Born Frederick Russell Jones on July 2, 1930, in Pittsburgh, PA. Education: Studied music with concert singer Mary Caldwell and pianist James Miller. Addresses: Record company--Atlantic Records, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, NY 10104,; Publicist--Sue Cassidy Clark, 1040 Chesnut St., San Francisco, CA 94109-1230; 470 West End Ave., No. 10E, New York City, NY 10024 Phone: (212) 707-2533 Fax: (212) 405-5665 E-mail: Ahmad Jamal:

Regarded as an outstanding conceptionalist with a distinctive style, pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal has made a significant impact on the jazz idiom. His lean style, complex use of space, and simple embellishments have served as a model for many other artists, most notably Miles Davis. "I live until he makes another record," the legendary trumpeter once said of Jamal, as quoted by Down Beat's Owen Cordle. But despite his impact on jazz, Jamal feels uncomfortable with the label "jazz musician." Instead, he prefers to call himself an "American classical" musician. "I started the phrase 'American classical music,'" he said to American Visions contributor Eugene Holley. "The term 'jazz' is certainly not sufficient; it was used to try and downgrade the music, but the music was so viable and it was so potent, nothing could keep it down."

Over the course of his professional career, Jamal, who converted to Islam in 1950, led several trios and made some 50 recordings, including the 1958 landmark album Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing. His ensemble peaked in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, when he performed mostly jazz standards. Since the 1980s, Jamal has focused his attention on his own compositions. While less accepted later in his career by the mainstream, Jamal continued to draw critical accolades. In recognition of his achievements, he received a $20,000 Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1994. That same year, Yale University named Jamal a Duke Ellington Fellow. In 1996, for his album The Essence Part 1, Jamal won the prestigious Django d'Or award in France. His follow-up projects, The Essence Part 2 and The Essence Part 3, released in 1997 and 1998, respectively, further illustrated Jamal's ever-evolving musicianship.

Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones on July 2, 1930, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a city that also produced such jazz talent as Kenny Clarke, Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, and Art Blakey. A child prodigy, Jamal immersed himself in European classical music early in life. At the age of three, he started playing the piano, and at age seven, Jamal's mother arranged for her son to take formal lessons. A domestic, she walked to work in order to save enough money to pay for Jamal's training. By the age of eleven, the pianist was already skilled enough to begin playing professionally at a local club. "I can't remember the place," he said in an interview with Boston Globe staff writer Marian Christy. "I only remember that people threw loads of money on the bandstand. Maybe it was only a few dollars total. But it sure seemed like a lot of money then."

In high school, Jamal further pursued classical studies with noted concert singer Mary Caldwell and pianist James Miller, completing with his instructors the equivalent of college graduate classes. To this day, Jamal's classical background remains influential. "There are very few people playing European classical music that also know Art Tatum and Duke Ellington," said Jamal to Holley. "However, it's not the same position with the so-called jazz musician, who has to be twice as good as the so-called classical musician and know both worlds in order to get work."

During his teen years, Jamal also explored his growing interest in jazz and was greatly inspired by Art Tatum, Teddy Williams, and, especially, a local bebop pianist named Erroll Garner. "Erroll was my major inspiration, not one, my major inspiration," he said, as quoted by Greg Fitzgerald for Nation Public Radio's Jazz Profiles. In fact, critics would later compare Jamal's technique to that of Garner, though many cite Jamal as a more intricate player. Because he used the full range of the keyboard in a more simple manner, Jamal was later able to present his trio as a scaled down orchestra of sorts.

At age 14, Jamal joined the musicians union. Upon graduating from Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh in 1948, he joined the George Hudson Orchestra in Atlantic City and embarked on a national tour. Winning significant critical acclaim for his solos, Jamal nonetheless learned a certain truth about playing before an audience. As he commented to Christy, "Performing is like being the matador in the bullring. You have to be constantly concerned about what you're doing or you get gored."

