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Do you want to know who Dizzy Gillespie  idolized? Did you ever wonder who inspired Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey? Who was the pianist that mentored Monk, Bud Powell, Tad Dameron, Elmo Hope, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme? Who was Art Tatum’s idol and Nat Cole’s mentor? What musical quartet pioneered the concept adopted later by the Modern Jazz Quartet? Were you ever curious to know who taught saxophone to Stanley Turrentine or who taught piano to Ahmad Jamal? What community music school trained Robert McFerrin, Sr. for his history-making debut with the Metropolitan Opera? What virtually unknown pianist was a significant influence on young John Coltrane, Shirley Scott, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons and Ray Bryant when he moved to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in the 1940s?  Would you be surprised to know that Erroll Garner attended classes at the Julliard School of Music in New York and was at the top of his class in writing and arranging proficiency?

 

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Ahmad Jamal, jazz pianist with a spare, hypnotic touch, dies at 92

Ahmad Jamal, jazz pianist with a spare, hypnotic touch, dies at 92

His taut and rhythmically supple approach to jazz piano — notably his best-selling recording of “Poinciana” — influenced generations of other musicians who embraced his less-is-more dynamics


Mr. Jamal in 1983. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

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Ahmad Jamal, whose taut, spare and rhythmically supple approach to jazz piano influenced generations of other musicians who embraced his less-is-more dynamics, died April 16 at his home in Ashley Falls, Mass. He was 92.

The cause was complications from prostate cancer, said his daughter Sumayah Jamal.

In a professional career that began at 14 in his native Pittsburgh, Mr. Jamal proved over seven decades to be a musician of ceaseless growth and invention, a minimalist, classicist and modernist who sought to erase distinctions among musical genres. He was also, in the 1950s, among the first African American performers who publicly adopted the Muslim faith.

Mr. Jamal’s preferred musical format was the trio, and he found critical success with a quiet, understated rhythmic style and dramatic use of silence between notes. His trademark was an ingeniously airy approach to classic pop standards such as “Love for Sale,” “A Gal in Calico” and “Don’t Blame Me” or in his own groove-inflected compositions such as “Ahmad’s Blues,” a song that became part of the jazz repertoire.

His group was the house band for Chicago’s Black-owned Pershing Hotel lounge — a favorite hangout for Billie Holiday and Sammy Davis Jr. — when Mr. Jamal recorded his 1958 commercial breakthrough, “Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not For Me.”

The million-selling album stayed on the Billboard magazine charts for more than 100 weeks, and its centerpiece was an eight-minute rendition of the 1930s pop ballad “Poinciana.” Mr. Jamal’s version — his signature number for the rest of his life — was driven by a Caribbean-flavored, near-hypnotic bass-and-drum pulse from whose rolling contours the pianist set off delicately timed eruptions of chords and clusters.

The most prominent contemporary to embrace Mr. Jamal as a stylistic influence was trumpeter Miles Davis, who recalled in his 1989 autobiography that Mr. Jamal “knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, and the way he phrases notes and chords and passages.”

Pianists as diverse as McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton and Bill Charlap also claimed Mr. Jamal as an influence on their approaches to the jazz piano trio. Even Matthew Shipp, among the more idiosyncratic and independent-minded of progressive jazz pianists, referred to Mr. Jamal as “a musical architect of the highest order.”

“You never quite know what the guy’s going to do,” music journalist Jim Macnie wrote in the Village Voice in 2010, amid a new release and concert dates by Mr. Jamal. “Quips fly from his right hand; queries bubble up on the left. They’re linked by a devastating sense of swing, an addiction to group interaction, and a deep trust in melody.”

Buoyed by the success of “But Not for Me,” Mr. Jamal became a household name at a time when jazz was waning and rock was ascendant. He and his ever-changing trio lineup continued a whirlwind of nightclub tours while sometimes chafing against commercial expectations. He approached his goal — extending the boundaries of the piano trio format — with the intensity of a religious scholar.

