It is a common practice for musicians, once they have set their sights on commercial success, to engage in a process of dilution that may result in popularization while lowering their creative sights. Such cases abound: Chuck Mangione, Grover Washington, Ronnie Laws and Jean-Luc Ponty come to mind.
Ahmad Jamal, to his lasting credit, has reversed the process. Once described by critics as light and airy, his piano recordings achieved success with such pop-standard hits as "But Not for Me and "Poinciana." In recent years, however, his albums have been devoted to original compositions, some of them quite complex, bold and sometimes turbulent, possibly less accessible to the average ear.
Whatever the results in terms of mass acceptance, Jamal has produced a body of music that reflects his serious commitment. A small, affable man, he brings to his work an intensity indicative of his personality and dedication rather than his possibly deceptive appearance.
At times, he seems as concerned about words, or semantics, as he is about music. Like many of his contemporaries, he is not too happy with the word jazz .
"Did Duke Ellington ever call himself a jazz musician? Does Oscar Peterson? That word has so many dictionary meanings, some of them derogatory.
"If you're applying for credit and write that you're an insurance salesman, or a member of the Chicago Symphony, you won't have trouble. But just write 'jazz musician' and you can't even buy a sofa on credit.
"Somebody may say, 'I don't like jazz,' when the word has permeated his dull brain, but he doesn't know what it signifies. On the other hand, people may say they like opera, when in fact they don't know a damn thing about the opera; it's just a social event that allows you to wear your fur coat."
To the argument that jazz is a term too firmly entrenched to be removed from our vocabulary, Jamal retorts: "So was the word Negro ! Yet you hardly hear it anymore--it's now Afro-American or black . All sorts of linguistic changes are going on: Instead of chairman we now say chairperson in order to upgrade the position of women in our society. Jazz is an important-enough area of our culture to demand constant refinement.
"Years ago, when I was growing up and bands like Basie and Ellington came to the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh, where I was born, they were called entertainers . You can hardly use that word today, when men like Max Roach and Jackie McLean have tenure as professors at major American colleges."
Like Billy Taylor and others, Jamal for many years has been proposing that jazz simply be known as American classical music . Two questions immediately arise: How to distinguish between jazz players (or composers) and Copland, Damrosch, Ives, Sessions and others? How to separate the improvisational essence of jazz from the fact that so-called classical music is completely notated and played as written?
Jamal has a ready answer: "Bach was also an improviser. You can put Aaron Copland and our music under the heading of American classical music--the only difference is that Copland is a peach tree and Ellington is a plum tree; it's just a difference in styles.
"The personal touch of a Horowitz is not written on paper. Some of the readings classical players give are terrible compared to that given by others; in fact, certain artists can get more out of their own interpretation of Mozart or Beethoven than the composers did themselves. So as far as I'm concerned, that's another aspect of improvisation."
Whether or not one agrees with Jamal's postulate, his underlying concern with the inequities that exist in the arts is hardly disputable. Regardless of what it is called, jazz will never achieve in its creators' lifetime the material success enjoyed by others in the mass-appeal forms.
"It's always been that way," he points out. "It's absolutely obscene that a Van Gogh painting just sold for tens of millions of dollars, when in his lifetime he couldn't get five bucks for them. By the same token, although some of us may have attained at least a measure of financial security, we will never in our own lives make Elton John's kind of money, no matter how good we are."
Jamal does not let such matters concern him too deeply; he prefers to devote his time and energy to constant practice, and to the development of new compositions.
"Right now, I have the greatest feeling for being able to woodshed. Discipline is not easy; you have to really love what you're doing in order to sit down and work at the piano for six, seven hours on end--to go back to that state of mind you had when you were 7 or 8 years old and just getting interested. It's great, you know--and that's the way I feel right now."