In 1949, Jamal started playing with violinist Joe Kennedy, Jr., and his group, the Four Strings. Kennedy, who grew up with Jamal, had always regarded the pianist as immensely talented. "When he was 13 or 14, his harmonic sense even way back then was beyond his years," Kennedy recalled to Holley. "One night we heard Art Tatum, and Ahmad played a tune for him, and Tatum said that that boy is a coming great." Led by Jamal's tight arrangements and minimalist approach, the quartet brought the "chamber jazz" sound into being. Jamal, by taking the popular standards of the day and adding to them Latin and blues rhythms and orchestral voicings, captured the attention of many within the jazz community.

Miles Davis, in particular, greatly admired Jamal's style. "Miles really listened and what he heard from Ahmad was the orchestra that Ahmad had under his fingers," bassist Jamil Nasser told Fitzgerald. "Miles was one of those sharp people who wasn't too hip to say 'this is the way I want to go.'" Later in his autobiography, Davis said of Jamal, "He knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrased notes and chords and passages." Throughout his own career, Davis recorded many of the same standards that Jamal played, including "A Gal in Calico," "My Funny Valentine," and "Surrey With the Fringe on Top." And on his 1959 Miles Ahead recording with Gil Evans, Miles transcribed "New Rumba," an original composed by Jamal, note for note. In addition to borrowing from Jamal's repertoire, he further insisted that his accompanying pianist, Red Garland, to try to sound like Jamal.

In 1950, Jamal worked as accompanist for the Caldwells, a popular song and dance team. Also that year, he formed his first trio, the Three Strings, with guitarist Ray Crawford (from the Four Strings) and bassist Eddie Calhoun. The group won extended engagements at such venues as the Blue Note in Chicago and the Embers club in New York City. While performing at the Embers, producer John Hammond "discovered" the Three Strings and signed them to Columbia's Okeh Records soon thereafter.

In 1956, Jamal constructed a new trio--consisting of bassist Israel Crosby, who replaced Calhoun in 1955, and a drummer instead of a guitarist--and took up residence as the house group at Chicago's Pershing Hotel. In 1958, drummer Vernell Fournier joined Jamal and Crosby, and the trio made a live recording. The resulting album, Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing, featuring his famous version of "Poinciana," earned recognition as a milestone in jazz recordings. Winning praise from jazz music listeners as well as critics, Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing rose to the top of the Billboard charts, where it remained for an astounding 108 weeks.

Spurred by the success of his trio's recording, Jamal recorded and toured non-stop in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He also opened his own non-alcoholic club, the Alhambra, in Chicago, which closed in 1962. Some years later, Jamal moved to New York and formed another trio with bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Frank Gant. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, several other noted jazz players received their start from Jamal. Bassist Richard Davis, composer/arranger Richard Evans, and drummer Walter Perkins, among others, all "graduated" from Jamal's trio.

Following the release of Digital Worksin 1981, featuring new versions of "But Not for Me" and "Poinciana," Jamal concentrated increasingly on original compositions. "I believe that we've done enough adaptation of popular songs," he said to Holley. "Now is the time for the musician to write his own repertoire rather than to keep resurrecting the things that are in somebody else's head." Although less accessible than his reworkings of popular standards, Jamal's own songs were decidedly more complex and evolved.

Jamal has continued to record and perform. In 2000, the Chess label re-issued Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing as a two-CD set under the title Cross Country Tour. Now in his seventies, he still plays with the same enthusiasm and brilliancy of a young man. "I've been described as intense," he told Christy. "Maybe it's true. You can't separate the man and the music. There are always tunes floating in my head. I'm always planning for the next performance.... If it's possible, I'm drawn to my music more deeply than ever before. When I pass a piano anywhere, I have to touch it or play it."

by Laura Hightower

Ahmad Jamal's Career

Began playing piano at age three and taking classical music lessons at age seven; toured with the George Hudson Orchestra touring, 1948; joined Joe Kennedy, Jr.'s the Four Strings, 1949; worked as accompanist for the Caldwells, formed his first trio, the Three Strings, 1950; released Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing, 1958; released Digital Works, 1981; released The Essence: Part 1, 1996. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Master of Jazz Award, 1994; Yale University, Duke Ellington Fellow, 1994.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

June 7, 2005: Jamal's live album, After Fair, was released. Source:,, June 7, 2005.

Further Reading



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