harry’s Show Lounge. I was working in the back room there. And then I ran into Miller Brown and Grant Smith, who bought the Pershing, and they gladly hired me. But that was after I left New York and decided to come back to Chicago. 

The record producer/impresario John Hammond signed you to the Okeh label around 1951 and brought you to New York for an ill-fated Manhattan engagement at the Embers. 

The Embers was a noisy club. You’re an intermission group; you’re not the headliner. People are not paying you any attention. They want requests, and some drunken bum comes up and spills a drink on the piano keys, and his red wine is flowing all over the white keys. So that was it for me. I jumped up, got in my car with Israel Crosby, and we drove all the way back to Chicago. 

So you come back to Chicago from New York for an extended period at the Pershing. What was the club like? 

It was located on Sixty-fourth and Cottage Grove Avenue. And it drew everyone from Lena Horne and Billie Holiday, with her Chihuahua dog, to Sammy Davis Jr.—he was in the Pershing the night before he lost his eye in Las Vegas in that car accident. Everyone came to the Pershing.

The classic Ahmad Jamal sound emerged during your long association at the Pershing. What were your musical influences during that crucial period of your development?

I had my Pittsburgh influences. I grew up with all sorts of orchestras playing in venues all around the surrounding area. I worked with [pianist/saxophonist] Carl Arter, one of the prominent musicians around Pittsburgh, and Joe Westray hired me. He was one the more successful bandleaders. I was playing at ten years old with people like Honeyboy Minor, a legendary drummer who had all of the best jobs. My aunt sent me a lot of music from Wilson, North Carolina. So I had a vast repertoire. When I was eleven years old, I could play with guys sixty years old. I was making more money in the eleventh grade than my father was making in the steel mill!

Live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, circa 1976. Photography by Leni Sinclair.
Live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, circa 1976. Photography by Leni Sinclair.
Wax poetics

So you were a child prodigy.

Well, whatever you want to call it. I studied Art Tatum, Bach, Beethoven, Count Basie, John Kirby, and Nat Cole. I was studying Liszt. I had to know European and American classical music. My mother was rich in spirit, and she led me to another rich person: my teacher, Mary Cardwell Dawson, who started the first and only Afro-American opera company in the country. That’s were I met violinist Joe Kennedy, one of the great masters of all time. She put Afro-Americans in the Metropolitan Opera. And she surrounded herself with all ethnicities. She worked out of the New England Conservatory of Music. She was a unique person: always dressed to the max. You could hear her heels coming down that stairway. If you didn’t have your lessons ready, you were in trouble. [laughs] She was wonderful. And I went to another teacher, [pianist] James Miller: a wonderful man and an exponent of Liszt.

So now you’ve established the Jamal sound. But before you recorded your monumental record with Crosby and Fournier, you were part of an influential, drumless trio called the Three Strings with guitarist Ray Crawford.

The group was a carryover from the Four Strings with violinist Joe Kennedy. I joined his group. And after he decided to go back home [to Pittsburgh], it became the Three Strings: Ray Crawford, [bassist] Tommy Sewell, and myself. So we had string instruments only. Ray Crawford started playing the percussive effects on the frets of his guitar. And everyone adopted that, [including] Oscar Peterson’s group, with [guitarists] Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis. Many, many people emulated Ray Crawford. He was replaced, because he stayed in New York when it didn’t happen [for me] in the Embers. He didn’t come back to Chicago, and that’s why I added drums.

Talk about some of the people who helped make At the Pershing in 1958, starting with Leonard Chess. Who decided that it was a good idea to record there?

I decided! I told Leonard I want to do a recording on location at the Pershing. Leonard was always cooperative when it came to whatever I wanted to do musically; he never interfered, so he said okay. He sent a two-track machine out there with [engineer] Mal Chisholm—one of the spectacular, great engineers at that time—and that was it. Four nights and forty-three tracks later, here comes At the Pershing!

What about disc jockey, Soul Train producer, and voice-over artist Sid McCoy?

