Ahmad Jamal

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Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad jamal.jpg
Ahmad Jamal performing with bassist James Cammack
Background information
Birth nameFrederick Russell Jones
Born (1930-07-02) July 2, 1930 (age 89)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
GenresJazz, modal jazz
LabelsOKeh, Parrot, Epic, Argo, Atlantic, Dreyfus, Impulse!, Telarc, Jazzbook/ACM

Ahmad Jamal (born Frederick Russell Jones, July 2, 1930) is an American jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, and educator. For five decades, he has been one of the most successful small-group leaders in jazz.[1]


Early life

Jamal was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He began playing piano at the age of three, when his uncle Lawrence challenged him to duplicate what he was doing on the piano.[2] Jamal began formal piano training at the age of seven with Mary Cardwell Dawson, whom he describes as greatly influencing him. His Pittsburgh roots have remained an important part of his identity ("Pittsburgh meant everything to me and it still does," he said in 2001)[3] and it was there that he was immersed in the influence of jazz artists such as Earl Hines, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams, and Erroll Garner. Jamal also studied with pianist James Miller and began playing piano professionally at the age of fourteen,[4] at which point he was recognized as a "coming great" by the pianist Art Tatum.[5] When asked about his practice habits by a The New York Times critic, Jamal commented that, "I used to practice and practice with the door open, hoping someone would come by and discover me. I was never the practitioner in the sense of twelve hours a day, but I always thought about music. I think about music all the time."[6]


External media
Ahmad Jamal On Piano Jazz, August 29, 2008, Piano Jazz[7]
Eric in The Evening; Ahmad Jamal, interview, January 18, 1989, Open Vault at WGBH[9]
Ahmad Jamal - Interview - "American Classical Music", April 27, 2010 underyourskindvd[8]

Jamal began touring with George Hudson's Orchestra after graduating from George Westinghouse High School in 1948.[10] He joined another touring group known as The Four Strings, which soon disbanded when the violinist, Joe Kennedy Jr., left.[6] He moved to Chicago in 1950 (where he legally changed his name to Ahmad Jamal),[10] and played on and off with local musicians such as saxophonists Von Freeman and Claude McLin, as well as performing solo at the Palm Tavern, occasionally joined by drummer Ike Day.[11]

He made his first sides in 1951 for the Okeh label with The Three Strings (which would later also be called the Ahmad Jamal Trio, although Jamal himself prefers not to use the term "trio"): the other members were guitarist Ray Crawford and a bassist, at different times Eddie Calhoun (1950–52), Richard Davis (1953–54), and Israel Crosby (from 1954). The Three Strings arranged an extended engagement at Chicago's Blue Note, but leapt to fame after performing at the Embers in New York City where John Hammond saw the band play and signed them to Okeh Records. Hammond, a record producer who discovered the talents and enhanced the fame of musicians like Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie, also helped Jamal's trio attract critical acclaim.[10] Jamal subsequently recorded for Parrot (1953–55) and Epic (1955) using the piano-guitar-bass lineup. The trio's sound changed significantly when Crawford was replaced with drummer Vernel Fournier in 1957, and the group worked as the "House Trio" at Chicago's Pershing Hotel. The trio released the live album, Live at the Pershing: But Not For Me, which stayed on the Ten Best-selling charts for 108 weeks. Jamal's well known song "Poinciana" was first released on this album.

Upon his return to the U.S. after a tour of North Africa, the financial success of Live at the Pershing: But Not For Me allowed Jamal to open a restaurant and club called The Alhambra in Chicago.[12] In 1962, The Three Strings disbanded and Jamal moved to New York City, where, at the age of 32, he took a three-year hiatus from his musical career.

In 1964, Jamal resumed touring and recording, this time with the bassist Jamil Nasser and recorded a new album, Extensions, in 1965. Jamal and Nasser continued to play and record together from 1964 to 1972. He also joined forces with Fournier (again, but only for about a year) and drummer Frank Gant (1966–76), among others. He continued to play throughout the 1970s and 1980s, mostly in trios with piano, bass and drums, but he occasionally expanded the group to include guitar. One of his most long-standing gigs was as the band for the New Year's Eve celebrations at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., from 1979 through the 1990s.[10] Until 1970, he played acoustic piano exclusively. The final album on which he played acoustic piano in the regular sequence was The Awakening. In the 1970s, he played electric piano as well. It was rumored that the Rhodes piano was a gift from someone in Switzerland.

