Ahmad Jamal wears his "living legend" tag lightly. One of the most celebrated pianists in American music for the better part of six decades, he is cited as a seminal influence by some of the world's most famous musicians. Miles Davis – a man not given to extravagant praise, at least not of other people – freely admitted that he gleaned much of his repertoire and many of the ideas that would revolutionise jazz from Jamal's famous sessions at the Pershing Lounge in Chicago in the 1950s.
We meet the day after I’ve seen the Pittsburgh-born pianist making one of his now rare public appearances, bringing an adoring Parisian audience to its feet in rapturous applause. It would be understandable if there was an ego to match the legend.
But the neat, prosaic figure that turns up bright and early the next morning confounds all expectations. Looking fit and healthy, and nothing like his 83 years, with a trim white beard and his trademark kufi hat, Mr Jamal – as I’ve been instructed to call him – doesn’t conform to the stereotype of jazz musicians of his generation. For one thing, he’s still alive. He has been up for hours already, preparing his own breakfast, as he always does when he’s on the road, and, it soon transpires, playing the piano in his hotel room.
“I discover things every day,” he says. “I discovered something this morning. Part of my contract is to provide me with a piano in my room, because I don’t want to go out looking for pianos. Even if I don’t play it, I want to see it in my room.”
His first teacher
It's a habit he formed early in life. At the age of three, he was walking past his mother's piano and sat down to pick out a tune. He was a natural, and by the age of seven he was taking lessons from Mary Cardwell Dawson, a prominent African-American musician and teacher. Dawson, "a very elegant lady" and future president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, instilled in her pupils an equal regard for European and American music.
“In Pittsburgh we didn’t have that difference between the American songbook and European classical music. We studied them both. I was playing Franz Liszt when I was 10 years old.”
And it was in those early days that Jamal’s vast and varied repertoire, which was to prove so influential on other musicians, began to take shape, thanks to his Aunt Louise in North Carolina, who sent her nephew regular consignments of sheet music.
“That was when sheet music was sheet music,” he says, laughing. “You had guys playing piano in the store windows, and sheet music with these very elaborate covers – that era is gone.”
But what about Aunt Louise? “She was an educator. She believed fiercely in education, and she wanted her nephew to have every opportunity. Anything you got through the mail in those days was exciting, but those packages from Aunt Louise were beyond exciting. To take a new piece of music and put it on the music stand on my mother’s piano was an adventure.”
The very young professional
By the age of 10, he was already sitting in with professional musicians around Pittsburgh, astounding them with the range of tunes he could play. By 14, he had a union card. His eyes sparkle as he recalls the musical hothouse of his home town.
"I listened to my city, because I come from a place that's a phenomenon: Earl Hines; Roy Eldridge; Art Blakey; Kenny Clarke; the phenomenal bassist Ray Brown; one of the finest singers in the world, Billy Eckstine; the man who wrote most of Duke's biggest hits, Billy Strayhorn; they all came from Pittsburgh. And we have Heinz ketchup too," he adds, laughing. "So I listened to my city when I was growing up. But my biggest influence was Erroll Garner."
Jamal’s mature style, which emerged early in his career, can be seen as a pared-back version of Garner’s. In Jamal’s hands, the stride and boogie-woogie elements that Garner had taken from an earlier generation were further refined into a cool, almost minimalist style, in which the spaces between the notes became as important as the notes themselves, and subtle interaction between the piano and the rhythm section became a part of the music – many would argue for the first time. It was this refined, spacious sound that hit Miles Davis between the eyes in the mid-1950s.
By then, Jamal had already converted to Islam and changed his name. Asking him about this defining transformation is expressly forbidden – he has attempted to sue journalists for referring to him by his birth name – but as we talk about music, it becomes clear that names of all sorts are important to him. Jazz is not “jazz”, it’s “American classical music”. His groups are not “trios” or “quartets”, they’re “small ensembles”.
In fact, nearly every question I put to him is answered first by a reframing of the terms of the question. So quite apart from the powerful moral and political forces that must have deeply affected a thoughtful young black musician in pre-civil rights America, the adoption of a new name can perhaps be seen as part of a wider resistance to being described by others.
Not that the young Jamal was any kind of political dissident on the margins of American society. Far from it. His recordings from the Pershing sold in vast quantities, and in particular, his recording of an old Bing Crosby hit, Poinciana, went to the top of the pop charts in 1958, giving label-mate Chuck Berry's Johnny B Goode a run for its money.
The jazz educator
Jamal mostly plays his own compositions nowadays, but he knows that his reputation is based on his interpretation of the American songbook. Jazz scholars have pored over Jamal's choice of tunes at the famous Pershing sessions and how they subsequently appeared in the repertoires of other musicians. Tunes that now form the basis of every jazz musician's education – My Funny Valentine, Autumn Leaves, But Not For Me – were introduced to the canon by Jamal.
But he is suddenly defensive when I ask him why he played those tunes. I frame the question by referring to the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who said he played standard tunes because his audience knew them and could therefore hear the extent to which he was transforming them. Jamal, however, embarks on a well-rehearsed answer to a different question.
"This is a thing that's ridiculously misunderstood. The American songbook was done by everybody from Lester Young to Art Tatum to Nat Cole to Oscar Peterson, and what we did was we interpreted these works beyond the wildest dreams of their composers. Be it John Coltrane playing My Favourite Things, or me: people know me by my interpretation of Poinciana. Oscar Peterson? The song that put Oscar on the map was Tenderly. Why play those tunes? Because there's no such thing as old music. It's either good or bad. They're still playing Debussy's Clair de Lune. How old is that? It's [older than] Sophisticated Lady or My Favourite Things. "
Like his Aunt Louise, Jamal is an educator, and he clearly enjoys setting me straight. But he’s not really that annoyed, and it’s worth the misunderstanding just to hear his passionate defence of his American classical music.
"We are only receiving vessels," he adds, more gently. "You can discover, but you don't create. Whether you're Ernest Hemingway, or Duke Ellington, or Billy Strayhorn or myself. So I try to discover things every day. I hope to. That's what you pray for, that's what you hope for: discovery. And when you reflect creativity, then you start to discover. So there are many things that go into my style, and I draw many of my approaches to this art form from life itself."
He’s laughing again. “I live a very interesting life. That helps.”
Ahmad Jamal plays Vicar Street on January 24