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A Bridge and a Source: Benny Green on Ahmad Jamal

Ahmad Jamal
David Kaufman
Ahmad Jamal

Ahmad Jamal built a castle upon mighty foundations of what came before him. He ingeniously cultivated ideas from great bands of the 1930s such as Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie, and pianists such as Basie, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole, and Erroll Garner, in brilliantly innovative ways that effectively cracked a conceptual egg and opened creative spaces for so much that’s come since in music.

If Ahmad Jamal didn’t actually single-handedly invent the pedal point ostinato vamp in contemporary music, he practically did so. Listening to the music of John Coltrane’s quartet from the 1960s, and much of the music that Stevie Wonder and the band Earth, Wind & Fire created in the 1970s and ‘80s, on through to post-hip hop loops of the present day, it’s difficult to imagine the generational emergence of so much musical magic of today, without Ahmad Jamal’s conception of drum-and-bass vamps, and the command of tension-and-release through supreme restraint that musical poets such as Count Basie, Lester Young, Miles Davis, and Ahmad Jamal have shown the world. They teach us what it is to possess all the power and knowledge, but to utilize such considerable means to make a far deeper and lasting emotional statement than mere shows of athleticism or bravura can reveal of the soul.

To my knowledge, other than the refrain sections in W.C. Handy's “St. Louis Blues” from Ray Brown's Some Of My Best Friends Are The Piano Players, Ahmad Jamal never recorded a 12-bar blues as a leader. His repertoire featured American popular songs and selected originals of his own as well as those of his colleagues. Among the American popular songs he helped to make into instrumental Jazz standards, it’s common knowledge that Mr. Jamal's approaches to standards like “Autumn Leaves,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” “There Is No Greater Love,” and many others, are, according to statements by Miles Davis, what inspired him to incorporate some of these same selections into his quintet and sextet repertoire and immortalize them with his bands to the extent that they’ve become some of the most universally-called standards at jam sessions around the world for well over 60 years now.

Considering Miles Davis’ acknowledgment of the multi-faceted influence that Ahmad Jamal’s trio had on his music, not only did Ray Crawford’s bongo-like after beat percussion produced by tapping his guitar pickup purportedly inspire Miles Davis to ask “Philly" Joe Jones to incorporate after beat rimshots on the drums, but to my ears, Ahmad Jamal’s left hand accompaniment laid the template for the essential approach that's been universally applied by influential pioneers such as Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea. Ahmad Jamal’s three and four-note left hand “rootless” voicings are the same spellings that more pianists of today use than not.

Some of my colleagues got to know Mr. Jamal on a personal basis, but I was always intimidated to speak to him. My only exchange with Mr. Jamal was mildly terrifying, and his presence spoke volumes. I was checking out of a hotel in Marciac, France, with no idea that Mr. Jamal was standing behind me. When I turned around, there was the man, wearing black sunglasses that I couldn’t see into and dressed head-to-toe in black leather, through to his kufi. Unprepared, as he looked back at me, I was compelled to speak. In my most humble and respectful tone, I said, “Hello, Mr. Jamal. My name is Benny Green. I play the piano.”

“Haha. ’THE’ piano,” replied Mr. Jamal dryly. Following that fleeting brush with genius, I was left to think throughout the rest of the day about the man and his music; of how immeasurably deep Ahmad Jamal's contributions are to so-called “modern" music, and to Music itself.

my Father introduced me to this music. his name is Bert Green, he was born in pittsburgh, pennsylvania, in 1928. he played the tenor saxophone with all his heart, and while he consistently showed me throughout my precious time with him a selfless admiration for any cat who could really play the horn, his musical hero and prime inspiration was unquestionably Lester Willis Young, ‘Prez’. recordings like the 1936 Count Basie small group session with ‘shoe shine boy’ and ‘lady be good’, his solos with the Basie orchestra in the late 1930’s into the early ’40’s, and most of all the dreamworld realm of Prez’s recordings with Billie Holiday, formed the core foundation for my Father as a tenor player. you could hear and feel it whenever he put that 1938 lacquer-barren selmer balanced-action tenor in his mouth. my Dad. pretty much my Father’s last words to me years later as he was dying in his bed at home, were ‘you’re a beautiful cat’. that’s what my Dad was; a beautiful cat.