In 1985, Jamal agreed to do an interview and recording session with his fellow jazz pianist, Marian McPartland on her NPR show Piano Jazz. Jamal, who said he rarely plays "But Not For Me" due to its popularity since his 1958 recording, played an improvised version of the tune – though only after noting that he has moved on to making ninety percent of his repertoire his own compositions. He said that when he grew in popularity from the Live at the Pershing album, he was severely criticized afterwards for not playing any of his own compositions.[13]

Now in his eighties, Ahmad Jamal has continued to make numerous tours and recordings. His most recently released albums are Saturday Morning (2013),[14] and the CD/DVD release Ahmad Jamal Featuring Yusef Lateef Live at L'Olympia (2014).

Conversion to Islam

Born to Baptist parents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Jamal did not discover Islam until his early 20s. While touring in Detroit (where there was a sizable Muslim community in the 1940s and 1950s), Jamal became interested in Islam and Islamic culture. He converted to Islam and changed his name to Ahmad Jamal in 1950.[10] In an interview with The New York Times a few years later, Jamal said his decision to change his name stemmed from a desire to "re-establish my original name."[15] In 1986, Jamal sued critic Leonard Feather for using his former name in a publication.[16]

After the recording of the best-selling album But Not For Me, Jamal's music grew in popularity throughout the 1950s, and he attracted media coverage for his investment decisions pertaining to his "rising fortune".[17] In 1959, he took a tour of North Africa to explore investment options in Africa. Jamal, who was twenty-nine at the time, said he had a curiosity about the homeland of his ancestors, highly influenced by his conversion to the Muslim faith. He also said his religion had brought him peace of mind about his race, which accounted for his "growth in the field of music that has proved very lucrative for me."[17]

Shortly after his conversion to Islam, Jamal explained to The New York Times that he "says Muslim prayers five times a day and arises in time to say his first prayers at 5 am. He says them in Arabic in keeping with the Muslim tradition."[17]


Style and influence

"Ahmad Jamal is one of the great Zen masters of jazz piano. He plays just what is needed and nothing more... every phrase is perfect."

—Tom Moon, NPR musical correspondent[18]

Trained in both traditional jazz ("American classical music", as he prefers to call it)[6] and European classical style, Ahmad Jamal has been praised as one of the greatest jazz innovators over his exceptionally long career. Following bebop greats like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Jamal entered the world of jazz at a time when speed and virtuosic improvisation were central to the success of jazz musicians as artists. Jamal, however, took steps in the direction of a new movement, later coined "cool jazz" – an effort to move jazz in the direction of popular music. He emphasized space and time in his musical compositions and interpretations instead of focusing on the blinding speed of bebop.

Because of this style, Jamal was "often dismissed by jazz writers as no more than a cocktail pianist, a player so given to fluff that his work shouldn't be considered seriously in any artistic sense".[19] Stanley Crouch, author of Considering Genius, offers a very different reaction to Jamal's music, claiming that, like the highly influential Thelonious Monk, Jamal was a true innovator of the jazz tradition and is second in importance in the development of jazz after 1945 only to Parker.[20] His unique musical style stemmed from many individual characteristics, including his use of orchestral effects and his ability to control the beat of songs. These stylistic choices resulted in a unique and new sound for the piano trio: "Through the use of space and changes of rhythm and tempo", writes Crouch, "Jamal invented a group sound that had all the surprise and dynamic variation of an imaginatively ordered big band."[21] Jamal explored the texture of riffs, timbres, and phrases rather than the quantity or speed of notes in any given improvisation. Speaking about Jamal, A. B. Spellman of the National Endowment of the Arts said: "Nobody except Thelonious Monk used space better, and nobody ever applied the artistic device of tension and release better."[22] These (at the time) unconventional techniques that Jamal gleaned from both traditional classical and contemporary jazz musicians helped pave the way for later jazz greats like Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and McCoy Tyner.[23]

Though Jamal is often overlooked by jazz critics and historians, he is frequently credited with having a great influence on Miles Davis. Davis is quoted as saying that he was impressed by Jamal's rhythmic sense and his "concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement".[24] Jamal characterizes what he thought Davis admired about his music as: "my discipline as opposed to my space."[25]

Jamal and Davis became friends in the 1950s, and Davis continued to support Jamal as a fellow musician, often playing versions of Jamal's own songs ("Ahmad's Blues", "New Rhumba") until he died in 1991.[24]

Jamal, speaking about his own work says, "I like doing ballads. They're hard to play. It takes years of living, really, to read them properly."[13] From an early age, Jamal developed an appreciation for the lyrics of the songs he learned: "I once heard Ben Webster playing his heart out on a ballad. All of a sudden he stopped. I asked him, 'Why did you stop, Ben?' He said, 'I forgot the lyrics.'"[6] Jamal attributes the variety in his musical taste to the fact that he grew up in several eras: the big band era, the bebop years, and the electronic age.[26] He says his style evolved from drawing on the techniques and music produced in these three eras.

