In Memoriam: Ahmad Jamal


​Ahmad Jamal (1930–2023) with his trio at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Pianist-composer Ahmad Jamal passed away April 16 in his home in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, after battling prostate cancer. He was 92.

Jamal’s hard-swinging, orchestral conception of the piano trio — as documented on more than 70 recordings from between 1951 and 2018 — exerted enormous influence on the sound of jazz during the second half of the 20th century. He is a member of the DownBeat Hall of Fame and was an NEA Jazz Master, and he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. In 1958, Jamal recorded a million-selling LP, At The Pershing: But Not For Me, which included “Poinciana,” later his signature song. Keith Jarrett, who later covered “Poinciana,” remarked to DownBeat that upon hearing it he thought, “This is swinging more than anything I’ve been listening to, but they’re doing less. What’s the secret here?”

A short list of pianists who received and assimilated Jamal’s message includes Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller, Bill Charlap, Matthew Shipp, Marcus Roberts, Eric Reed and Harold Mabern. He’s been sampled by such hip-hop figures as KRS-One, who sampled “Poinciana” on “Stop Frontin,” Jay-Z (“Pastures”), J Dilla (“Stakes Is High”), and Nas (“I Love Music”). Jamal’s most famous non-pianist acolyte was Miles Davis, who wrote in his autobiography, “Ahmad knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrases notes and chords and passages.” Indeed, Davis described sending Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones on field trips during the mid-’50s to observe Jamal’s trio strategies, which they refracted on recordings of such early Jamal repertoire as “Ahmad’s Blues,” “New Rhumba,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and “A Gal In Calico.”

“Every time I hear Ahmad, I leave totally inspired,” Harold Mabern told DownBeat after hearing Jamal play a set in 2002, a half-century after Miles Davis’ early inspiration. “He plays a three-chord masterpiece before he even sits down on the stool, then he throws up his hands to give a signal, and from that point on it’s magic. It’s his sound, his knowledge of chords, the way he orchestrates from the bottom of the piano to the top. Or the way he’ll play a ballad, where he returns to the bridge in a totally different way each time. He will play a run and stop on a dime. And he’s a master at playing without cliche in time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4.”

Born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh on July 2, 1930, Jamal was a child prodigy who first made music on the piano at 3. He began formal studies at 7, and performed Liszt’s Eroica Etude publicly at 11. At 14, he joined Pittsburgh’s Local 471, after matriculating at Westinghouse High School, alma mater of pianists Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner and Dodo Marmarosa, where he played piano in the school’s integrated swing band, while moonlighting on various local evening gigs and absorbing the trio approaches of Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole, Erroll Garner and Bud Powell.

Jamal left Pittsburgh in 1948 with bandleader George Hudson for a summer-long engagement at Club Harlem, Atlantic City’s major showroom, then, at summer’s end, joined Hudson for a stint at New York’s Apollo Theater. During this engagement, Jamal met trumpeter Idris Suleiman, an early jazz convert to Islam, whose “philosophical presentation” planted the seeds for the pianist’s embrace of Islam. In 1950, he legally changed his name to Ahmad Jamal.

In 1949, Jamal moved in Chicago, where he worked with tenor saxophonists Eddie Johnson, Claude McLin and Von Freeman, eventually finding a steady job with tenor saxophonist Johnny Thompson and Israel Crosby at a South Side boite. Meanwhile, Jamal recruited guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Tommy Sewell, both Pittsburghers, to form the Three Strings. In late 1951, Jamal brought Crawford and bassist Eddie Calhoun to New York to play intermission at the Embers, a boisterous midtown supper club. John Hammond attended, was impressed, and signed Jamal for several recording dates on OKeh. On the strength of these well-received sessions, Jamal began to find regular work, using a small South Side lounge called the Kit-Kat Club as his Chicago base. In 1955, he entered the Pershing Lounge with a new trio featuring Crosby and New Orleans-born drummer Vernell Fournier.

Live From The Pershing made Jamal an international star, commanding several thousand dollars a week. He invested in real estate, and opened a posh, alcohol-free supper club, the Alhambra, but the investments didn’t work out. In response, Jamal moved to New York in 1962, beginning his transition from elegant miniaturist to efflorescent improviser. On 1964–1971 albums like Naked City Theme, Extensions, The Awakening and Manhattan Reflections, he presented the discursive, kaleidoscopic performances that remained his trademark for the remainder of his career.

Most recently, Jamal released a pair of newly discovered vintage live albums under the banner Emerald City Nights: Live At The Penthouse (Jazz Detective). The recordings track live shows recorded between 1963 and 1966 at the famed Seattle jazz landmark, and a third volume is on the way. See Jamal’s last interview about these recordings here.

“I project my life and musical experiences in my writing and performance,” Jamal told DownBeat in 2002. “I’ve accumulated some information. Now I’m absorbing all the feedback, and trying to channel it into my present lifestyle. All I want is to write my music and learn to perform it. Some things I write require a lot of skill, so I have to learn to play all my compositions, and I practice every day. Sometimes, I’ll resurrect a composition that I haven’t done in years, because it fits in that spot. Then I use the same basic structure, although the approach is more musically mature than it was years ago. Why change a good minuet or a good concerto? You just try to interpret as the best you can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” DB

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