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Jazz Piano Innovator Ahmad Jamal Is Dead at Age 92
Over the course of an influential career, he transformed the rhythmic and melodic textures of improvised music.
Other musicians have changed the sound of jazz in various ways. But Ahmad Jamal actually transformed time and space.
It sounds like I’m describing Einstein or Kant. But those aren’t inappropriate comparison points for this seminal pianist, who left us earlier today at age 92. He opened up an alternative universe of sound, freer and less constrained than what we had heard before. The rules of improvised music were different after he appeared on the scene.
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Just consider the state of jazz piano when Jamal released his first recordings in the mid-1950s. There were superstars at the nightclubs and each one was like a human howitzer at the keyboard. Thelonious Monk played comping chords with the subtlety of a Floyd Patterson gazelle punch. Oscar Peterson exploded on the bandstand like General Patton’s Third Army marching into town. Dave Brubeck bludgeoned you with harmonies thicker than the Manhattan phone directory.
In their hands, jazz was a powerful hard-fisted idiom. Just to survive on this scene you needed intensity and toughness. And it required special fireworks to reach the top.
But then Ahmad Jamal sat down at the piano, and just floated over the beat. Sometimes he played almost nothing. Jazz fans had never heard this way of improvising before. “On some numbers, he will virtually sit things out for a chorus,” exclaimed critic Martin Williams—who struggled to figure out why it worked. “It appears that Jamal’s real instrument is not the piano at all, but his audience.” How else could you explain his way of captivating listeners while playing so few notes.
Nobody had used space and silence so effectively before. And his control of dynamics was just as impressive. Blessed with accompanists perfectly attuned to his vision—most notably in his trio with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier—he could bring the proceedings down to a whisper without losing any sense of swing or forward propulsion.
At first only jazz fans took notice, but with the release of At the Pershing: But Not for Me in 1958, Jamal started attracting a large crossover audience. This record stayed on the Billboard album chart for a stunning 107 weeks.
Once again, the critics were confused. Downbeat magazine complained that it was just “cocktail music.” But what they missed was how the whole jazz world was now shifting into Jamal’s orbit.
A few months later, Miles Davis released his Kind of Blue album, which still holds a unique spot in the annals of jazz more than 60 years later. And you can’t really give Ahmad Jamal credit for this timeless credit—but, in total fairness, I can’t imagine Miles going down this path without having studied Jamal’s 1950s work first.
If you look at everything Davis did up to that point, you fill find that he repeatedly added songs to his repertoire simply because Jamal had recorded them. And Davis’s choice of bandmates, especially pianists, was clearly shaped by his desire to emulate the Jamal sound. It’s no coincidence that Bill Evans was the other leading pianist of the day with a comparable vision of time and space—and that’s clearly part of the reason why he got the gig with Miles and could exert such a powerful impact on Kind of Blue.
The only mystery is why Miles never recorded an album with Jamal himself. That must have been one of the most obvious duet projects in the history of jazz—but it never happened. Yet in every other way, Davis paid frequent tribute to this artist.
Jamal had attracted other famous admirers during his early years. Born in Pittsburgh in 1930, he had started gigging at the young age of 14—and soon earned the praise of jazz virtuoso Art Tatum. His birth name was Frederick Russell “Fritz” Jones, but in 1950 he converted to Islam and adopted his new identity as Ahmad Jamal.
In a later interview with the New York Times, the pianist explained that he recited prayers in Arabic five times per day, starting at 5 A.M. His conversion had brought him “peace of mind,” he told the reporter, and had also stirred his interest in African musical traditions.
The success of his At the Pershing album was boosted by a hit single “Poinciana,” which would become the pianist’s signature theme. Others had recorded this song before Jamal, but he turned it into an unforgettable light groove vamp tune. In later years, when others played this song, they inevitably imitated the vamp created by this influential predecessor, who somehow got jukebox spins with a sophisticated jazz trio instrumental.
Jamal kept this crossover audience for the rest of his life. But he never took it for granted or coasted on past successes—in fact the quality of his work was impressive well into his late eighties. As recently as 2019, I picked his album Ballades as one of the 100 best records of the year.
The simple truth is that I never heard any record from Jamal that wasn’t distinguished. His biggest competition came from his own past work—and the many younger musicians who borrowed heavily from his piano conception. But even as later generations learned from Ahmad Jamal, he still stood out among any crowd of imitators.
His legacy is secure. And the recent release of previously unissued recordings from the 1960s suggests that we have not yet heard all he left on tape. I’m not sure any later pianist can transform the idiom as profoundly as Jamal did back in the day. But even if he is gone, musical time and space are different because of his intervention, and we are still free from the gravitational pull of the beat because of the example he set. To that extent we are all floating in his wake.
That’s probably what he intended. In one of his last interviews, Jamal was asked what he had left to accomplish. He answered: “I want to experiment with peace—I want to explore all the elements of peace. That’s the most important thing in my life.” He might have been talking about music, or he may have been describing a purpose beyond music and involving his influence on others. In either case, he hit the mark.