Pianist plays ‘American classical’ tonight at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – A conversation with Ahmad Jamal is like a brief education – but not just in jazz.Actually, the famous 77-year-old pianist doesn’t even like the word.”Jazz ill-defines what we do,” he said. “Duke (Ellington) never called himself a jazz musician, and I don’t call myself a jazz musician.”This is “American classical,” he explained, and it’s a complex mixture of styles from our country and Europe.He coined the phrase himself, decades ago.With his low, slow voice, he covered all sorts of things, from the fortuitous beginnings of his career to the state of our technology-filled world. He didn’t talk about how his percussive musical style influenced the likes of Miles Davis. He didn’t say what it was like to play at Carnegie Hall on the same night as Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and more. Instead, he just talked – all friendly and casual over the phone – fresh as if he hadn’t done a thousand of these interviews before.”American classical music is all about life. It’s about life. And my music is about life,” he said.For him, life started in Pittsburgh, Penn. He described it as a “formidable” place to grow up, the same town that spawned talents like Gene Kelly and Andy Warhol. Jamal joined the artistic fold at 3, when his uncle challenged him to copy him at the piano.In Jamal’s words, “I’ve been there ever since.””I didn’t make that choice,” he said. “Music chose me.”He started lessons at 7. At 17, he decided against attending Juilliard and hit the road with George Hudson’s Orchestra. His Juilliard, his PhD, was everything that came after that point. He joined the Four Strings and soon started his own group, the Three Strings. He began recording in 1951 (when he was 21), and was soon in the midst of the jazz world. In 1958, he made his most famous recording at the Pershing Hotel with the Israel Crosby and Vernall Fournier.He didn’t talk specifics about the five decades since. He did say that his work has become much more mature, a little more demanding on the piano keys.”But there’s still a delicacy there that has always been part of my touch,” he said. “That defines my style.”He acknowledged all the shifts, all the growth he’s been through, and was down-to-earth about it all. His music means a lifetime of experience, of constant learning and application – but it isn’t creation, he insisted. To hear him tell it, there’s just “nothing new under the sun.””The best you can do is discover things,” he explained. “We can discover, but we can’t create. We can reflect creativity.”That’s what he’s always tried to do at the piano. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been departures, though, some quite devastating to him. Even before YouTube and Napster, he was fed up with the music industry. He was sick of the greed. That led him into all kinds of business ventures, from a record label to a restaurant, to a sesame seed company in Somalia. None of them made sense – not financially, not spiritually. But he wasn’t looking back with regret.That’s just not his style.”The shoulda, woulda, coulda is not what counts. It’s what you’ve done and what you find yourself in,” he said. “If you keep saying, ‘If I had done this,’ you’ll just whither away.”He’s keeping with that gift “the creator” gave him, he went on. Even if the industry rubs him the wrong way, he knows it’s what he’s meant for.He talked more – about the “madness” of our television and cell phone-obsessed world. He spoke with sadness about the decay in manners and culture in our country. When he came back to the subject of his career, his voice got noticeably lighter, happy again.”I’ve been blessed to see a lot of the world, and I’m still experiencing things,” he said.After more than half a century playing for crowds, he knows how to inspire people with music, too. The key is to be inspired himself.”I don’t care if they’re aficionados or they’re laymen or laypeople, they’re going to get something,” he said. “If I’m getting something, they’re going to get something.”In his low-key way, he sounded so sure that would happen tonight.Contact Stina Sieg: firstname.lastname@example.orgPost Independent Glenwood Springs CO Colorado
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