Regarded as an outstanding conceptionalist with a distinctive style, pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal has made a significant impact on the jazz idiom. His lean style, complex use of space, and simple embellishments have served as a model for many other artists, most notably Miles Davis.“I live until he makes another record,” the legendary trumpeter once said of Jamal, as quoted by Down Beats Owen Cordle.
But despite his impact on jazz, Jamal feels uncomfortable with the label“jazz musician.” Instead, he prefers to call himself an “American classical” musician.“I started the phrase ’American classical music, ’” he said to American Visions contributor Eugene Holley.“The term ‘jazz’ is certainly not sufficient; it was used to try and downgrade the music, but the music was so viable and it was so potent, nothing could keep it down.”
Over the course of his professional career, Jamal, who converted to Islam in 1950, led several trios and made some 50 recordings, including the 1958 landmark album Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing. His ensemble peaked in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, when he performed mostly jazz standards. Since the 1980s, Jamal has focused his attention on his own compositions. While less accepted later in his career by the mainstream, Jamal continued to draw critical accolades.
In recognition of his achievements, he received a $20,000 Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1994. That same year, Yale University named Jamal a Duke Ellington Fellow. In 1996, for his album The Essence Part 1, Jamal won the prestigious Django d’Or award in France. His follow-up projects,The Essence Part 2 and The Essence Part 3, released in 1997 and 1998, respectively, further illustrated Jamal’s ever-evolving musicianship.
Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones on July 2, 1930, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a city that also produced such jazz talent as Kenny Clarke, Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, and Art Blakey. A child prodigy, Jamal immersed himself in European classical music early in life. At the age of three, he started playing the piano, and at age seven, Jamal’s mother arranged for her son to take formal lessons. A domestic, she walked to work in order to save enough money to pay for Jamal’s training.
By the age of eleven, the pianist was already skilled enough to begin playing professionally at a local club.“I can’t remember the place,” he said in an interview with Boston Globe staff writer Marian Christy.“I only remember that people threw loads of money on the bandstand. Maybe it was only a few dollars total. But it sure seemed like a lot of money then.”
In high school, Jamal further pursued classical studies with noted concert singer Mary Caldwell and pianist James Miller, completing with his instructors the equivalent of college graduate classes. To this day, Jamal’s classical background remains influential.“There are very few people playing European classical music that also know Art Tatum and Duke Ellington,” said Jamal to Holley.“However, it’s not the same position with the so-called jazz musician, who has to be twice as good as the so-called classical musician and know both worlds in order to get work.”
During his teen years, Jamal also explored his growing interest in jazz and was greatly inspired by Art Tatum, Teddy Williams, and, especially, a local bebop pianist named Erroll Garner.“Erroll was my major inspiration, not one, my major inspiration,” he said, as quoted by Greg Fitzgerald for Nation Public Radio’s Jazz Profiles. In fact, critics would later compare Jamal’s technique to that of Garner, though many cite Jamal as a more intricate player. Because he used the full range of the keyboard in a more simple manner, Jamal was later able to present his trio as a scaled down orchestra of sorts.
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At age 14, Jamal joined the musicians union. Upon graduating from Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh in 1948, he joined the George Hudson Orchestra in Atlantic City and embarked on a national tour. Winning significant critical acclaim for his solos, Jamal nonetheless learned a certain truth about playing before an audience. As he commented to Christy,“Performing is like being the matador in the bullring. You have to be constantly concerned about what you’re doing or you get gored.”