In more recent years, Jamal has embraced the electronic influences affecting the genre of jazz. He has also occasionally expanded his usual small ensemble of three to include a tenor saxophone (George Coleman) and a violin (Ray Kennedy). A jazz fan interviewed by Down Beat magazine about Jamal in 2010 described his development as "more aggressive and improvisational these days. The word I used to use is avant garde; that might not be right. Whatever you call it, the way he plays is the essence of what jazz is."[27]

Saxophonist Ted Nash, a longtime member of the Lincoln Center Orchestra, had the opportunity to play with Jamal in 2008 for Jazz at Lincoln Center. Nash described his experience with Jamal's style in an interview with Down Beat magazine: "The way he comped wasn't the generic way that lots of pianists play with chords in the middle of the keyboard, just filling things up. He gave lots of single line responses. He'd come back and throw things out at you, directly from what you played. It was really interesting because it made you stop, and allowed him to respond, and then you felt like playing something else – that's something I don't feel with a lot of piano players. It's really quite engaging. I guess that's another reason people focus in on him. He makes them hone in."[28]

At the Pershing: But Not For Me

Perhaps Jamal's most famous recording and undoubtedly the one that brought him vast popularity in the late 1950s and into the 1960s jazz age, At the Pershing was recorded at the Pershing Hotel in Chicago in 1958. Jamal played the set with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier. The set list expressed a diverse collection of tunes, including "The Surrey with the Fringe On Top" from the musical Oklahoma! and Jamal's arrangement of the jazz standard "Poinciana". Jazz musicians and listeners alike found inspiration in the At the Pershing recording, and Jamal's trio was recognized as an integral new building block in the history of jazz. Evident were his unusually minimalist style and his extended vamps,[29] according to reviewer John Morthland. "If you're looking for an argument that pleasurable mainstream art can assume radical status at the same time, Jamal is your guide," said The New York Times contributor Ben Ratliff in a review of the album.[30]

Bands and personnel

Jamal typically plays with a bassist and drummer: his current[when?] trio is with bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley. He has also performed with percussionist Manolo Badrena.[31] Jamal has recorded with saxophonist George Coleman on the album The Essence; with vibraphonist Gary Burton on In Concert; with the voices of the Howard A. Roberts Chorale on The Bright, the Blue and the Beautiful and Cry Young; with brass, reeds, and strings celebrating his hometown of Pittsburgh; and with The Assai Quartet.

Jamal has played with various jazz musicians throughout his extensive career, including: George Hudson, Ray Crawford, Eddie Calhoun, Richard Davis, Israel Crosby, Vernel Fournier, Jamil Nasser, Frank Gant, James Cammack, Dave Bowler, John Heard, Yoron Israel, Belden Bullock, Manolo Badrena, Gary Burton, and Idris Muhammad, among others.


Clint Eastwood featured two recordings from Jamal's But Not For Me album — "Music, Music, Music" and "Poinciana" — in the 1995 movie The Bridges of Madison County.

Jamal is the main mentor of jazz piano virtuosa Hiromi Uehara, known as Hiromi.[citation needed]

Awards and honors

  • 1959: Entertainment Award, Pittsburgh Junior Chamber of Commerce
  • 1980: Distinguished Service Award, City of Washington D.C., Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, Smithsonian Institution
  • 1981: Nomination, Best R&B Instrumental Performance ("You're Welcome", "Stop on By"), NARAS
  • 1986: Mellon Jazz Festival Salutes Ahmad Jamal, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • 1987: Honorary Membership, Philippines Jazz Foundation
  • 1994: American Jazz Masters award, National Endowment for the Arts
  • 2001: Arts & Culture Recognition Award, National Coalition of 100 Black Women
  • 2001: Kelly-Strayhorn Gallery of Stars, for Achievements as Pianist and Composer, East Liberty Quarter Chamber of Commerce
  • 2003: American Jazz Hall of Fame, New Jersey Jazz Society
  • 2003: Gold Medallion, Steinway & Sons 150 Years Celebration (1853–2003)
  • 2007: Living Jazz Legend, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  • 2007: Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, French government
  • 2011: Down Beat Hall of Fame, 76th Readers Poll
  • 2015: Honorary Doctorate of Music, The New England Conservatory[14]


