Part of ‘50s ‘cool jazz’ movement
Influential pianist Ahmad Jamal has died at the age of 92 from prostate cancer. He passed away at his Ashley Falls, Mass. home on Sunday, April 16 according to his wife, Laura Hess-Hay, and daughter Sumayah Jamal.
A native of Pittsburgh, Penn., he was born Frederick Russell Jones in 1930. Proficient at tickling the ivories by the age of three, he benefited by growing up in a neighborhood whose residents included the pianists Erroll Garner, Earl Hines, and Mary Lou Williams. A professional musician by his teens, Jones became exposed to Islamic culture and embraced that faith by 1950, and adopted the name Ahmad Jamal.
His early career was spent refining his technique in the trio format of bass, drums, and piano, in which he perfected an egalitarian interplay between instruments, based on “cool,” tasteful restraint at the keyboard. Like all true trendsetters, he went against the grain of the prevailing trends of the day. In sharp contrast to the technical virtuosity of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, he adopted a minimalist, nuanced approach at the piano, a style that won acclaim, and was emulated by no less a personage than musical legend Miles Davis. The iconic trumpeter, a master of understatement in his own right, praised Jamal for his use of space for dramatic effect, enabling the music to “breathe.”
“All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal,” he once said.
In 1958 Jamal recorded the landmark “At the Pershing” album, containing what would become his signature tune, a standard derived from a Cuban folk song titled “Poinciana.”
His influence extended into the end of the 20th century, as his repertoire became a treasured source for “sampling” by youngsters in the chart busting genre known as Hip-Hop. These include De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High (1996),” featuring appropriations from 1974’s “Swahililand,” 1996’s “Feelin’ It (sampling 1974’s “Pastures”) by Jay Z, and 1994’s “The World Is Yours” by Nas (based on 1970’s “I Love Music”).
During the course of his career, Jamal released more than 70 albums. Most recently in 2019 he released “Ballades” (featuring a new rendition of “Poinciana”), in which he displayed the same ability to coax emotional depth from even the most time-worn standards of the American songbook.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Ahmad Jamal is survived by two grandchildren.