Ahmad Jamal and John Coltrane


On substance and style in jazz

Is style substance? Is it the opposite of substance? Interesting questions. In jazz there’s a definite difference between a style and a stylist. Great jazz musicians, like Ahmad Jamal, John Coltrane, are known for their styles. They’re not stylists. That’s more commonly a term to describe musicians with breadth/depth limitations who nonetheless do something well and sometimes very, very, very well.

John Coltrane’s style been imitated by many. What of the influence of Ahmad Jamal’s style?

Style as the answer

Charles Bukowski said:

Style is the answer to everything.
A fresh way to approach a dull or dangerous thing
To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without it
To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art

That’s an evocative poetic statement. What does it mean?

Style and idea

If you’ve ever read anything by Arnold Schoenberg you probably know he was the ultimate advocate rationaliser. If someone was going to go inside of and through and outside of and then back into logical explanation so painfully that nothing ultimately is left to explain, well, that’s how to describe Arnold Schoenberg as a writer, a critic, and a theorist. Who other than Arnold Schoenberg would write How one becomes lonely or argue a critique with the title of Brahms the progressive? That critique and other of his writings are collected in Arnold Schoenberg’s Style and idea, a massive 400+ page collection of his essays.

Style of Ahmad Jamal

Style, whatever it is, is easy to hear in every single track and every moment in Ahmad Jamal’s 9-disk Complete Argo Sessions 1956-62 set on Mosaic. There’s the consistently gorgeous sound Ahmad Jamal pulls from pianos. There’s complete differentiation between hands and among fingers–which is to say everything’s phrased so well and so clearly that it’s obviously placed in the totally right spot in the music. “Obviously placed” meaning when we hear what he plays it’ easy to experience deja vu–that’s the feeling perhaps that defines the “right spot.”

There are the impeccable chord voicings where every note connects to every note following. There’s the way Ahmad Jamal plays melodies and the way he consistently plays them at the top end of the piano. There’s also the way Ahmad Jamal sometimes doesn’t play the melody but even so the melody’s there–we hear it. Ultimate magic? There’s Ahmad Jamal’s orchestral approach to the piano–how he plays over the entire range of the instrument from low end to high end.

Miles Davis spoke many times about how much he admired Ahmad Jamal’s playing. He even said how he liked Red Garland and Bill Evans–yes, pianist Bill Evans–because they could play like Ahmad Jamal–do the “Ahmad Jamal thing” is I think how he put it. But the interesting thing is there’s nothing moment to moment in Ahmad Jamal’s style that screams Ahmad Jamal. As for example there is in the music of Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner, Art Tatum, and many others. Well there is one thing in Ahmad Jamal’s music that’s always there. That would be impeccable taste.

But how to define that? How to talk about it? What is impeccable taste? Is it even the right–or applicable–phrase? Or get rid of “impeccable.” What does it mean to have “taste?”

Style to style

Lewis Porter in a part 1 and part 2 explains how John Coltrane’s Impressions grew out of Ahmad Jamal’s recording of a melody by the American composer Morton Gould. So Ahmad Jamal influenced John Coltrane. American classical music influenced Ahmad Jamal.

Here’s Ahmad Jamal playing Darn That Dream. His style is right here to hear.

Others have identified Ben Webster, Papa Jo Jones, Annie Ross, Art Farmer, and Nat Hentoff–the pipe–in the audience.

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Contact me at mark@polishookpiano.com to schedule a lesson. Or if you have a question about the piano or jazz let me know. Either way, if you want to schedule a lesson or ask a question I’ll be back in touch with your ASAP.