Ahmad Jamal at Keystone Korner, San Francisco California, 1980

As leader


As sideman

With Ray Brown

With Shirley Horn


  1. ^ Early, Gerald Lyn (2001). Miles Davis and American culture. Missouri History Museum. p. 79. ISBN 978-1-883982-38-6.
  2. ^ Ahmad Jamal
  3. ^ Early, Gerald, ed. Miles Davis and American Culture. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001: 79–85. Print.
  4. ^ Wang, Richard and Barry Kernfeld. "Jamal, Ahmad". The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed. Ed. Barry Kernfeld. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Web. April 17, 2012.
  5. ^ Waltzer, Ben. "Always Making Jazz Seem New: The Pianist Ahmad Jamal Is an Innovator Who Finds Originality by Taking a Long at the Tradition of Small-Group Jazz." The New York Times, November 11, 2001: A27. Print.
  6. ^ a b c d Waltzer, p. A27.
  7. ^ "Ahmad Jamal On Piano Jazz". Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. NPR. August 29, 2008. Retrieved September 19, 2016.
  8. ^ "Ahmad Jamal - Interview - "American Classical Music"". [underyourskindvd. April 27, 2010. Retrieved September 19, 2016.
  9. ^ "Eric in The Evening; Ahmad Jamal]". Open Vault at WGBH. January 18, 1989. Retrieved September 19, 2016.
  10. ^ a b c d e Wang and Kernfeld, p. 1.
  11. ^ Panken, Ted "It's Ahmad Jamal's 81st Birthday". Retrieved July 3, 2013.
  12. ^ Ahmad Jamal at All About Jazz
  13. ^ a b "Ahmad Jamal On Piano Jazz 1985". Piano Jazz. NPR. August 29, 2008. Radio.
  14. ^ a b Ahmad Jamal Official Website
  15. ^ Walz, Jay. "Pianist-Investor Is a Hit in Cairo: Jazz Musician Ahmad Jamal Finds Muslim Faith Aids Him on African Visit." The New York Times, November 20, 1959: 14. Print.
  16. ^ "Pittsburgh Jazz Festival Swings into Town" (September 6, 1986), Pittsburgh Courier, p. 5.
  17. ^ a b c Walz, p. 14.
  18. ^ Norris, Michele. "1,000 Essential Recordings You Must Hear". All Things Considered (NPR). By Tom Moon. August 22, 2008. Radio.
  19. ^ Crouch, Stanley. Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz. Cambridge: Basic Civitas Books, 2006: 95–99. Print.
  20. ^ Crouch, Stanley (2007). Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz. Basic Books. p. 95. ISBN 978-0-465-01512-2.
  21. ^ Crouch, p. 95.
  22. ^ "Ahmad Jamal: 'Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not For Me.'" Basic Jazz Record Library, NPR. August 1, 2001. Radio.
  23. ^ Crouch, p. 99.
  24. ^ a b Early, p. 79.
  25. ^ Early, p. 80.
  26. ^ Early, p. 81.
  27. ^ Macnie, Jim. "Intricacy & Groove: At Home with Ahmad Jamal". Down Beat, March 2010, Vol. 77, Issue 3: 26–31. Microfilm.
  28. ^ Macnie, p. 31.
  29. ^ Review by John Morthland, November 16, 2010.
  30. ^ Macnie, p. 28.
  31. ^ Toronto Jazz Festival – Festival Events


  • "Ahmad Jamal: 'Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not For Me'". Basic Jazz Record Library. NPR. August 1, 2001. Radio.
  • "Ahmad Jamal On Piano Jazz 1985." Piano Jazz. NPR. August 29, 2008. Radio.
  • Crouch, Stanley. Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz. Cambridge: Basic Civitas Books, 2006. Print.
  • Early, Gerald (ed.). Miles Davis and American Culture. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001. Print.
  • Holsey, Steve. "Sepia on the Record". Sepia (Fort Worth, TX), April 1, 1980: 14. Print.
  • "Jamal, Ahmad – Ahmad's Blues." Colin Larkin (ed.), Encyclopedia of Music, 4th edition. Oxford Music Online. Web. April 17, 2012.
  • "Jamal, Ahmad." Colin Larkin (ed.), Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 4th edition. Oxford Music Online. Web. April 17, 2012.
  • Macnie, Jim. "Intricacy & Groove: At Home with Ahmad Jamal". Downbeat, March 2010, Vol. 77, Issue 3: 26–31. Microfilm.
  • Norris, Michele. "1,000 Essential Recordings You Must Hear". All Things Considered. By Tom Moon. August 22, 2008. Radio.
  • Walz, Jay. "Pianist-Investor Is A Hit in Cairo: Jazz Musician Ahmad Jamal Finds Moslem Faith Aids Him on African Visit". New York Times, November 20, 1959: 14. Print.
  • Waltzer, Ben. "Always Making Jazz Seem New: The Pianist Ahmad Jamal is an Innovator Who Finds Originality by Taking a Long at the Tradition of Small-Group Jazz". New York Times, November 11, 2001: A27. Print
  • Wang, Richard and Barry Kernfeld. "Jamal, Ahmad". Barry Kernfeld (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd edition. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Web. April 17, 2012.
  • Wright, Todd and John Higby. "Appalachian Jazz: Some Preliminary Notes". Black Music Research Journal 23, 1/2 (2003): 58, 59. Print.

External links