A musical architect, genius, technical wizard — all words aptly describe Ahmad Jamal. He died at the age of 92, Sunday, April 16 2023 at his home in Ashley Falls, Mass.
The cause was prostate cancer, his daughter, Sumayah Jamal, said.
For six decades, Jamal was one of the most successful small-group leaders in jazz. He was a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master and won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy for his contributions to music history. Jamal truly made a lasting mark on jazz and its artist, past and present.
In a Twitter message on Sunday, the bassist and composer Christian McBride wrote: “Ahmad Jamal was someone who always left me completely starstruck. I’ve stood in a room with him numerous times and never had the guts to say hello. His vibe was just too regal.” Even Miles Davis, who covered Jamal’s “New Rhumba’ (Miles Ahead, 1958) had great praise: In his 1989 autobiography, Miles, the legendary trumpeter said that Jamal “knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrases notes and chords and passages.”
Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 2, 1930. He began playing piano at the age of three, when his uncle Lawrence challenged him to duplicate what he was doing on the piano. Jamal began formal piano training at the age of seven with Mary Cardwell Dawson, whom he described as having greatly influenced him. His Pittsburgh roots remained an important part of his identity (“Pittsburgh meant everything to me and it still does,” he said in 2001) 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.
Born to Baptist parents, Jamal discovered Islam in his teens. While touring in Detroit, where there was a sizable Muslim community in the 1940s and 1950s, he became interested in Islam and Islamic culture. He converted to Islam and changed his name to Ahmad Jamal in 1950. In an interview with The New York Times a few years later, he said his decision to change his name stemmed from a desire to “re-establish my original name.”
In the early and mid-’50s, Jamal led various trios and quartets, before settling into a trio setting with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier. In 1958, they released the landmark jazz recording, At The Pershing: But Not For Me. It is one of the most popular and influential recordings in jazz history. It stayed on the Billboard Top 200 album chart for an astounding 108 weeks. The trio’s version of “Poinciana” sparked the popularity of the recording, and it became a signature tune for Jamal.
Returning from venture to Africa in the late 50’s, Jamal took a hiatus from recording into the early 60’s. By the middle of the decade, he’d resumed recording and touring. His 1970 album, The Awakening, was widely hailed for its rendering of jazz standards and originals.
Jamal had an ear for the mainstream too. His music was found in the soundtracks of movies like M*A*S*H and The Bridges of Madison County. But the more extensive tributes have come from the world of hip-hop. Tracks like De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High” and Nas’s “The World Is Yours,” along with dozens of other rap songs, have sampled Mr. Jamal’s piano riffs. Jamal was not one to rest on laurels. In a 1985 episode of NPR’s Piano Jazz, Jamal told host and fellow piano legend Marian McPartland that his favorite recording was “the next one.”
He continued making stellar recordings into the past decade. His 2017 release, Marseille, was noted in the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. Ballades is Jamal’s final album. Consisting mostly of solo piano recordings, the album was recorded at the same time as the 2016 album Marseille and includes a solo version of his most popular tune, “Poinciana.”
“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.”