Ahmad Jamal, the influential Pittsburgh-born pianist known for his delicate keyboard filigrees and imaginative use of space, has died at the age of 92. According to his daughter Sumayah Jamal in The New York Times, he passed away on Sunday, April 16 at home in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, after a battle with prostate cancer.
Jamal, who was born Frederick Russell Jones on July 2nd, 1930 but changed his name after converting to Islam in 1950, enjoyed a long and storied career that brought him many accolades, including the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award in 1994. He even received recognition from the French government in 2007 when it bestowed upon him the prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Jamal’s career exploded in 1958 when he was 28 with the iconic trio album But Not For Me: Live At The Pershing, whose sparkling lyricism and intuitive small group interplay epitomized the pianist’s unique chamber jazz aesthetic. The album, which spent 108 weeks on the US pop charts and became a million-seller, was a game-changer for Jamal. “It’s been the thing that has paid the bills for the last 61 years,” he told this writer in 2019. “And it still lives on. It’s really amazing.”
In the 1970s when straight-ahead jazz fell out of favour, Jamal ventured into jazz-funk terrain with a series of electric albums for the 20th Century label. He even recorded for Motown, cutting the album Night Song, in 1980, but eventually gravitated back to acoustic jazz. His final album was Ballades, a solo piano project, released in 2019.
Among those who fell under Jamal’s spell were trumpeter Miles Davis (who covered some of the pianist’s tunes, including ‘New Rhumba’ on his 1957 album Miles Ahead) and pianist Keith Jarrett, who freely acknowledged the older keyboard master’s influence.
AHMAD JAMAL 1930-2023