Although cordial with interviewers, Mr. Jamal projected a studious, almost frosty austerity onstage, displaying no climactic flourishes or colorful traits beyond those woven into his playing. He often seemed remote in performance, totally absorbed in his thematic variations.

“I sometimes get the feeling that Jamal would rather crawl into the piano than off the bench at the conclusion of a performance, so deeply involved is he in his music,” San Francisco Examiner jazz critic Phil Elwood once wrote.

“Maybe so,” Mr. Jamal replied in 1982 to Elwood’s observation. “But I regret that I still don’t have enough time to spend with my instrument. I think I could become more at one with it if I did.”

Frederick Russell Jones, known since childhood as Fritz, was born in Pittsburgh on July 2, 1930. His father worked in the steel mills, and his mother was a domestic worker. He began playing at 3 when an uncle challenged him to imitate him on the family piano.

His formal lessons began four years later, and he was drawn to works by French classical composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, who often put spaces of silence between notes. He was steeped in all forms of music at Westinghouse High School, the alma mater of esteemed jazz pianists such as Erroll Garner (“my major, major influence”) and Mary Lou Williams. Fritz Reiner conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at school assemblies.

By the time he was a freshman, Mr. Jamal was jamming at the musicians’ union hall and working in Pittsburgh nightclubs. “I’d do algebra during intermission, between sets,” he told Down Beat magazine. His ambition to attend the Juilliard School was soon eclipsed by his income.

“It was 25 cents here, $6 there,” he explained to The Washington Post in 1983. “When I got up to $60 a week, which was as much as my father was making, I said, well, this is it.”

He came roaring out of Pittsburgh with a reputation for an extraordinary musical vocabulary, able to sight-read Bach as easily as a chart by Count Basie, and found himself in great demand as a sideman.

Newly married, he settled in Chicago in 1950 and converted to Islam from the Baptist faith of his youth following an encounter with bop trumpeter Idrees Sulieman. His faith freed him, he said, from the indignities of racial segregation and the petty cruelties he endured in show business.

In his transition from Fritz Jones to Ahmad Jamal, he told Time magazine, “I haven’t adopted a name. It’s a part of my ancestral background and heritage. I have re-established my original name. I have gone back to my own vine and fig tree.”

He credited his faith with bolstering his musical confidence as he was leading a bass-guitar-piano trio, the Three Strings, and recording for the Okeh label of Columbia Records in the early 1950s. The ensemble, Saturday Review music critic Irving Kolodin wrote at the time, began to make “a quiet noise in jazz circles, attracting attention not by flamboyance and flash but by a low-keyed tonal production.”

With the astronomical success of “But Not For Me,” Mr. Jamal was pulling down $3,000 a week. He purchased a 16-room Chicago mansion, started a nightclub (alcohol-free, per his faith), and engaged in other business ventures from greeting cards to pies. None of these enterprises succeeded, and Mr. Jamal became mired in debt.

His first marriage, to Virginia Wilkins (who took the Muslim name Maryam Mezzan), ended in divorce in 1962, and she later sued him for nonpayment of child support for their daughter, Mumeenah. His own lawyers also sought money from him, according to news reports at the time.

Mr. Jamal moved to New York for a long residency at the Village Gate nightclub. Amid a hectic performing schedule, Mr. Jamal enjoyed acclaim in 1970 for an electrically amplified keyboard version of composer Johnny Mandel’s theme from the movie and TV sitcom “M*A*S*H.” That same year, Mr. Jamal released one of his more significant trio albums, “The Awakening,” with bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Frank Gant. It was among his many recordings that hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z, Common and Nas later mined for samples in their own mixes.

Critics and audiences began to notice subtle adjustments in Mr. Jamal’s style. By the early 1980s, he was moving away from interpretations of classic pop standards and favoring more original compositions, telling music journalist Eugene Holley Jr. that it was “time for the musician to write his own repertoire rather than to keep resurrecting the things that are in somebody else’s mind.”

