Ahmad Jamal, the influential jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader, has died at the age of 92 following complications from prostate cancer.
Jamal was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and began playing piano at the age of three. As a teenager, he attended the prestigious Westinghouse High School, where he honed his skills as a pianist and composer. In 1949, Jamal moved to Chicago, where he linked up with musicians like Von Freeman and Claude McLin. It was during this time that he converted to Islam and changed his name from Frederick Russell Jones to Ahmad Jamal. He began performing as a solo pianist at clubs in Chicago and eventually formed his own trio in 1951, featuring guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Eddie Calhoun.
The Ahmad Jamal Trio — which later featured drummer Vernel Fournier and bassist Israel Crosby — gained notoriety following the release of their 1958 live album, At the Pershing: But Not for Me. Recorded at the Pershing Hotel in Chicago, the album spent over 100 weeks on the Billboard charts. Its standout track, “Poinciana,” showcased Jamal’s innovative approach to the piano trio format, incorporating space, subtlety, and intricate interplay between the various players. His ability to emphasize silence and restraint as much as sound set him apart from his fellow contemporaries and foster a new styling of playing that would come to be known as “cool jazz.”
Miles Davis, who was known for his own relentless pursuit of new sounds and ideas, cited Jamal as one of his favorite pianists and a significant influence on his own musical direction. That influence was evident in Davis’s use of space, his choice of repertoire, and even the formation of his own piano-bass-drums trio.
Throughout his career, Jamal explored new sonic territories. In the 1960s, he experimented with larger ensembles and orchestral settings, and in the 1970s, he delved into electronic music, incorporating electric piano and synthesizers into his work. Several of Jamal’s works would later be sampled by artists such as Gang Starr and Nas.
For his efforts, Jamal was a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2017.