When I saw Ahmad Jamal at the Atlanta Jazz Fest a couple of weeks ago, I didn't think I'd learn anything.
It was my third time seeing him, and I'd already spoken to him twice. The first time I saw him at Spivey Hall nearly 20 years ago, I went up to him and said, "Hi, Mr. Jamal, I'm just a jazz piano player in town trying to make a living." He shook my hand and said, "I'm just a jazz piano player trying to make a living, too!" The second time was at Georgia State University during a masterclass about five years ago. Someone, maybe it was me, asked him, "What do you practice?" "I practice me," he said.
Both of those statements stuck with me as powerful lessons about how to conduct myself as a jazz player and a person going through life: We're here now, just trying to get through. Don't waste time trying to get better at being someone else.
I knew I wouldn't get to talk to him this time, so I watched him from about 200 feet away. As usual, he was amazing, and unique in the way he plays. Not just how he plays the piano, but how he plays with other people.
That's where I first realized what he was doing in a big way that so many jazz musicians do in a small way: He was not constrained by his environment, and he wasn't ignoring it. That's a lot of big words, so let me paraphrase.
The man played what he wanted to play. His licks and passages seemed out of time, floating free of the other musicians. He does this more than any other player I've ever heard, seeming to ignore the idea of creating a constant spew of piano solo in favor of choice phrases, only what is necessary.
A lesser version of Jamal would be doing just that, playing what he wants to play. But you couldn't say he was ignoring the other musicians. The way they were playing, the things they were playing, weren't confining him or limiting him, but they had an influence on his choices.
It was like a true conversation. In fact, it made me think that all successful endeavors are like this: Someone is not constrained by the situation they find themselves in...poor, successful, in pain. Yet, they're not pretending like their situation doesn't exist...they deal with the poverty, the success, the pain without making it the focus of their life.
I walked away from that concert knowing something: As a player I have to work towards an inner sense of swing, technique, and harmonic expression. I also have to remember to listen and be open to what's happening around me while I'm playing. Only in this way will I be making true jazz music.
And while I'm at it, why don't I live that way, too?