Sid McCoy was instrumental in encouraging that session. He was very prominent in Chicago. He had one of the very, very important shows in Chicago. Great speaking voice—he had a manner about him and was a nice man.

I want you to set the record straight: in Len Lyons’s book, The Great Jazz Pianists, which also features you, Sun Ra claims that he worked downstairs in the Pershing when you were there and implied that you were influenced by some of his concepts.

He had nothing do with my career. I had nothing to do with his. Nothing! We never worked together, and never socialized, and never interacted musically. He was on another planet. And I was another level!

When did you first hear “Poinciana”?   

I was introduced to “Poinciana” by way of Joe Kennedy [in the late ’40s]. That song was a part of his repertoire [with the Four Strings]. Joe Kennedy was a master at composition, a master at playing the violin, a master of orchestration, and so many things. So he introduced me to a different type of repertoire. 

Your first recording of “Poinciana” was made in 1955 and reissued on The Legendary Okeh and Epic Recordings

We did the [LP] version with Ray Crawford, Israel, and myself. It was one of my favorite recordings—gorgeous! It was so pure and so elegant and great to listen to. 

Photo via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Photo via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

The song, by Buddy Bernier and Nat Simon, was originally from a Broadway show.

Yes, I don’t know too much about “Song of the Tree,” better known as “Poinciana.” It was a hit, of course, but we revived it. I don’t think anything was ever as big as “Poinciana” was on 628 [the original label number of Ahmad Jamal Trio Live at the Pershing] turned out to be. And so many people tried to cover that and tried to emulate that. When we developed “Poinciana,” we developed it chorus after chorus, until it got to the point where I said, “We got to record this.” 

The biggest change from the epic, drumless trio rendition of “Poinciana” to the Pershing version was, of course, Vernel Fournier. Talk about how he anchored you and Mr. Crosby and created the “Poinciana” that made you into an international star. 

It was a combination of things: Israel Crosby’s lines, what I was playing, and Vernel—if you listen to his work on “Poinciana,” you’d think it was two drummers! [laughs] He was so multidimensional: a master of brushes, master of content, master of metronomic time, and feeling. All of those elements from all three of us made that recording. [The song] was seven minutes and some seconds long. There are five different choruses, and each chorus is an entity into itself: a statement that builds and builds and builds. Each chorus became a stepping-stone to something higher. And when we got to the fourth chorus, [laughs] that was it! We had a hit on our hands! 

The album stayed on the Cash Box and Billboard charts for 108 weeks. How did it change your life?

You mean, how is it still changing? [laughs] It’s still changing, Eugene! It never stopped because of that. I’m sitting on the phone with you, talking from Paris, and you’re in Delaware, so I’m all over the place because of that record.

Yes, but at least financially your life changed?

Well, life has many challenges than it did before. Success has to be measured on all levels. And if you’re not content, you’re not successful. Just because you got fame and money coming in, [it] doesn’t make you successful. The successful person has peace of mind. And if you don’t have peace of mind, the money can be a very difficult thing to handle, let me put it that way.

Was it difficult for you at first?

It’s difficult for all Afro-Americans who have ever been exposed to financial gain. Look at Joe Louis; what happened to him? He was very successful, wasn’t he? He worked for the government and ended up owing the government taxes. And I don’t know if they relented or what—the rumor is that Frank Sinatra bailed him out. Maybe I’m just talking nonsense. But Joe Louis had all kinds of people come along and tell him to invest in this, and invest in that. So most of us in the Afro-American community weren’t educated as to the whys and wherefores of how to handle money, and, in many instances, that’s still true.

After At the Pershing, you did something that most Black people at that time didn’t do: in 1959, you went to Egypt and the Sudan. There was a New York Times report of your trip.

Oh, I’ve been planning the trip since I was eleven years old. I always had some great, philosophical dreams of going to Africa, because I knew that’s the background of our folks here in the United States. So I was planning this way before the Pershing [LP]. What the Pershing did was implement that [trip].

Who told you about Africa at eleven years old? That’s extraordinary.

