Islam has been as much a political identity as a personal faith for African Americans. A way to reappropriate something stolen as well as an acceptable way to say ‘Fuck you” to a system that seemed bent on crushing the individual’s sense of self.
Some estimate that about a third of all West African slaves that landed in the United States during the slavery years were Muslim. Other scholars have found convincing evidence that suggests early Christian spirituals and field hollers and blues, arose from the musical cadences and expression of the azaan (call to prayer). But like many other parts of the people’s history these sorts of things have been erased from the books and collective memory.
Ahmad Jamal was born as a Baptist in Pittsburgh, PA in 1930. His birth name was Fritz Jones but after his conversion to Islam in 1950, he stood ready to repudiate all of that Christian slave name stuff. He once sued a critic for referring to him by his Christian name. He also took his faith and its practices and precepts seriously, rising early each morning for the first of 5 prayer sessions.
Jamal was a piano wunderkind in Pittsburgh. He abandoned his initial love of classical music for jazz when he discovered Errol Gardner and Nat King Cole. His early groups emulated the style of NKC and played around the NE part of the US. In New York, that irrepressible talent spotter, John Hammond, signed up Jamal’s trio The Three Strings. In 1951, Ahmad’s Blues, tonight’s selection, was released and the world fell in love with the piano player. A few years later, Jamal, who favoured the trio-format, moved to the Chicago –based blues label, Chess Records. (‘Tis remarkable how time and again the same names—John Hammond, Sam Phillips, Chess Records—keep popping up in the history of American popular music!) During his time at Chess he released a tune called Pavanne and shot to prominence among the jazz elite. Both Miles Davis on So What and Coltrane’s Impressions, life Pavanne’s melody almost ‘note for note’.
Other hits (remember when there was such a thing as a ‘hit’ in the jazz world? I don’t.) included, Surrey with the Fringe on Top and Ponciana. Just to make sure he was being noticed Jamal hit the lofty parts of the pop charts (#3) with the now classic But Not for Me. Though artists like Davis consistently praised and ‘borrowed’ Jamal’s structures and melodies (some say he was as influential in the creation of ‘cool jazz’ as Davis himself) critics dismissed him as a ‘cocktail lounger’ and accused him of playing the audience rather than his instrument.
It was not only the ‘expert critics’ who seemed to have it in for one of the most pleasing and luscious players but the government too. A few years ago, ‘authorities’ froze Jamal’s bank account, denying him a $10,000 appearance fee for an European festival because his name sounded just like that of terrorists like Osama Bin Laden!? (No joke. Sadly).
Not that any of this seemed to affect Mr Jamal. He continues to make music and as he approaches his mid-80s, the jazz world has finally conceded that he is no lightweight. Indeed, his is now routinely counted as one of the greatest ivory ticklers in jazz history. Stanley Crouch, has gone so far to position him at #2 on the Most Influential Jazz Players Chart (after #1, Charlie Parker!)
I must have listened to this record hundreds of times over the years and it never fails to thrill me. Each track is rich and thick with ideas and vision. It is exciting stuff.
Allah o akbar, indeed!
01 Ahmad’s Blues
02 It Could Happen to You
03 I Wish I Knew
04 Autumn Leaves
05 Stompin’ at the Savoy
06 Cheek to Cheek
07 The Girl Next Door
08 Secret Love
09 Squatty Roo
11 Autumn in New York
12 A Gal in Calico
13 That’s All
14 Should I?
16 Let’s Fall in Love