Ahmad Jamal: 'Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not for Me'

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MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: Very few serious jazz musicians achieve commercial success, but Ahmad Jamal has had a large popular audience. I'm Murray Horwitz, and today's NPR Basic Jazz Record Library selection is Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing. One number from it made the R&B charts. A.B. Spellman, how does a man do that and maintain a loyal mainstream jazz following, and influence such pretty hard to impress customers as Miles Davis and John Coltrane?

A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: Well Murray, it's hard to resist music that's both accessible and meaningful, that is is both thoughtful and pretty, and that has such unity of melody and rhythm. In fact, Hegel wrote that the dialectics of the interactions opposites...

HORWITZ: That's really interesting A.B. What about the music?

SPELLMAN: Oh, I'm sorry Murray. Let's just listen to "But Not For Me."


HORWITZ: There's a lot of great stuff there in a very few notes.

SPELLMAN: Ahmad Jamal grew up in Pittsburgh where he heard a lot of his hometown hero Erroll Garner, and in a way, he's reduced Garner's style to its essence and deepened it. Nobody except Thelonious Monk used space better, and nobody ever applied the artistic device of tension and release better. Nobody uses the extremities of the keyboard so much that you feel that his hands are going to fall off the piano.

HORWITZ: But, the hit was "Poinciana."


HORWITZ: I mean, it was on the rhythm-n-blues charts for a long time. And in an abridged version, you heard it on jukeboxes. It was standard dance music at parties. How do you explain it?

SPELLMAN: Well, I think dance is the salient word here, Murray. Jamal lets the bass and drums establish a Latin groove that's very appealing. He floats lightly on top of it in a spare, tightly constructed series of embellishments that's full of what the popular music people call "hooks." There's a lot of repetition but no redundancy, if you know what I mean.

HORWITZ: Yeah, I do. It's like there's a lot of points of entry for the listener.


HORWITZ: That's the record we've been talking about — Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing. It's on the Chess label, and it's this week's entry in the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library. For information about it and other selections in the library, visit our Web site. We're supported in part by The Wallace Reader's Digest Fund. For NPR Jazz, I'm Murray Horwitz.

SPELLMAN: And, I'm A.B. Spellman.

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