Catching up with Ahmad

Ahmad Jamal comes to the desert.

I never thought it would happen, but last Friday night in Phoenix I attended a performance by Ahmad Jamal, the great jazz pianist.

Ahmad and I go back a long way, though he does not know it.  He was my introduction to jazz music back in 1958.  I was going to military school in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, at the time.  The guy who bunked above me, a handsome Italian from Chicago, was a jazz buff.  Among the many albums he played in the evening was one by Jamal, the title I no longer remember.  I ended up buying a Jamal album of my own, a live recording, I believe, from the Pershing Hotel in Chicago.

The years passed, and my music taste shifted into soul and Mo-Town.  To my discredit, jazz took a back seat.  Still, I occasionally thought of Jamal, always in a good way, and then I lost track of him until about two weeks ago.  That’s when I was startled to see an ad in the local newspaper saying he was coming to town.  I had thought he was probably dead by now.  Or at least retired.  He had to be in his 80s.  I snapped up a couple of $40 tickets to the 9 o’clock performance.  The 7 o’clock was sold out.

The performance took place at the lavish Musical Instrument Museum, the MIM, in the far north part of town.  As we walked in from the parking lot, a middle-aged woman coming out said to Nebra and I, “You’re going to love it.”   And she was right.

Jamal is 81 now, his beard entirely gray, and he shuffles along on stiffening legs.  “I have a good memory, but it’s short,” he joked, sorting some notes in his hand.

But once Jamal sits down and touches the keyboard, you realize those hands, that musical mind, remain youthful.   Even if you’re not a great fan of jazz, you recognize immediately the dexterity and the command of the man’s music and admire it.  It’s a cool form of jazz, classical you might say.  Very little ad lib, honky-tonk comment goes on as the quartet plays, and I’ve come to like it like that.

The quartet played for an hour and 15 minutes and received a standing ovation at the end from the 150 or so in the auditorium.  And in turn Jamal played a short medley for an encore, and them ambled off the stage following bassist James Cammack, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena, marvelously talented men in their own field.

In my time, I have seen performances by some of music’s greats.  Elvis, Johnny Cash in Las Vegas, Van Morrison in his native Ireland.  I rank the Jamal concert right up there with them.

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