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.