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Dues Paid

John Weatherman
Contributing Writer
the.head.in[at]gmail.com / @TheHeadIn

I started thinking about Ahmad Jamal the other day. Don't worry, this isn't going to be a rumination on Jamal's early reputation as a "cocktail pianist" and further thoughts on the definition of jazz and art and music and blah blah blah.

No, what I was thinking about was Jamal's career trajectory. We now live in a time when a "jazz apprenticeship" is no longer necessary. A pianist can go from obscurity to relative fame in a few albums' time, without ever putting in much time "paying dues" as a sideman. Take Robert Glasper as an example - though he played on a couple Terence Blanchard records and two with Robert Hurst, he remained largely unknown until his own discs started getting noticed; now he's a Grammy-award winning bandleader who's recorded with Mos Def and gigged with Kanye. Contrast that with Miles Davis, who came up with Bird, or Coltrane, who came up with Miles, or McCoy Tyner, who came up with Coltrane, or… The configurations are endless, from Jim Hall (with Chico Hamilton) to Ornette Coleman.

And it does happen. Don't get me wrong. But it's undeniable that the jazz community that was fed by bandleaders like Art Blakey or Miles Davis no longer exists. Today, with the internet, the ease of home recording, and the death of the record label's monopoly on recorded jazz, it's easier for a young musician to start out under his (Editor's note: or her, though generally his) own name.

Here's where I criticize the jazz community for allowing such a situation, and chastise young musicians for bypassing an opportunity to mature as artists.

Except I'm not going to do that. Why not? Ahmad Jamal.

You see, this situation isn't actually all that new. After all, Jamal - who, as far as I'm aware, has never recorded as a sideman1 - took this route in the early 1950s, and I, at least, consider him one of the most original jazz voices of his century.

In fact, I'm going to break character and praise the fact that this has become much more widespread in 2013 than it was in 1950. Because today, musicians don't feel duty-bound to pay their dues in any certain way. Just as Jamal was able to get right down to business with his trio sound, so are many other musicians today able to start in on their own development as leaders, composers and artists. And if you want to pay dues as a sideman, that option is there, too - are you can just do that once you're well-established, as Glasper, Esperanza Spalding and others have recently done.

Good on you, jazz. You did something right. Don't spend it all in one place.

Hunker down and listen to over five hours of Ahmad Jamal tunes, all with him as a leader, of course.


1. Editor's note: According to his Wikipedia article, Jamal has only played as a sideman twice, and relatively recently-- for Ray Brown on 1994's Some of My Best Friends... Are Piano Players and for Shirley Horn on 2003's May the Music Never End.

Besides this virtual crate-digging for Nextbop, John Weatherman (@TheHeadIn) is currently chronicling all 51 of his first jazz record at his blog, The Head In. He lives in Brunswick, Maine.