Ahmad Jamal (born July 2, 1930) is a noted American jazz pianist.
Jamal was one of Miles Davis's favorite pianists and was a key influence on the trumpeter's "First Great Quintet" (featuring John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums). Davis had long admired Jamal's use of space and dynamics, and had asked Wynton Kelly to "sound more like Ahmad Jamal" on the track "Freddie Freeloader" on the landmark album Kind of Blue.
Since the 1980s Jamal has been regularly touring the major clubs of the United States and the large European jazz festivals. He is generally accompanied by bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad. He has also performed regularly with saxophonist George Coleman
Ahmad Jamal is an acclaimed virtuoso jazz pianist and keyboardist, composer, and innovative trio leader. He was born Freddy "Fritz" Jones, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Jamal attended George Westinghouse High School. He began playing piano at the age of three, when his uncle Lawrence challenged him to duplicate what he was playing on the piano. Jamal began formal piano training at the age of seven with Mary Cardwell Dawson, whom he describes as greatly influencing him. He converted to Ahmadiyya Islam in 1952, officially changing his name at that time. On joining Musicians Union Local 208 in Chicago, he was referred to as Fritz Jones in the minutes of the local's Board meetings until his name change. His first OKeh record was credited in advertisements to the Fritz Jones Trio, but it did not see release until after the name change, so the name Ahmad Jamal appears on all of his released recordings. He is a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
Jamal began touring with George Hudson's Orchestra. He joined another touring group known as The Four Strings, which was soon disbanded. He moved to Chicago in 1950, and made his first sides in 1951 for the Okeh label with The Three Strings; the other members were guitarist Ray Crawford and a bassist (at different times, Eddie Calhoun, Richard Davis, and Israel Crosby). Jamal subsequently recorded for Parrot (1953-1955) and Epic (1955) using the piano-guitar-bass lineup. The trio's sound changed significantly when Crawford was replaced with drummer Vernel Fournier in 1957, and the group worked as the "House Trio" at Chicago's Pershing Hotel. The trio released the live album But Not for Me which stayed on the Ten Best-selling charts for 108 weeks. Jamal's well known song "Poinciana" was first released on this album. The financial success of the album allowed Jamal to open a restaurant and club called The Alhambra.
Jamal typically plays with a bassist and drummer; his current trio is with bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad. At the Toronto Jazz Festival (June 2008) and perhaps elsewhere, Jamal's group included innovative percussionist Manolo Badrena. Jamal has also recorded with saxophonist George Coleman on the album The Essence; with vibraphonist Gary Burton on the recording "In Concert"; with the voices of the Howard A. Roberts Chorale on the recordings "Bright, Blue and Beautiful" and "Cry Young"; with brass, reeds, and strings celebrating his hometown of "Pittsburgh"; and with "The Assai Quartet", among other non-trio achievements.
In 1994, Jamal received the National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Masters award and also named a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University.
Ahmad Jamal is also known to be a Steinway Artist since 1960. It is rumored that his pianos sometimes needed to be tuned between sets due to the percussive nature of some of his playing. He also became a premier player of the Fender Rhodes piano in the 1970s to 1980s as on the recordings "Digital Works" and on "Jamalca". Mr Jamal is also noted for his flowing lyrical lines, thundering crescendos, ability to run arpeggios from end to end of the 88 keys, and lush, beautiful ballad and Latin jazz playing. Of special note is the influence of Ahmad Jamal on innovative musician and trumpeter Miles Davis who at one point said that all of his inspiration came from Ahmad Jamal; not only on his trumpet playing, song selection, and pianists, but in the area of "modes". Jamal was an early exponent of extended 'vamps' allowing him to solo at great length adding fresh colorations and percussive effects, which Davis was keen to imitate, setting up Davis perfectly for the entrance of true modal music into his own groups with the recording "Kind of Blue."
Miles Davis, Randy Weston, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Gary Peacock all cite Jamal as a major influence in use of rhythm and space as well as his innovative use of multi-tonal melodic lines and his unique extended 'vamps'. The element of surprise is an important part of Jamal's improvisations to them all. John Coltrane must have also been influenced by Jamal. His composition "Impressions", bears a striking resemblance to a small section of the song "Pavanne" which Ahmad Jamal recorded in 1955 with Israel Crosby and guitarist Ray Crawford. Halfway through the song there is a vamp on the same harmonic progression as "So What" (by Miles Davis) and "Impressions" (John Coltrane). During this vamp Ray Crawford improvises a line which is practically identical to the melody of "Impressions".
At the Pershing: But Not for Me (1958) is considered a jazz classic. The Ahmad Jamal trio played on it and featured Jamal on piano, Israel Crosby on bass, and Vernel Fournier on drums.
Jamal is mentioned in Chuck Berry's "Go Go Go".
Jamal's style has changed steadily over time - from the lighter, breezy style heard on his 1950s recordings to the Caribbean stylings of the 1970s and onto the large open voicings and bravura-laden playing of the nineties. Jamal has always been distinctive however for his use of space, his dramatic crescendos, and for a very staccato orientation with chords.
Clint Eastwood featured two recordings from Jamal's But Not For Me album — "Music, Music, Music" and "Poinciana" — in the 1995 movie The Bridges of Madison County.
The French government has inducted Ahmad Jamal into the prestigious Order of the Arts and Letters by French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, naming him Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres on June 2007. Mr Jamal continues to tour extensively with his trio.
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