Capitalizing on a resurgence of interest in acoustic jazz in the 1990s, Mr. Jamal released several new live albums under the rubric “The Essence,” and his legacy and influence were more fully acknowledged.

“Through the use and space and changes of rhythmic tempo, Jamal invented a group sound that had all the surprise and dynamic variation of an imaginatively ordered big band,” wrote jazz critic Stanley Crouch, who placed Mr. Jamal on an equal footing with Thelonious Monk as an innovator and influence.

Mr. Jamal’s prodigious surge of activity continued unabated into the 21st century with recordings and performances that attested to his inventive powers and still-authoritative command of rhythm. He was declared a Jazz Master in 1994 by the National Endowment for the Arts and won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2017.

His daughter Mumeenah Counts died in 1979. His second marriage, to Sharifah Frazier, with whom he had Sumayah, ended in divorce. His third marriage, to Laura Hess-Hey, also ended in divorce, but she remained his manager until his death. In addition to Sumayah, survivors include two grandchildren.

In February 2020, six months shy of his 90th birthday, Mr. Jamal sounded to critics as frisky and authoritative as ever in live performance at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. He spoke of a magnetic connection with his instrument, a sensation that neither age nor any other factor could compromise.

“When I pass a piano anywhere, I have to touch it or play it,” Mr. Jamal once told the Boston Globe. “The reward of being a musician is not money. It’s the wonderful, indescribable feeling of knowing you’re performing at your highest level. It’s a spiritual feeling. You can always make money. But you can’t always latch onto your own spirit. Maybe these moments represent the ultimate freedom.

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Iconic photo!

Ahmad Jamal, measured maestro of the jazz piano, dies at 92

Ahmad Jamal, pictured in 2016.

Rémy Gabalda/AFP via Getty Images

For most jazz performers, a song is part of a performance. For Ahmad Jamal, each song was a performance. Over the course of a remarkable eight-decade career, Jamal, who passed away Sunday at the age of 92, created stellar recordings both as an ambitious youth and a sagely veteran.

Jamal's death was confirmed by his daughter, Sumayah Jamal. He died Sunday afternoon in Ashley Falls, Mass., after a battle with prostate cancer.

Jamal's influence and admirers spread far and wide in jazz. For instance, Miles Davis found enormous inspiration in his work: In his 1989 autobiography, Miles, the legendary trumpeter said that Jamal "knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrases notes and chords and passages." Miles went on to record Jamal's "New Rhumba" on his classic 1957 recording Miles Ahead.

His contemporary admirers are just as fervent. Pianist Ethan Iverson, a founding member of the exceptionally popular trio The Bad Plus, said, "All of his pieces are theatrical and contained. In some ways the Bad Plus was an extension of his classic trio."



Pianist Vijay Iyer was just as adamant. "His sense of time is that of a dancer, or a comedian. His left hand stays focused, and his right hand is always in motion, interacting with, leaning on, and shading the pulse.

"He bends any song to his will, always open to the moment and always pushing the boundaries, willing to override whatever old chestnut he's playing in search of something profoundly alive."

Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh on July 2, 1930. When he was 3 years old, his uncle challenged him to duplicate what he was playing on the piano, and the youngster actually could. He began formal studies of the piano at the age of 7 and quickly took on an advanced curriculum. He told Eugene Holley Jr. of Wax Poetics in a 2018 interview, "I studied Art Tatum, Bach, Beethoven, Count Basie, John Kirby, and Nat Cole. I was studying Liszt. I had to know European and American classical music. My mother was rich in spirit, and she led me to another rich person: my teacher, Mary Cardwell Dawson, who started the first African-American opera company in the country."

Jamal grew up in a Pittsburgh community that was rich in jazz history. His neighbors included the legendary pianists Earl Hines, Errol Garner and Mary Lou Williams. As a youth, Jamal delivered newspapers to the household of Billy Strayhorn. When Jamal began his professional career at the age of 14, Art Tatum, an early titan of the keyboard, proclaimed him "a coming great." During a tour stop in Detroit, Jamal, who was born to Baptist parents, converted to Islam and changed his name.


