Ahmad Jamal, a pianist, composer and arranger whose innovative, chamber jazz style had a powerful impact on his contemporaries while gaining widespread popularity via such recordings as his bestselling interpretation of “Poinciana,” has died, according to the New York Times. He was 92.
Jamal died Sunday of prostate cancer at his home in Ashley Falls, Mass., his daughter, Sumayah Jamal, confirmed to the New York Times.
The crisp, carefully tailored but deeply swinging arrangements he created for his trios of the 1950s and ‘60s had a long-term effect on the piano trio format as well as the individual work of other pianists, composers, arrangers and horn players.
“No single artist after the great alto saxophonist [Charlie Parker] has been more important to the development of fresh form in jazz than Ahmad Jamal,” wrote critic musician Stanley Crouch.
Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, John Coltrane and Randy Weston were among the numerous iconic jazz artists whose own music revealed, directly or indirectly, the influence of Jamal’s style.
Davis, an assertive and dedicated fan of Jamal’s creative choices, noted in his autobiography that Jamal “… knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrased notes and passages.”
Many of the standard songs that Davis recorded in the ‘50s clearly seem to have been chosen as the result of his attraction to prior versions by Jamal. “New Rumba,” a Jamal composition, was recorded by Davis in a Gil Evans arrangement that closely followed the original version. And Davis reportedly urged the pianists in his groups to learn from the Jamal style.
Jamal’s most successful recording was the now-classic 1958 live performance LP, “At the Pershing: But Not For Me.” The first jazz album to sell more than a million copies, it was a rare example, for the period, of a bestselling recording that was not made in a studio. Its popularity drove it to the top 10 of the national sales charts for a staggering 108 consecutive weeks.
The album’s achievements were energized by Jamal’s memorable version of the standard tune “Poinciana.” The appeal of the song’s arrangement continued well into the 21st century when Jarrett, another dedicated Jamal fan, frequently played it in performances of his own piano trio. In 1995, it was heard on the soundtrack of the Clint Eastwood film “The Bridges of Madison County.”
The timeless qualities of Jamal’s music reached into the contemporary world as well. In 2010, he topped JazzWeek’s annual survey of American radio stations to determine the top 100 most frequently played artists. In the pop genre, more than 40 hip-hop tracks—by performers such as Jay-Z, De La Soul, Common and Gang Starr—sampled his music.
Ahmad Jamal was born July 2, 1930, in Pittsburgh. His birth name, Frederick Russell Jones, was changed to Ahmad Jamal when he converted to Ahmadiyya Islam in 1952.
Jamal recalled his initial encounter with the piano in an video interview for “Jazz on the Tube.” “At 3 years of age,” he said, “my wonderful Uncle Lawrence stopped me while I was walking past the piano in my parents’ living room. He was playing the piano and challenged me to duplicate what he was doing. Although I had never touched this or any piano, I sat down and played note for note what I had heard. The rest is history.”
At 7, his mother made arrangements for him to begin taking lessons. His first performances for an audience took place at a local Pittsburgh club when he was 11. “I can’t remember the place,” he told Boston Globe writer Marian Christy. “I only remember that people threw loads of money on the bandstand.”
In high school, he studied classical music with concert singer and teacher Mary Cardwell Dawson and piano with pianist James Miller. By the time Jamal joined the musicians’ union at 14, he had already begun to supplement his classical training with an attraction to jazz. One of his early influences, he often said, was a fellow Pittsburgher, the jazz pianist Erroll Garner. After graduating from Westinghouse High School in 1948, his professional career began via a national tour with the George Hudson Orchestra.
Jamal made his first recording, an original titled “Ahmad’s Blues,” in 1951 with his trio, the Three Strings — the title tracing to the instrumentation of piano, guitar and bass. But his success began to escalate in 1956, when the guitar was replaced by drums, creating the basic trio format that he continued to maintain for decades.
In the ‘70s, he occasionally added a percussionist to provide the proper coloration for his interest in Caribbean and Latin rhythms.
Starting in the ‘80s, however, his repertoire emphasis shifted from the imaginative interpretation of standard songs to the creation of his own works. Although the source material changed, the fundamental Jamal style remained the appealing sound it had always been, enhanced by growingly rhapsodic pianistic touches.
It is music, said a 1994 Times review characterizing the full range of the Jamal trio’s performances, “that can be simultaneously detailed and spontaneous, thoughtful and entertaining.”