His gifts changed the world!
Ahmad Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones in 1930 in Pittsburgh, The Guardian reports. A musical prodigy, he began playing when he was just three years old, learning by mimicking keys that his uncle played on the family piano. He very quickly learned sheet music and by seven, he was receiving formal training. By the age of 10, Jamal had already begun composing music, inspired by the works of early French classical composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Deubussy. His professional career was launched at the age of 14. He would spend his time performing in nightclubs, while doing school work in between sets.
By 1950, Jamal had married and moved to Chicago, converting to Islam and changing his name, something he viewed as a return to his true self.
“I haven’t adopted a name. It’s a part of my ancestral background and heritage. I have re-established my original name. I have gone back to my own vine and fig tree,” Jamal previously told reporters.
His expertise was jazz, which he referred to as “American classical music.” Jamal made a name for himself as a regular at Chicago’s Pershing Hotel, recording his 1958 album at the venue. Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not For Me, sold more than 1 million copies and stayed on the Billboard charts for more than 100 weeks, catapulting Jamal to superstardom. Just as jazz had begun to fade in favor of rock ‘n’ roll, Jamal had single handedly revived the art form.
Throughout his seven decade career, he would continue to reinvent himself time and time again, opening a nightclub in his home, touring on and off, holding a residency at New York’s Village Gate nightclub and earning virality for his versions of hit songs like the 1970 M*A*S*H* theme song. Known for his classical modernism, Ahmad’s innovation and influence in the genre was undeniable.
Legendary trumpeter Miles Davis has been quoted crediting Jamal, saying, “All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal… [He] knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, and the way he phrases notes and chords and passages.”
The composer and band leader has been heavily sampled across genres of music including hip hop, his work featured on songs by Jay-Z, Common, Nas and De La Soul. Jamal continued to perform into his ‘80s, named Jazz Master in 1994 by the National Endowment for the Arts and receiving a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2017. Jamal considered it a blessing to still be creating, calling his life a rhythm and his journey in music a continuous “discovery.”
“It’s a diving gift, that’s all I can tell you. We don’t create, we discover – and the process of discovery gives you energy…Rhythm is very important in music, and your life has to have rhythms too…There are very few authentic, pure approaches to life now. But this music is one of them, and it continues to be,” said Jamal.
The iconic jazz musician passed away this week at the age of 92 from prostate cancer. He is survived by his family and friends.
Rest in peace Ahmad Jamal. Because of you, we can!
Cover photo: Pioneering jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal has joined the ancestors/Ahmad Jamal, Marciac Jazz Festival, Aug. 3, 2016 in Marciac, France/Photo Courtesy of Remy Gabalda/AFP/Getty Images