His fluency in European classical music — Jamal disdained the term jazz, preferring American classical music as a descriptor for his work — was a highlight of his style. In a 2001 New York Times article, Ben Waltzer, a pianist and curriculum director at the University of Chicago, noted, "when we listen to his music, fragments from Ravel's 'Bolero' and Falla's 'Ritual Fire Dance' mingle with the blues, standard songs, melodic catch-phrases from bebop, and the 'Marseillaise.'"

This may not seem remarkable today, when most jazz musicians are conservatory-trained and well versed in art music, from Louis Armstrong to Iannis Xenakis and from Laurie Anderson to John Zorn. But Jamal was a youth when there were significant barriers to African Americans entering the academy. "In Pittsburgh, we didn't separate the two schools," he told Waltzer.

Jamal's style went well beyond a diverse range of source material; he expanded the borders and depth of improvisation. "Jazz improvisation is generally understood as a narrative melodic line composed spontaneously in relation to a song's harmonic structure," wrote Waltzer. "Jamal broadened this concept by using recurring riffs, vamps and ostinatos — tropes of big-band jazz that were employed as background accompaniment for featured instrumentalists — not just to frame solos, as many musicians did, but as the stuff of improvisation itself."

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In the early and mid-'50s, Jamal led various trios and quartets, before settling into a trio setting with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier. In 1958, they released the landmark jazz recording, At The Pershing: But Not For Me. It is one of the most popular and influential recordings in jazz history. It stayed on the Billboard Top 200 album chart for an astounding 108 weeks.

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Iverson said of the title track, "The classic Jamal Trio with Crosby and Fournier is one of the greatest groups of all time. 'But Not For Me' is a perfect three minutes. Literally perfect. There's nothing better."

The trio's version of "Poinciana" sparked the popularity of the recording, and it became a signature tune for Jamal. He told Wax Poetics, "It was a combination of things: Israel Crosby's lines, what I was playing, and Vernel—if you listen to his work on "Poinciana," you'd think it was two drummers!"

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Jamal visited Africa in 1959. Upon his return to Chicago, he had a failed venture as a club owner, then took a hiatus from recording in the early '60s. By the middle of the decade, he'd resumed recording and touring. His 1969 album, The Awakening, was widely hailed for its rendering of jazz standards and originals.

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His music was found in the soundtracks of movies like M*A*S*H and The Bridges of Madison County. In a 1985 episode of NPR's Piano Jazz, Jamal told host and fellow piano legend Marian McPartland that his favorite recording was "the next one." Then he allowed that the Pershing "was close to perfection." He also said that he continued to focus on ballads. "They are difficult to play," he told her, "it takes years of living to read them properly." In 1994, he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Fellowship.


He continued making stellar recordings into the past decade. His 2017 release, Marseille, was noted in the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll.

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The recording featured all of the hallmarks that made Jamal a great pianist and bandleader, and the drummer Herlin Riley, like Fournier, was from New Orleans. It prompted Iyer to note that Jamal's lineage of New Orleanian drummers — Fournier, Idris Muhammad and Riley — suggests rhythm as a ritual or cultural cornerstone.

Jamal's work continued to impress other pianists. In 2014 Matthew Shipp told NPR's Karen Michel, "His imagination is so deep. One of the joys of listening to him is to see how his fertile imagination interacts with the material he does pick and recombines it into a musical entity that we've never heard. I mean, he is a musical architect of the highest order."

Waltzer added, "innovation in jazz can be subtle. Rather than reaching outward to create an overtly revolutionary sound, Mr. Jamal explored the inner workings of the small ensemble to control, shape and dramatize his music."

Sincerest condolences to the family, friends and fans of the legendary Pittsburgh pianist, the great Ahmad Jamal. His music lives on in our hearts and ears forever. Gifted beyond measure, with a superior creativeness only given to few. RWG Ahmad Jamal.

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