As one of the major architects of modern jazz piano, he has a gift for melody, broad and open harmonic palette, and astonishing rhythmic drive. Jamal shares the double-bill with master saxophonist Lee Konitz, each bringing his own band.
Jamal has a certain magic in his playing and it must come from the water in his hometown. "I'm from Pittsburgh!" Jamal says proudly. "And Pittsburgh has a history of uniqueness and style: George Benson, Erroll Garner, Billy Strayhorn, Billy Eckstine, Ray Brown, Art Blakey, me, Roy Eldridge, Stanley Turrentine, a tap dancer named Gene Kelly. Unique! That's the quality of Pittsburgh-ers. We have a special approach to music. All of us. It's like New Orleans. There are certain pockets in the world that are unique and phenomenal for music."
Born in 1930, Jamal began playing piano at age three. He moved to Chicago in 1950, where he began his recording career. In 1958, he released the live album But Not For Me, with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier, which included Jamal's wellknown recording "Poinciana."
"I never get tired of playing 'Poinciana,'" says Jamal. "That recording is a baby compared to Mozart, so I don't ever get tired of playing it. They're still playing Mozart after hundreds and hundreds of years. There's no such thing as old music. It's either good or bad."
For his Jazz at Lincoln Center concert, Jamal says, "I'm writing most of my things on my own. At my concert you're going to hear mostly my compositions and some by others. The unique thing about American classical music is that we interpret the songs beyond the wildest dreams of their authors and writers. Look at John Coltrane's 'My Favorite Things.' That's the unique thing about American classical music. That's what it is. I don't call it jazz, I call it American classical music. I coined that phrase many years ago."
Regarding the mediocrity of some of today's music, Jamal makes it clear: "The pure things last. The things that are not pure die. That's just the way it is. All these things you hear on the radio now, the attention is fleeting and will not last. It's an illusion."
Is jazz a thinking man's music? He responds: "The world is a thinking man's world, especially nowadays; if you're not thinking, you're in trouble. With all these advances, you have Blackberrys, blueberries, mp3s, mp4s, iPods, new things coming out every day: but is the quality of life better? Do you have any real revolutionary people now, or are they disappearing? Do you have people coming up with wonderful statements and innovations? Every age or generation is for the man or woman who thinks. Every age is for the thinker. If you don't think and act in a positive manner, you're going to always be in trouble."
With such dramatic technological changes happening today, what is the future of jazz? "You have to get out and hear 'live' music," Jamal offers. "The movie industry was built during the Depression, when people would go out to forget their troubles. The wonderful thing about music that will always endure is that people get away from their troubles. That's what's happening now. Let's promote the good things to get rid of the bad. Do you see Duke Ellington on the tube every day? Do you see American classical music every day? You see it every day in Europe. They're trying to claim it as their own, but they can't do it because the origins of it are here. We have a lot of work to do."
Jamal's 2010 release, A Quiet Time (Dreyfus Jazz), features a song called "After JALC," referring to a previous concert he performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center. "What inspired me to write that tune was my experiences at Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton and that wonderful orchestra. They're great guys and that's one of the best orchestras in the world!"
On Marsalis, Jamal adds that "he almost single-handedly changed things when he built Jazz at Lincoln Center: the kind of building that should house this art form. The only American art forms are American classical music/jazz and American Indian art. Those are two art forms that come from the United States."
Jamal has mastered what every musician looks to master, developing his own sound. "I like to think of my music as peaceful music because I'm a peaceful person. My music is a product of 80 years of living. Every day is a new day of discovery. We don't create anything. We're not creators, we only reflect creativity. That's why there's the saying 'nothing new under the sun.'"
Jamal's influence on his fellow musicians encompasses Miles Davis, Randy Weston, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock. He has become an extraordinary composer, arranger, teacher and jazz theoretician. Jamal shares the double-bill with legendary saxophonist Lee Konitz, both bringing their own separate bands. Konitz helped Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan invent "Cool Jazz." In the early years, he hooked up with Lennie Tristano and toured with Claude Thornhill's band before moving to New York in 1948, working and recording with Miles Davis, followed by the Stan Kenton orchestra. Both Jamal and Konitz are jazz royalty.
Jamal welcomes you to "just come and enjoy this very beautiful building and the beautiful things it represents." Come to the free pre-concert discussion nightly at 7pm. For more information, visit jalc.org.
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director of Public Relations for Jazz at Lincoln Center.