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.
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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.
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.