Ahmad Jamal may be the last original jazzman. Now 88, he recalls co-headlining one of the seminal concerts in jazz history: In 1952, he shared the bill at Carnegie Hall with Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Stan Getz.
Sixty-six years later, they are all gone, save for Jamal.
“There might be some sidemen still living, but I’m the only living headliner,” Jamal said by phone from his home in Pittsburgh, Pa., adding that he has kept a poster from that evening’s show. “I have it here on my wall, and Carnegie Hall has it in their archives collection.”
A pianist, Jamal has been performing for seven decades. By his own choosing, his schedule is significantly less busy these days, but one of the select performances on his docket is a show Oct. 19 at Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts in Costa Mesa.
“I’ve toured enough. I’ll only go out on the road on occasion,” Jamal said. “That’s it for me. I don’t travel like I used to. I’ve traveled the last 70 years. I started when I was 17. That’s enough, right?”
While Jamal is known as a jazz artist, the two-time Grammy nominee eschews that label in favor of what he calls “American classical music.”
“The only two art forms that started in America, in my opinion, are American Indian art and this thing you call jazz,” he said. “I accept the word jazz, but it’s a very unsophisticated word. If you look in the dictionary, there are several things called jazz that have nothing to do with the music.”
Jamal laments what he views as a lack of appreciation in America for the jazz greats of yesteryear during their heyday. Ellington and others like him were appreciated in Europe long before many Americans even knew what homegrown gold they had. This was also partly thanks to prejudice many of the early jazz pioneers faced in the Jim Crow South.
“Sidney Bechet left New Orleans and never came back. He became a national treasure in France,” Jamal said of the multi-instrumentalist considered to be an architect of jazz. “That’s the nature of man: We have things right at our fingertips that we don’t recognize until they’re gone. And that’s unfortunate.”
Jamal believes it was thanks to impresarios like the great festival promoter George Wein that Americans finally gave jazz the love it deserves. The vaunted Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island was Wein’s creation, and its descendants include the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, as well California’s own Monterey and Playboy entries.
“Those are the things that helped promote this musical artform in the United States and other parts of the world,” Jamal said.
In the 21st century music business, touring and playing is the lifeblood of the musician thanks to ever-declining record sales. In this aspect, Jamal believes, he fits right into the contemporary paradigm.
“Even the Beatles had to go on the road,” he said. “Everybody has to travel, whether you’re a known or an unknown.”
One place Jamal has visited many times in his career is Chicago, where he recorded the seminal 1958 album “At the Pershing: But Not for Me.”
“One of the most plagiarized records in the history of instrumental music,” Jamal said, claiming that hip-hop artists have sampled liberally from it and his other works.
Jamal advises young musicians to attack the industry from multiple perspectives. If you play, he says, also learn how to compose and conduct.
“If you can’t find a venue, then teach for awhile. And if you can’t teach, then write for a while,” he said. “Go to school and increase your knowledge.”
Despite a run as a traveling musician and recording artist that began in the 1940s, Jamal insists that he continues learn new things about his instrument and makes “new discoveries” nearly every day.
“When you stop discovering things, you’re dead,” he said. “I sat at the piano when I was 3 years old, and I’m still discovering things within me.”
Eric Althoff is a contributor to Times Community News.
IF YOU GO
Who: Ahmad Jamal
When: Oct. 19 at 8 p.m.
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: Tickets start at $49