I was always thinking. I was always an introvert—always a loner and a thinker at that time, and music made me more introspective. And I thought of faraway places. My faraway dream was to go to Africa, and I accomplished that by way of my recording. I broke Count Basie’s record at the Blue Note in Chicago. Frank Holzfeind was going under, and I saved his club. Frank gave me an extra five hundred dollars to enjoy my trip to [Africa], and there I went. The ex-minister of the interior of the Sudan hosted me, and Dr. Mahmoud Shawarbi was my host in Egypt. I didn’t play a note, and that what was so surprising to the New York Times reporter, because I didn’t go there to play piano. I spoke at Al-Azhar, the oldest university in the world.

Another benefit of your “Poinciana” success was your own South Side restaurant, the Alhambra, which opened for a few months in 1961.

The Alhambra was a very nightmarish venture, encouraged by a lot of people around me. It was conceived as a place for me to work whenever I wanted to. But it didn’t work out that way. And I hired the wonderful bass player, Ahmed Abdul-Malik in my absence. I had forty-three employees. I didn’t need a restaurant. Who needs a restaurant if you’re a musician? So I left Chicago, moved to New York, and have been here ever since.

Here’s another attempt to set the record straight. Your club did not serve alcohol, and there were rumors that you were forced to close the club by gangsters.

Oh no, no, nothing like that at all. That’s what people want to hear. But I had no constraints. To the contrary, I was more dictatorial than anyone else. I closed it myself, because I didn’t need a restaurant. And the headache that goes with the restaurant. I had a big house at 4900 Greenwood that time—sixteen rooms, six baths. I didn’t need that either. The only major, major conflict at that time was my divorce, so I moved to New York.

After you moved to New York, you thought about retiring to study at Julliard. But you eventually formed a new trio with drummer Frank Gant and bassist Jamil Nasser.

Before I put that trio together, I had Papa Joe Jones, who used to be with the legendary Count Basie, and a bassist from my hometown, Wyatt Ruther, with me at the Embers. That was the first job I took, coming out of semiretirement. Jamil and Gant had a reputation long before they joined me, so I hired them based on their backgrounds as great musicians. They stayed with me for ten years. 

At various stages of your career, you’ve specifically hired drummers from New Orleans.

I had four drummers from Louisiana: Vernel Fournier, Idris Muhammad, Herlin Riley, and James Johnson, from Shreveport, by way of Pittsburgh. Idris is one of the great, great legends out of New Orleans, drumwise. He’s really a sensational musician, and he has more [stuff] on the Internet than I do! 

I want to talk about something I’ve seen every time you play live. Please decode for me your mysterious hand signals.

I’m conducting. [laughs] My finger pointed to the top means I’m going to the top of the composition. When I cross my wrist, that means either I’m going to the bridge, or I’m going to cut the time. And sometimes I do verbal cues. I don’t always confine myself to hand signals.

You recorded some great LPs in the ’60s and ’70s with your new trio: Extensions, The Awakening, and one of my all-time favorites, Outertimeinnerspace.

I knew you were going to mention that. That was done in Montreux. The interesting thing about that [LP] was that the Fender Rhodes was broken; it was only working on one side of the speakers. So it’s an interesting record, because the Fender Rhodes was giving half of what it was supposed to. [laughs] It was an “electronic malfunction.”

Fifty years after “Poinciana,” you still take songs, put the Jamal touch on them, and make them your own, like on your new CD, It’s Magic, a collection of original compositions and selections from motion picture soundtracks.

It’s the strongest thing I’ve done since At the Pershing! Most of the time, I’m not entirely pleased with everything. But this is a special, special gift from the Creator. It was produced with the same formula I used for 628. I used the same editing formula. I recorded for four days in Strasbourg, and I only chose nine tracks. So, history repeats itself!

Eugene Holley Jr. is a Delaware-based journalist. His work has appeared in many publications, including Down Beat, JazzTimes, Hispanic, The New York Times Book Review, Philadelphia Weekly, Vibe, and The Village Voice.

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