American jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, who was a major influence in jazz music for more than seventy years, has died at the age of 92. His daughter Sumayah tells The New York Times that he died of prostate cancer. Numerous jazz greats, including Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, said they were indebted to him.
Jamal, who converted to Islam later in life and changed his name, was born Frederick “Fritz” Russell Jones in 1930 in Pittsburgh. From the age of three he learned to play the piano from Mary Cardwell Dawson – later founder of the National Negro Opera Company – and at the age of fourteen he became a professional musician. Because of his virtuosity, he was already noticed as a child by big jazz names such as Art Tatum.
For Jamal, who was also classically trained, jazz music was “American classical music”. “We studied Bach and Ellington, Mozart and Art Tatum. When you start at three, you play what you hear,” he once said of his influences.
Understated style in bebop era
As a jazz musician, Jamal grew up in the time of bebop music: the complex and rhythmic jazz that is often interspersed with rushed improvisations. His own style soon deviated: he played subdued pieces that are characterized by tranquility through his use of silence between notes.
This style break with fast bebop gave Jamal his first major commercial success in 1958 with the record At the Perishing: But Not for Me. That success album was followed by more than sixty others. The prizes for his music were also numerous. In 2017 he won another Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys and in 2019 he was inducted into the French Order of Arts and Letters.
Jamal’s quieter jazz changed the genre and peers often compare his influence to that of jazz legend Thelonius Monk. “All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal,” his lifelong friend Miles Davis wrote of him in his memoir. The iconic jazz trumpeter praised “Jamal’s concept of space, his soft touch, his restraint and the phrasing of his notes, chords and his passages”.
Not only fellow jazz musicians were inspired by Jamal. Hip-hop artists and formations such as De La Soul, Jay-Z, Common and Nas also sampled his music. Actor and director Clint Eastwood used Jamal’s music for the soundtrack of his film The Bridges of Madison County.
Records by Jamal continued to be released into old age, with two more live albums last year. A third album will follow this year. “I’m still developing when I sit down at the piano,” he said last year, now very old. “I can still get fresh ideas.”