What advice do you have for the future generations of jazz musicians?
It doesn’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. That’s all I can tell you. There is a great departure from that now. There are all sorts of great power technicians and all sorts of wonderful technique. But the thing is, the value statements that were made by Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Count Basie, orchestrally and otherwise, those contributions have disappeared. If you can still sing and hum everything from Lush Life, written when Billy Strayhorn was just a teenager, that is something to take note of. There are a lot of technical statements today, sure. Art Tatum could do that too, but he made such value statements. His Flying Home is required listening. These statements are not heard anymore. I remember being in Carnegie Hall when I was 22 for Duke Ellington’s 25th Anniversary, alongside Charlie Parker With Strings, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stan Getz. It was my first major appearance. I still have the poster with my name spelt Amad, not Ahmad. I’m the only living headliner from that lineup. I can still see Charlie Parker coming down the steps with Baroness Nika, whose house he was living in. Billie Holiday had just been granted return to New York after that illegal card — she had to have a cabaret card, and they denied her for years. I’m the only one left from that lineup. I was only 22 years old.
Nowadays, they are making movies about events like that. They just made a movie about Billie Holiday recently. The voice is the most important instrument in the world to me. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing now! For those of us that do sing, like George Benson (another fellow from Pittsburgh) or Nat Cole, his greatness is amplified. Whether it’s Stevie Wonder or me or you, singing escalates a career even more. Some of us don’t sing, I didn’t sing, and neither did Dave Brubeck, but we got along just fine. I always envied the singers. Maybe I’ll make a record one day singing; it’s just that important.
What do you recommend for musicians to be successful in the world?
Everything depends on the repertoire that one possesses. Vladimir Horowitz was one of my favourite pianists. He had a vast repertoire. Art Tatum also had a vast repertoire. I tell the youngsters and the oldsters and everyone in between; everything depends on the knowledge one possesses. Doesn’t matter if you’re doing the American classical or European classical body of repertoire; if you want to succeed, you have to have that sense of value applied to repertoire. I stress this so much. It’s the only reason the guys 50 years old would let me play when I was 10. I knew the repertoire, and they were shocked. And that led to work.
|Full Interview: “Everything Depends on the Repertoire That One Possesses”|