May 27, 2024

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Miles Davis once said: “All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal: Video, Photos

Ahmad Jamal was known for his laid-back style and for his influence on, among others, Miles Davis, who once said, “All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal.”

The cause was prostate cancer, his daughter, Sumayah Jamal, said. In a career that would bring him a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award, a lifetime achievement Grammy and induction into France’s Order of Arts and Letters, Mr. Jamal made a lasting mark on jazz with a stately approach that honored what he called the spaces in the music.

That approach stood in marked contrast to the challengingly complex music known as bebop, which was sweeping the jazz world when Mr. Jamal began his career as a teenager in the mid-1940s. Bebop pianists, following the lead of Bud Powell, became known for their virtuosic flurries of notes. Mr. Jamal chose a different path, which proved equally influential.

The critic Stanley Crouch wrote that bebop’s founding father, Charlie Parker, was the only musician “more important to the development of fresh form in jazz than Ahmad Jamal.”
Mr. Jamal, seated at the piano, circa 1942, in his hometown, Pittsburgh.
A young Mr. Jamal at the piano, circa 1942. He was only 14 when he joined the musicians’ union.

In his early years, Mr. Jamal listened not just to jazz, which he preferred to call “American classical music,” but also to classical music of the non-American variety.

“We didn’t separate the two schools,” he told The New York Times in 2001. “We studied Bach and Ellington, Mozart and Art Tatum. When you start at 3, what you hear you play. I heard all these things.”

Mr. Jamal’s laid-back, accessible style, with its dense chords, its wide dynamic range and above all its judicious use of silence, led to more than his share of dismissive reviews in the jazz press early in his career; Martin Williams’s canonical history “The Jazz Tradition” described his music as “chic and shallow.”

But it soon became an integral part of the jazz landscape. Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett are among the prominent jazz pianists who looked to Mr. Jamal as an exemplar.

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.”

Probably the best-known musician to cite Mr. Jamal as an influence was not a pianist but a trumpeter and bandleader: Miles Davis, who became close friends with Mr. Jamal, recorded his compositions and arrangements and would bring his sidemen to see Mr. Jamal perform. He once said, “All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal.”

Mr. Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh on July 2, 1930. Fritz, as he was called, began playing piano at age 3 and a few years later became a student of Mary Cardwell Dawson, the founder of the National Negro Opera Company. By the time Fritz joined the musicians’ union at age 14, the celebrated jazz piano virtuoso Art Tatum had hailed him as “a coming great,” and after graduating from high school he began touring with George Hudson’s big band.

In 1950 he moved to Chicago, where he converted to Islam, changed his name to Ahmad Jamal and assembled a piano-guitar-bass trio known as the Three Strings. During an extended stay at the Manhattan nightclub the Embers in 1951, the trio came to the attention of the noted record producer and talent scout John Hammond, who signed them to the Okeh label.

Mr. Jamal at the keyboard wearing a string tie.
Mr. Jamal performing in San Francisco in 1976. He released as many as three albums a year in the late 1960s and early ’70s.In 1955 Mr. Jamal recorded his first full-length album, “Ahmad Jamal Plays,” with the guitarist Ray Crawford and the bassist Israel Crosby, for the small Parrot label. Tellingly, when the album was acquired and rereleased the next year by Argo, a subsidiary of the seminal blues label Chess, it was retitled “Chamber Music of the New Jazz.”

Mr. Jamal received his first major national exposure with the Argo album “At the Pershing: But Not for Me,” recorded at a Chicago nightclub in 1958 with Mr. Crosby and the drummer Vernel Fournier. It spent more than two years on the Billboard album chart, an all but unheard-of stretch for a jazz album.

The success of “At the Pershing” stemmed in part from Mr. Jamal’s ambling yet propulsive interpretation of the standard “Poinciana,” still his best-known recording. But he received some criticism for not including any original compositions on the album, which he later said spurred him to focus on writing his own music.

Mr. Jamal’s output was as prodigious as his light-fingered style was economical: He released as many as three albums a year in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and more than 60 in his career.

He also founded a handful of record labels, a management company and a Chicago nightclub and restaurant called the Alhambra, although that venture lasted less than a year. In keeping with his religious beliefs, the Alhambra did not serve alcohol, which presumably hastened its demise.

The Alhambra’s financial difficulties marked the beginning of a dark period in Mr. Jamal’s life, in which he walked away from performing for almost three years. The club closed in December 1961; three months later, he filed for divorce from Maryam Jamal, formerly named Virginia Wilkins, whom he had married when he was 17.

Five years of court action followed, during which Mr. Jamal was arrested and charged with nonpayment of child support for their daughter. He was later cleared. He was hospitalized in 1963 after an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. Not until 1964 did he begin touring and recording again.

He married first as a teenager, and that marriage ended in divorce. He married Sharifah Frazier, the mother of Sumayah, in the early 1960s, and they divorced in 1982. He married Laura Hess-Hay, his manager, the same year, and they divorced in 1984, though she continued to represent him until his death. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by two grandchildren.

Live recordings often captured Mr. Jamal at his nimblest, and many jazz connoisseurs rank such albums as “Freeflight” (1971), recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and “Chicago Revisited: Live at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase” (1993) among his best.

In 2011, Mosaic Records released a nine-CD boxed set consisting of the 12 albums he recorded for Argo between 1956 and 1962. His album “Blue Moon,” a well-received collection of originals and standards, was released in 2012 and nominated for a Grammy Award. His last two albums were recorded in 2016 and released as “Marseille” in 2017 and “Ballades” in 2019.

Last year, Mr. Jamal released two separate double-disc collections: “Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse (1963-64)” and “(1965-66),” consisting of previously unreleased live recordings made in Seattle. A third set, “(1966-68),” is planned.

Mr. Jamal in 2011 at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
The reverence with which Mr. Jamal was held stretched well beyond the jazz world. Clint Eastwood used two tracks from “But Not for Me” on the soundtrack of his film “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.

As infectious as those riffs were, it was ballads that held the strongest appeal to Mr. Jamal. Like many other interpreters of the standard repertoire, he made a point of learning the lyrics to the songs he played. He spoke approvingly to The Times in 2001 about a conversation he once had with a great jazz saxophonist who was also known for his way with a ballad.

“I once heard Ben Webster playing his heart out on a ballad,” he said. “All of a sudden he stopped. I asked him, ‘Why did you stop, Ben?’ He said, ‘I forgot the lyrics.’”

All told, for a pianist who started playing at 3, music was truly his lifelong pursuit, spanning almost 90 years. And he was always looking ahead.

“I’m still evolving,” Mr. Jamal told The Times in a phone interview last year, not long after turning 92. “Whenever I sit down at the piano, I still come up with some fresh ideas.”

The jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal in 1959. Among those he influenced were the pianists Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, and the trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis.

Ahmad Jamal in shirtsleeves at the piano in New York.
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