A beloved piano player and composer, Jamal’s unique sound influenced fellow jazz greats Miles Davis and McCoy Tyner, as well as a generation of crate-digging hip-hop lyricists and producers who sampled his music, including J Dilla (who snagged Jamal’s 1974 tune “Swahililand” for De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High”), Nas (“The World is Yours”) and DJ Premiere (for Gang Starr’s “Soliloquy of Chaos”) among many others.
Renowned for a light touch that favored lyricism over a barrage of notes — in contrast to the heady, sometimes hectic sound of bebop that ruled when he began playing as a teen in the 1940s — Jamal sought to create more space with a style that has been credited as one of the most admired in the genre’s history.
After getting his start performing as Fritz Jones in the late 1940s, Jamal began to develop what the Times described as a “laid-back, accessible style, with its dense chords, its wide dynamic range and above all its judicious use of silence,” which led to some dismissive, negative reviews from the jazz press early on, including writer Martin Williams describing his sound as “chic and shallow.”
That criticism would not stick, however, as more and more jazz greats began to cite Jamal as an inspiration, including Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. Legendary trumpeter Davis — who became a friend and who later recorded Jamal’s songs — once said “all my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal,” the paper noted.
Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh, PA on July 2, 1930 and began playing piano at an early age, going pro at 14 and hitting on the road in 1948 with George Hudson’s Orchestra after graduating from high school. A move to Chicago in 1950 brought more work, as well as a conversion to Islam that birthed Jones’ new stage name. His piano-guitar-bass trio, the Three Strings, caught the ear of legendary producer/talent scout John Hammond, who signed them to Okeh record label, which launched a long and fruitful recording career for more than a dozen labels.
Jamal first full-length album, Ahmad Jamal Plays, was released on the Parrot label in 1955 — and later rereleased on Chess Records under a different name — and featured the original track “New Rhumba” and covers of such jazz standards as George and Ira Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and Cole Porter’s “All of You.”
It was 1958’s live album, But Not for Me/Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing, which was recorded at the famed Chicago nightclub, however, that introduced the world to Jamal’s sound. The record spent more than two years on the Billboard 200 album chart, a rare feat for a jazz album. The album collection featured the pianist’s best-known track, his energetic take on the standard “Poinciana.”
Over the course of his career Jamal would release more than 60 albums and earn a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award, as well as lifetime achievement honor from the Recording Academy and a Living Jazz Legend designation from the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.
Jamal continued to perform and record well into his 80s, releasing his final album, the mostly solo piano collection Ballades, in 2019, which included a solo version of “Poinciana” that served as a poignant bookend to a prodigious, acclaimed career that also included the founding of several record labels and the short-lived Alhambra jazz club in Chicago. Two double-disc compilations of previously unreleased live recordings in Seattle, Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse (1963-1964) and the sequel, (1965-66), were released last year.
Listen to the Jamal Trio perform “But Not For Me” and “Poinciana” below.