On the night of January 16, 1958, at the Pershing Lounge in Chicago, Ahmad Jamal sat down to play piano. He was joined, as he had been on many nights previous, by Israel Crosby on bass and Vernell Fournier on drums. The three were artists in residence at the Pershing, and had been playing together for months.
On that Thursday night though, Jamal’s performance would change a few things. It would change how people thought about jazz. It would change the way musicians approached their craft. And it would change how I thought about my father, albeit after he died, by becoming part of a gift he gave me.
It was a gift we never talked about, one he gave unknowingly, one I did not realize the value of while he was alive. But it was a gift all the same as I’ll explain in a moment. For now though, all you need to know is that January 16 was the night that Ahmad Jamal’s performance of “Poinciana” was recorded.
The song had been a standard in Jamal’s repertoire for long before the recording was made, and as I have no friends that were regulars at the Pershing in the late 50s I have no way of knowing if that particular night’s rendition was in some way different from those that came before or those to follow.
But that’s irrelevant; the fact that it was recorded and released on vinyl made that night’s performance incredibly important. Because that’s what would allow it to reach well beyond the confines of the Pershing, and last far longer than the few minutes it took to play.
At the time, great jazz players were often judged by their ability to create fireworks. Virtuoso runs, complex arrangements, and mastery of an instrument demonstrated with jaw-dropping playing were what mattered. But Ahmad Jamal’s brilliance lay not just in how he played, but in how he didn’t. Jamal was far more subtle than most of his contemporaries; he was a master of time and space.
Musicians like Miles Davis, who once said “I live for the next Ahmad Jamal album,” may have venerated Jamal, but the general public had yet to be hipped to his style. That all changed when At the Pershing: But Not for Me, the original album on which the Pershing Lounge recording of “Poinciana” appeared, was released.
Unlike any jazz album released prior, it would remain charted for over two years, and more than a half-century later the recording of “Poinciana” still stands up as one of the most perfect jazz piano performances I have ever heard. And it’s not just me that thinks so: for years following its release, Chicago-style jazz was synonymous with piano, with Ahmad Jamal, with that performance of “Poinciana.”
But there’s another time and place relevant to this story: the time was almost 20 years before “Poinciana” was recorded, and the place was Princeton University, where my father was attending school. His major was engineering, but he had an unofficial minor in music. Dad, apparently, liked to sing: something I didn’t learn until long after he had given it up.
In 1941 though, he was still singing. Originally in the glee club, dad and six other Princetonians decided that they wanted a little more freedom of choice in what they sang and formed their own close-harmony a cappella singing group called the Nassoons.
The details of the Nassoons’ formation seem to vary slightly depending on who’s telling the tale, but there is one common thread: the group’s big break came at a Yale/Princeton concert (or football game, or both – 70 years tends to introduce a bit of fog) at which the Nassoons were asked to perform. They chose to sing a song that the glee club had been banned from singing due to racy lyrics, “Perfidia” (Eminem wasn’t around yet, apparently).
A standing ovation followed the performance, and my dad and his fellow Nassoons, having nothing else ready, performed the same song a second time as an encore. Their performance that day, like Jamal’s would two decades later, reached far beyond the date and place it occurred. The Nassoons are a highly regarded a cappella group that still tours and performs regularly, and even 70 years later they close every performance with “Perfidia.” In fact, you can see the 2007 Nassons sing it here, 66 years after dad and his friends did:
During the decades I knew him, my father didn’t sing much. At times, he’d jump in and improvise a bass line to something on the radio, or he’d sing the old Nassoons theme or perhaps “Perfidia,” but he was quiet about it. Not that he was embarrassed of his singing; he wasn’t.
I think, instead, that was worried about enjoying it too much, or letting people know how much it meant to him once upon a time. He rarely talked about the Nassoons and I regret not asking him about the group when I had a chance, but he rarely talked about himself at all. If and when he did, I expect I paid him little mind, being more interested in girls and my own teen-aged angst than tales of an era that I assumed meant nothing to me.
Despite that lost opportunity to connect though, he did pass his love of music on to me, if unwittingly; though he may have walked away from singing, he never walked away from jazz. He had a ton of albums spanning decades that he listened to regularly, some of which I still have, and among them was the original release of that 1959 recording of “Poinciana.”
He never overtly let on how much he loved music, and he never sat me down to listen to something he thought particularly brilliant. But the music was always there, a soundtrack to the living room or den in which he worked. He played music when he was happy, when he was angry, when he and my mother wanted to dance.
It was Miles, or Ahmad, or Herb, or Erroll, or Benny that filled the house when I was young and demonstrated for me the transformative effect on mood that music could have; on his mood, on my mood. Had we spent the time to sit down and listen to music together, to talk about it, I think we might have both been a bit better, and happier, for it. Music has a way of doing that.
But although that was never something my father and I did, it’s something I’ve been doing with my children since they were tiny. My daughter, in fact, became a Bjork fan while still in utero (no, I’m not kidding). She now plays French horn and argues with me about the relative merits of music I wish didn’t exist (at least she’s passionate about it).
My son also loves music, and has eclectic tastes: he recently developed an odd affection for Rammstein, the German industrial metal band. He appears to be heading towards being a drummer, though today he mentioned wanting to act (of course, that may be a 10-year-old’s idea of a great way to meet girls – we’ll see).
And me? I’m sure that growing up listening to dad’s records, and watching him listen to his records, helped develop my love of music and my desire to pass that on to my children. “Poinciana” held a particular place of honor in that experience, and every note, every pause, every moment of that performance has stayed with me for me for forty years.
Today when I hear that 1959 recording, I’m reminded of the gift my father unwittingly helped give me, and that I’d like to have talked to him about it while he was alive. And then I think of the opportunity I was given with my children, and the gift I hope to have given them: that regardless of what horrid, auto-tuned disasters they choose to listen to now or in the future, Joe Jackson, or Led Zeppelin, or Lou Reed, or Yes will in some way be their own “Poinciana.”
If you’re interested in hearing the that night’s version of “Poinciana,” you can click here for a 30 second teaser at Last.fm. Better yet, there’s an import CD at Amazon.com that includes the entire original “But Not For Me” album plus a ton of bonus cuts. $15 well spent, trust me: Ahmad Jamal Trio – Complete Live at the Pershing Lounge 1958