Remembering Ahmad Jamal

July 2, 1930 – April 16, 2023

A tribute to the innovative pianist

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Pianist Ahmad Jamal passed away on April 16, 2003, at the age of 92.

He was born on July 2, 1930, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he began playing piano when he was three and started lessons at seven.

Jamal began playing professionally at 14 and toured with George Hudson’s orchestra after graduating from high school in 1948.

He joined the Four Strings, a quartet led by violinist Joe Kennedy Jr; when Kennedy left, it became the Three Strings and eventually the Ahmad Jamal Trio.

With guitarist Ray Crawford (who sometimes hit his guitar rhythmically to simulate a conga) and various bassists (settling on Israel Crosby in 1954), the Three Strings made their first records for Okeh (1951), Epic (1952 and 1955), and Parrot (1954-55).

Jamal’s “less is more” style which made dramatic use of space, dynamics, and close group interplay was much different than the usual jazz trio of the time and made a major impression, particularly on Miles Davis who based a lot of his repertoire during the second half of the 1950s on the songs and arrangements of the Jamal Trio.

Among the numbers that Davis lifted from Jamal’s recordings were “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” “Will You Still Be Mine,” “Billy Boy,” “Ahmad’s Blues,” “A Gal In Calico,” “New Rhumba,” “All Of You,” and “I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed.”

In 1956 guitarist Crawford left the group and was succeeded by drummer Walter Perkins and then more permanently by Vernel Fournier.

Also that year Jamal began a long-time association with the Argo (later renamed Cadet) label.

Jamal’s group was the house trio at the Pershing Hotel in Chicago and had a major best-seller with the live recording At The Pershing: But Not For Me which included their classic version of “Poinciana.”

While “Poinciana” would be his biggest hit and a song that he played every night from then on, Jamal continued to evolve during this long career while retaining his individual style.

He had his own restaurant and club (The Alhambra) in Chicago for a year, broke up his trio with Crosby and Fournier in 1962, moved to New York, and headed other trios throughout the next 55 years.

Jamal’s more prominent sidemen in later years included bassists Jamal Nasser, John Heard, James Cammack, and Reginald Veal, and drummers Chuck Lampkin, Frank Gant, Herlin Riley, David Bowler, and Idris Muhammad.

While Jamal did a few projects on electric piano in the 1970s, that was only a temporary departure away from his acoustic sound.

Ahmad Jamal remained famous and quite busy throughout his long career, making his final recordings in 2016 and staying very active until declining health forced him to curtail his playing around 2020.

Ahmad Jamal is featured with his classic trio in 1959 with Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier, playing “Darn That Dream” in a medium-tempo and well-disguised version; among the onlookers are tenor-saxophonist Ben Webster.

-Scott Yanow


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