One of the world's undisputed masters of jazz piano, Ahmad Jamal came to prominence as a leader in the late 1950s with the release of the seminal live album At the Pershing: But Not for Me. While the recording managed to gain significant attention outside jazz circles, it also succeeded in piquing the interest of some of his famous contemporaries like trumpeter Miles Davis, one of his greatest admirers.
His groundbreaking use of silence and rhythm ranked him as a major player in the evolution of the jazz piano trio, but without reaching the same level of popularity as other piano legends, like Bill Evans. An indefatigable artist, he continues to tour and record with gusto and enthusiasm well into his seventh decade as a professional.
Wee Fingers on a Big Keyboard
Born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh on July 2, 1930, the musician changed his name to Ahmad Jamal in the early 1950s after converting to Islam. A precocious child, he first tickled the ivories at age 3. He took on serious music studies at seven and was a professional musician before reaching his early teens. His introduction to jazz came through the works of Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Count Basie, and Nat King Cole.
In 1949, after graduating from high school, the young man played for George Hudson's orchestra before joining Joe Kennedy's Four Strings. The following year, Jamal put together his first trio, The Three Strings-later rechristened The Ahmad Jamal Trio-with bassist Eddie Calhoun and guitarist Ray Crawford. Calhoun's spot was later briefly filled by Richard Davis, who in turn was replaced by Israel Crosby.
In 1955, the group recorded Chamber Music of the New Jazz for Argo Records. The album had a significant influence on trumpeter Miles Davis and his arranger Gil Evans, who created similar soundscapes for Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess.
The following year, Jamal substituted guitarist Crawford for drummer Walter Perkins, who was soon replaced by Vernell Fournier. This new trio hit the big time in 1958 with the popular live recording At the Pershing: But Not for Me. On the strength of its single Poinciana, the crossover album climbed all the way up to the third position on Billboard's pop music charts. For At the Penthouse (1959), the pianist decided to try something different: a 15-piece string section to back his basic trio.
After the departure of Crosby and Fournier in 1962, Jamal formed another new trio, this time with bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Chuck Lampkin-who stayed for three years before "passing the baton" to Frank Gant.
Next, Jamal recorded Tranquility (1968) for Impulse! Records, featuring covers of Burt Bacharach‘s The Look of Love and I Say a Little Prayer. During these prolific times, the musician also released a solid studio effort with The Awakening (1970) and yet another superior live recording with Freelight (1971). Recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival, the latter saw Jamal experimenting with an electric Fender Rhodes.
Released by 20th Century Records, the poppier Ahmad Jamal '73 featured a cover of Stevie Wonder's Superstition, with Jamal once again making the most of his electric piano, adding brass and strings to the mix. Jamal Plays Jamal (1974) deftly blended jazz and funk, while Live at Oil Can Harry's (1976) offered a faithful sonic portrait of Jamal's playing during this period.
Published by Motown in 1980, Night Song kicked off an eventful new decade. Flanked by Sabu Adeyola on bass and Payton Crossley on drums, Jamal toured and recorded with vibesman Gary Burton the following year. Another move, this time to Atlantic, prompted the recording of the double set Digital Works (1985), featuring electric piano remakes of some of his signature songs (Poinciana, But Not for Me).
1985 was also marked by the release of Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival, documenting Jamal's first ever performance at the Festival. That same year, Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival immortalized Jamal's debut appearance at the celebrated event. Originally slated to appear at the Festival in 1984, the pianist unfortunately had to take a rain check. His next appearance at the Festival was in 1991.
Live and Kicking
Jazz piano was once again a hot commodity in the 1990s, allowing Jamal to enjoy a renaissance of sorts and release a bunch of concert recordings, including Live in Paris '92. In 1994, the National Endowment for the Arts presented Jamal with a prestigious American Jazz Master Fellowship award. During this time, the artist released a solid series of albums: The Essence, Part 1 (1995), featuring George Coleman on saxophone, and Big Byrd: The Essence, Part 2 (1996, both recorded during the same sessions. For the final chapter, The Essence, Part 3 (1998), the pianist enlisted the services of steel drum specialist Othello Molineaux.
Jamal greeted the 2000s with opened arms, churning out high calibre records like In Search of Momentum (2003) and It's Magic (2008). In 2010, the artist celebrated his 80th birthday at the Festival, where he presented his new album A Quiet Time to an devoted crowd.