Diggin’ the Gaps: How Ahmad Jamal Re-Tooled Jazz

Miles Davis wasn’t exactly the most appreciative guy, but if you like your bile served straight you might want to check out his autobiography, which snipes and broods like few other tell-alls have done. The man wasn’t one to hand out encomiums without a fight—and sometimes an actual fight—but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a musician so jacked up on his own self-importance who was as forthright in his praise of another as Miles was of Ahmad Jamal.

Photo: Tracy Nolan.
Photo: Tracy Nolan.

Most non-jazzheads have never heard of Jamal, who recently marked his 80th birthday, an event that Mosaic Records has commemorated with The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions, a nine-disc box set (the punters are in for some heavy lifting!) covering the trio material he recorded between 1956 and 1962. Or, if one prefers: the years in which he overhauled the possibilities of jazz composition and performance for even resident mages like Davis and John Coltrane.
There’s a pretty sizable gap between the jazz names that everyone knows—the aforementioned duo, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, maybe Thelonious Monk, perhaps Ornette Coleman—and the stylistic prime movers who, these days at least, tend to be confined to the textbooks and musicology studies of yesteryear, or that thesis that your music-obsessed college roommate may have written, with the staffs, and clefs, and ledger lines all over the place. Jamal was a prime mover among prime movers, a player of silken artistry, and populist plaudits (for a while, he moved records at an impressive clip), and sublime poetics who did things to time—en garde, continuum—that remain startling. Basically, he compacted it, chopping out notes where notes ought to have been. Or he extended it, inserting rests into his music where no one would think to put them, and certainly where no popular musician—for these were the days when jazz stood toe-to-toe with rock ’n’ roll—would ever envision them. That is, until Jamal made like he was jazz’s version of Bartók, a perpetual confounder of any and all expectations.

Jamal was not someone, really, whom you’d expect to find at your local nightclub, but he was a fixture at Chicago’s Pershing Hotel—the hoteliers of the day always landed the best talent, for some reason, and they weren’t scared off by jazz’s intellectual edge. The Pershing is where Davis would sit and watch him, ensnared in a musical crush. Nightclub patrons, naturally enough, expected some brio with their Saturday-night entertainment, and there’s some legitimate giddy-up to several of the Pershing cuts included in the Mosaic box, like “Cherokee” and the excitedly titled “(Put Another Nickel In) Music! Music! Music!” All right, then. But beneath the pyrotechnics there are some heady techniques at work, sly recalibrations of tempo and beat to make you wonder what key or meter a given section is in. In the audience watching the proceedings unfold, Miles Davis scarcely knew what to do with himself.

We’re about to get into fanboy territory, but when it’s a born curmudgeon doing the effusing, it tends to count for something. And Davis loved to expatiate on his Jamal-centric pilgrimages to the Pershing: “Listen to the way Jamal uses space. He lets it go so that you can feel the rhythm section and the rhythm section can feel you. It’s not crowded...Ahmad is one of my favorites. I live until he makes another record.” When was the last time something made you feel that way? Living for that next release—that’s when you’ve got them well and truly hooked.

Jamal’s At the Pershing: But Not for Me—the big hit of his career—came out in 1958. Few records have ever sprung so many surprises on a listening audience. A tune is going along, here we go, we’re moving—and then we stop. A vamp begins, and then stops—or was that really a vamp? Is this some kind of delay mechanism? Where’d the sound go? And then you listen closer, and you see that a new theme is emerging from out of the rest interval, or perhaps because of the rest interval, and the tune heads out in a new direction, and who knows when we’re going to pull up again. Jamal made it exciting to turn down the volume, a concept that seems novel until you consider his impact on the players, like Trane, who would go on to turn up that volume to unprecedented—for jazz—levels. Half tones, split notes, perforated chords—this is what it meant to disassemble music so as to build it up again, as something else. And plenty of musicians got a lot of use out of Jamal’s pared-down parts.

Those parts coalesce in the Mosaic box. Qualitatively, you’ll encounter plenty of jazz box sets with music to match what you’ll find here, but there isn’t much that surpasses its importance as a document of how jazz changed in the late ’50s. If you’ve not heard the Pershing material, you have some elegant jazz awaiting—but elegance with brawn. The Pershing was technically a lounge—who really expects high art from such a setting?—and Jamal and his trio certainly weren’t bashful when it came to presenting lite material—borderline muzak, even. But while “Moonlight In Vermont,” as it’s typically rendered, sounds like something your grandfather would have dug on the Lawrence Welk Show, Jamal treats it like a modernist text—for those who know how to work with it. And they work with it by chopping it up, tweaking the tempos, and letting silence have its say.

Another modernist, not wanting to play the song straight, would probably take a sarcastic approach, belaboring the point that pop fluff is a long ways off from high-grade extemporization. Jamal doesn’t sound to me like an artist who was ever plagued by that kind of insecurity. I think he knew he could take a warhorse like “Moonlight in Vermont” and make of it something entirely new, just by doing what he naturally did—which is to say, compose, after a fashion. Very few of the tracks on these nine discs were written by Jamal. And yet, that’s something of a misleading statement. The composer credits—and the royalties—went to others, but when you listen to Jamal’s rendition of the Gershwin brothers’ “Who Cares,” authorial preconceptions are challenged. This isn’t merely performing, and I’d hate to call it editing; it’s almost as if Jamal has taken a text and composed new elements throughout it, and in addition to it. There’s playing-playing, and there’s composing-playing. The best jazz performers fall into the latter category, and it’s no wonder that the giants of the ’60s paid so much attention to Jamal’s remodeling efforts.

Later on in 1958, Davis—who got his start as a bebopper, that adrenalized jazz style that Ginsberg and Kerouac loved—released Milestones. It features Coltrane on tenor saxophone and is tantamount to the sound of two musical giants learning to slow down, as their art advances. Davis’s solos are punctuated by rests, caesuras that are suggestive of a kind of frailty, a hesitation before choosing how to proceed. It’s Davis at his most emblematically Davis-ian—and Jamal-ian too, really. There’s humility and confidence in a pause, as Jamal intuitively grasped. Anyone can roll along, once the rolling has begun. But to check that momentum, stop, and look around for a better way to proceed—that’s more than a mere jones for silence.


Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes for Rolling Stone, the Atlantic, and the New Criterion. His fiction appears in Boulevard, the Iowa Review, and Black Clock. He has recently completed a story collection called Between Cloud and Horizon: Relationship Stories, and can be found on the web at


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