Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Jamal, Ahmad

Pianist Ahmad Jamal's intricate use of space and rhythm has created many haunting musical landscapes during his long career. Jamal greatly expanded the possibilities of the piano trio, and his compositions influenced Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Jamal was born Fritz Russell Jones on July 2, 1930 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and changed his name to Ahmad Jamal after his conversion to Islam in 1952. He began playing the piano at the age of three, when his uncle Lawrence challenged him to reproduce the sounds of popular music on the piano.

As a child, he studied classical piano with Mary Cardwell Dawson, the founding director of the National Negro Opera Company, and James Miller. Upon hearing pianist Erroll Garner, another Pittsburgh native, Jamal turned his attentions towards jazz.

At the age of fourteen, Jamal joined the local musicians' union and began playing around the Pittsburgh area. At the age of seventeen, he graduated from Pittsburgh's prestigious Westinghouse High School and began his first professional band gig with George Hudson's Orchestra in 1948. In 1950, he formed his own group with bassist Eddie Calhoun and guitarist Ray Crawford. This group, called the Three Strings, emulated the format of the era's many popular piano trios, including those led by Erroll Garner and Nat "King" Cole.

The Three Strings played in New York City in 1950, where Columbia Records producer John Hammond heard and signed the group to his label. In 1951, Columbia released his first album, Ahmad's Blues, which introduced the jazz world to his special approach to the piano. Jamalís playing on this album was melodic and rich, and gave listeners a foretaste of his intricately rhythmic playing on later recordings.

By 1955, Jamal had regrouped his trio and took it to Chess Records, replacing Calhoun on bass with Richard Davis. Jamal released several albums with the trio, including 1955's Poinciana, which included the song "Pavanne."

"Pavanne" proved to be very influential on two recordings from the later 1950s by Miles Davis and saxophonist John Coltrane. Davis's "So What" and Coltrane's "Impressions" both lifted the melody from Jamal's "Pavanne," virtually note for note.

By 1958, Jamal had switched to a format of piano, bass, and drum format for his trio, enlisting Israel Crosby on bass and Vernell Fournier on drums. This trio recorded many highly acclaimed albums including 1958's Live At the Pershing Lounge and Live At the Spotlite Club. Both albums were recorded at Chicago bars where the trio performed as the house band.

Many of the tracks found on these albums, including "Poinciana"and "The Surrey With the Fringe On Top," can also be found on the Verve/Chess compilation Cross Country Tour: 1958-1961.

"Poinciana" became Jamal's signature song, with Crosby's subtle bass work and Founier's mastery of the snare brush strokes. Jamal continued to revisit the song over the course of his career, but this 1958 version is arguably the most enduring rendition of the song.

Live At the Pershing Lounge included the song "But Not For Me," which went all the way to number three on the pop charts in 1958. The success of this song allowed Jamal to open up his own club in Chicago, the Alhambra. The trio recorded at the club in the early 1960s and several tracks of off Cross Country Tour, including "What Is This Thing Called Love"

were recorded live at Jamal's Alhambra. Two other live albums, Alhambra and All of You further document the trio's live performances at the club.

Jamal's influence during the late 1950s and early 1960s can be measured by the number of established artists who borrowed repertoire from him, including Miles Davis, who played Jamal arrangements of the songs "On Green Dolphin Street," "Billy Boy," and Jamal's original tune "New Rumba."

Unfortunately, the trio disbanded in 1962, when Crosby left to join pianist George Shearing. Jamal then formed a new trio with bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Chuck Lampkin. This trio released the album Macanudo among others. In 1967, Jamal released the album Standard Eyes and in 1968 he released Cry Young, which was a minor hit, spending several weeks on the pop album charts.

In 1969, Jamal began to release many different projects and materials focusing on different styles of music. The album The Awakening featured Jamal playing Brazilian songs such as Antonio Carlos Jobim's"Wave." Other albums from this period included Freeflight and Outertimeinnerspace, which displayed the pianist's abilities on the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Freeflight was Jamal's 1972 set at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Jamal continued to work with arranger Richard Evans in the 1970s recording Ahmad Jamal '73.

In the early 1980s, Jamal worked with vibraphonist Gary Burton, releasing several albums and touring extensively. Also during the 1980s, Jamal performed frequently with drummer Idris Muhammad who continues to work with the pianist to this day. In 1985, Jamal signed with Atlantic Records, marking his return to a major record label for the first time in over a decade. He released several albums on the label including Digital Works and Crystal. In the 1990s, Jamal switched over to the Telarc label releasing 1994's I Remember Duke, Hoagy, and Strayhorn.

Now approaching his ninth decade in music, Jamal continues to perform and record actively. He currently resides in upstate New York, and has stated that the calmness and tranquility of the environment have aided in his longevity and continual creative process as a musician. Jamal's work has also been sampled by many different hip-hop artists, primarily by Kanye West, DJ Premier from Gangstarr, and Jay-Z who sampled Jamal for his 1996 hit album, Reasonable Doubt on the song "Feelin' It."

Among his many honors, in 1994 Jamal was named a Jazz Master by the United States' National Endowment for the Arts, the nation's highest honor for jazz musicians.

Selected Discography

as the Ahmad Jamal Trio or Ahmad Jamal

Ahmad's Blues (Okeh/Columbia, 1951)

Live at the Pershing Lounge (Chess, 1958)

Cross Country Tour:1958-1961 (Chess)

Extensions (Impulse!, 1965)

Standard Eyes (Impulse!, 1967)

Cry Young (Impulse!, 1968)

The Awakening (Impulse!, 1970)

Freeflight (Impulse!, 1972)

Crystal (Atlantic, 1987)

Pittsburgh (Atlantic, 1989)

Contributor: Jared Pauley