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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

The State Of The Art In 1959: The Ahmad Jamal Trio

Ahmad Jamal isn’t as famous as he might be. He’s not obscure, exactly; he’s just not universal. Maybe he made the mistake of being too accessible. You didn’t have to attend night school while smoking Gauloises and wearing a beret for a decade to listen to what he’s doing. It’s hardly unsophisticated, but it’s not as challenging to listen to as Village Voice writers might like. Many of his contemporaries decided that being deliberately too obtuse and atonal for the general public was the way to make their name in jazz. But honestly, you’re only displaying those Ornette Coleman lp’s from the seventies next to your mid-century modern hi-fi to impress people, aren’t you? There’s no way you’re listening to them.

He’s still young enough in the video to be considered a phenom. Twenty-nine. Started playing the piano when he was just three. It seems fairly common for minds like his to exhibit themselves early. He’s still working now, at age 83, and looks twenty years younger than he is. Clean living. The music business has flipped 180 degrees in his lifetime, and he led the charge a bit. It used to be that the bandstand was filled with disreputable drunks and drug addicts, womanizers, and plain bums, and the audience was filled with staid drones, dressed for Easter, who instructed their teenage daughters to stay away from musicians and marry a nice accountant, maybe. Nowadays it’s more likely for the audiences to be filled with disreputable cave people, higher than a kite and all dressed like a roadie for Metallica, while the stage is filled with the hardworking, sober people. And the only work for an accountant these days is counting a musician’s money. No one in the audience knows where their next meal is coming from.

Lots of cool cats in attendance in the video. Music used to be more intimate like that. The world would be a better place if you could get dressed up like you’re going to be buried, take the chariot down to a supper club, slide into the banquette, and listen to jazz made fresh daily over the sound of your glasses clinking. It sure beat today’s version of a concert: getting groped by amateur TSA diddlers, then standing three hundred yards from a stage, looking at the TFT side of ten thousand crummy phones pointed at the replacements for the bandmembers that died in bizarre gardening accidents.

Ahmad even smiles from time to time. I don’t think that’s even allowed anymore.

6 Responses

  1. Jamal committed the aesthetic crime of failing to starve for the sake of white east coast jazz critics.

  2. Yeah, Mr. Bob. Sheesh. It's like he respects the music or something. Or worse, respects the audience!!

    Contrast that with, say, Cecil Taylor, whose first records came out around '59. Now there was a guy who knew how to keep a proper distance from any listeners that happened to blunder into his garret!!

  3. "looking at the TFT side of ten thousand crummy phones pointed at the replacements for the bandmembers that died in bizarre gardening accidents." It appears that this phrase has some meaning in the English language but I am totally unable to decipher that meaning. I'm not upset about that but it's a curious phenomena that seems to be occurring more and more often these days. (Maybe it's not really "these days" as much as it is "my days".) Hmmmmmph!

  4. As a matter of fact, I just recently sampled Cecil Taylor's early work, and it turned out to be pretty accessible compared to what came later — similar to Coltrane before and after 1965. His two Blue Notes from the late '50s are shockingly advanced for the time, but they're like one step beyond Monk, so there's still recognizable structure and continuity with the past.

    On the other hand, I also recently tried to appreciate Albert Ayler, but it sounded like an out of tune army band arguing with their instruments over what tune to play while wigged out on reefer pills. But then the destitute Ayler committed suicide in 1970, so I guess that makes him a smashing critical success.

  5. You're right about Taylor's early work; for that matter, I'll fess up and plead guilty to liking it, as well as Ornette Coleman's earlier stuff (also from the end of the '50s). But I could never appreciate Ayler, either.**

    I was picking on Taylor because he took a position some like that listeners needed to study up before coming to his music else they couldn't get the most out of it. That's the spirit to sustain interest in America's indigenous improvisatory music form!!

    Jazz was going to have it tough in the '60s any way you looked at it; tastes had changed and for the most part larger traveling bands had become too expensive to operate. It didn't help at all that so many artists adopted – however honestly – a posture that also happened to be antagonistic towards popularity.

    **IIRC, he was supposed to have committed suicide by tying himself to a jukebox, throwing it off a bridge, and jumping after it.

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