Ahmad Jamal, the legendary pianist who helped shape the evolution of jazz throughout a career spanning seven decades, has died. He was 92.
One of the most successful small-group leaders in jazz, Jamal was known for his spare, graceful style whose measured, less-is-more approach influenced generations of other pianists. He was an NEA Jazz Master who won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy for his contributions to music.
Jamal died April 16 at his home in Ashley Falls, Mass. The cause was complications from prostate cancer, according to his daughter Sumayah Jamal.
Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh on July 2, 1930. He began playing piano at the age of three and started his formal piano training at age seven with Mary Cardwell Dawson. In his early years, he was influenced by jazz artists such as Earl Hines, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams and Erroll Garner. He began playing professionally at 14, earning recognition from Art Tatum. In 1950, he moved to Chicago, converted to Islam (in which he had developed an interest in his teens) and changed his name to Ahmad Jamal.
In 1951, Jamal made his first records for the Okeh label with his trio, known as The Three Strings. In 1957, the group — which then consisted of bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier — became the house trio at Chicago’s Pershing Hotel. There, they recorded the live album At the Pershing: But Not for Me, which stayed on the best-selling album charts for 108 weeks.
As the trio earned both critical acclaim and commercial success — particularly for their now-iconic recording of the jazz standard “Poinciana” — Jamal was noted for his innovative style that would shape a new era of jazz.
Rising to fame during the bebop era and its emphasis on speed and virtuosic improvisation, Jamal and his unusually minimalist, spacious style took jazz in a different direction. “Nobody except Thelonious Monk used space better, and nobody ever applied the artistic device of tension and release better,” said A. B. Spellman of the National Endowment of the Arts. He was also noted for his rhythmic control, extended vamps, and orchestral effects. Jamal’s techniques were influential on later jazz greats such as Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton, Ethan Iverson and Bill Charlap.
Jamal went on to record almost 70 studio albums as a leader.
In 1994, he was named an NEA Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts. In 2007, Jamal was honoured as a “living jazz legend” by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In 2017, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy.