Ahmad Jamal, the pianist and composer, whose lyricism flowed like calm ripples from the Euphrates River and whose definitive cascading riffs brought listeners into his time and space, died on April 16 at his home in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts. He was 92.
The cause of death was prostate cancer as confirmed by his daughter Sumayah Jamal, to The New York Times.
Long before this writer had any concept of what jazz was as an adolescent, I played Jamal’s most memorable song, “Poinciana.” My mother was in the back room; my father was not home because it was a sure trouble to touch his hi-fi system. Putting on the 45rpm, I wasn’t quite sure what I was listening to, but that “Poinciana” sure sounded good to me, so it became my favorite, along with Erroll Garner’s album “Concert by the Sea,” fellow pianist and early influence of Jamal.
Years later, it was revealed to me that “Poinciana” was actually from Jamal’s most successful recording, the now-classic 1958 live Chicago album “At the Pershing: But Not For Me.” It was the first jazz album to shine on the music charts for over two years and was the first jazz album to sell over a million copies. (In a interview, Jamal stated, “It’s been the thing that has paid the bills for the last 61 years.”)
In 2022, two double-set unissued CDs, Ahmad Jamal “Emerald City Nights Live at the Penthouse” (1963-64, and 1965-66) were released on producer Zev Feldman’s debut recording label Jazz Detective.
“I’ve been listening to Mr. Jamal my entire life,” said Feldman. “He’s a true original and beyond category. I couldn’t be more proud of this new endeavor and these releases.”
During his career, Jamal released more than 60 albums. He received many awards, including the Living Jazz Legend Award from the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, France’s Ordre des Arts and des Lettres in 2007, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.
The NEA Jazz Master was a pure jazz pianist with avant guardian statements. His spacing offered him the opportunity to move in any direction, thus we have these elegant flourishing riffs and defining cadenzas. His riffs and use of space inspired sampling from hip hop artists, who began to sample his rhythms like Ski (Jay-Z’s “Feelin’ It”), DJ Premier (Gang Starr’s “Soliloquy of Sadness”), Pete Rock (MOP’s “Stick to Ya Gunz”), and J Dilla (De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High”). He also inspired the iconic piano legion of McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Bill Charlap, Keith Jarrett, and Miles Davis. Davis recorded Jamal’s composition “New Rhumba” for his 1957 album “ Miles Ahead,” the two remained close friends until his transition. Vocalist and pianist Shirley Horn, with her rich, smoky vocals, elegant phrasing, and utilization of her space behind the beat was mesmerizing, a Jamal influence.
Jamal’s creativity as a composer is well acknowledged. “Tranquility” comes to mind, but his musicality to reconstruct jazz classics into his own unique castle is astounding. He has reimagined such classics as “Stolen Moments,” “Dolphin Dance,” “Billy Boy,” and “Cherokee,” among others, into Jamal gems. Sonny Rollins also possesses that same creative imagery.
“I was 12 years old when I saw Ahmad Jamal play on PBS TV. That’s what made me want to be a jazz musician,” said avant garde pianist and composer Matthew Shipp. “He has always been the quintessential musician to me—pure, elegant and understated.”
Shipp added, “He always knew exactly what he wanted to play and where he was going. His GPS was always perfect.”
Ahmad Jamal was born on July 2, 1930 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a community blossoming with jazz musicians like pianists Erroll Garner, Earl Hines, and Mary Lou Williams. Jamal delivered newspapers to Billy Strayhorn’s house. He was a child prodigy, playing with confidence at the age of three. He began professional work at age 10 and joined the Musician’s Union at 14 while still in high school, when the minimum age was 16.
“I just put my age up two years and didn’t get caught,” He explained in a San Diego Union-Tribune interview.
Jamal studied everything from the jazz masters to European classical music; Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, John Kirby, Count Basie, Bach, and Beethoven. Jamal told Wax Poetics, “My mother was rich in spirit, and she led me to another rich person my teacher, Mary Cardwell Dawson, who started the National Negro Opera Company.”
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Reflecting on Jamal’s influence, pianist and composer Vijay Iyer said, “Ahmad Jamal showed us how to bend time, space, form and texture through sound, and he captivated listeners for many decades. We will miss him madly, but he has left us with an ionic catalog of musical memories that will live forever.”
Jamal began recording in 1951 with an ensemble called The Three Strings, which was later renamed the Ahmad Jamal Trio. The group became famous for their club residency at Embers in New York City where they impressed producer John Hammond, who signed them to the Okeh label.
By 1957, Jamal’s Trio became doubly famous as the house band at Chicago’s Pershing Hotel and releasing its live album, “At the Pershing: But Not for Me.” His reputation at the Pershing offered Jamal an opportunity to open his own jazz club in Chicago, the Alhambra, where he recorded a few live albums until the club’s closing in 1961.
After Alhambra’s closing, Jamal moved to New York City. Jamal toured North Africa in 1959 in pursuit of the music, culture, and history of his ancestors. He began recording the albums “Extensions” and “The Awakening” in 1965. After that, he moved from strictly playing acoustic piano to working with electronics and electric piano on such instrumental recordings as “Suicide is Painless,” the theme song from director Robert Altman’s 1970 film “MASH.”
“I met Ahmad at the beginning of my career. We all worshiped him. He was in a class by himself,” said trumpeter and composer Charles Tolliver. “He put all the language of our artform in every song he played both harmonically and solicitously.”
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.
“Music chose me, I didn’t choose it,” said Jamal. “At that age you don’t make decisions, as such; decisions are made for you. So, I’ve been with the piano and the music scene ever since.”
Jamal is survived by his daughter and two grandchildren. He divorced his wife and manager, Laura Hess-Hay, in 1984, but she continued to represent him until his transition.