Music critic Stanley Crouch has said that Ahmad Jamal is so important to jazz, he’s only bested by Charlie Parker in terms of influence. With a classical approach to jazz -- he even calls his bandmates his “orchestra” -- Jamal continues to be a master pianist, composer, and technician.
Jamal was born named Fritz Russell Jones on July 2, 1930 in Pittsburgh. He started his piano training at age 3 by mimicking his uncle, though he received more formal training four years later with Mary Cardwell Dawson -- a Pittsburgh art patron and a founder of the National Negro Opera Company. In fact, Jamal credits the Pittsburgh arts scene as a whole as being a major influence. He grew up to the sounds of fellow Pennsylvania jazz greats Earl Hines and Errol Garner.
He turned professional in his early teens, at the unbelievable age of 14. After playing one-off gigs throughout high school, he joined George Hudson's Orchestra immediately after graduating in 1948. Two years later, he moved to Chicago, where he changed his name to Ahmad Jamal after converting to Islam and began playing gigs in local clubs.
Some time in the early ‘50s, Jamal formed his own group, the Three Strings (also informally known as the Ahmad Jamal Trio). The band got their start playing at the Chicago club the Blue Note, but their big break came when they travelled to New York for a residency at the Embers. There, John Hammond -- one of the most famous producers of the day, who also helped launch the careers of Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie -- took note of Jamal and co. and signed them to Okeh Records. They made their recording debut in 1951 with the label, though they’d switch labels over the course of the decade.
In 1957, the group started a residency at Chicago’s Pershing Hotel, where they recorded the 1958 album At the Pershing: But Not for Me. This album would become a smash hit, staying on the top of the charts for more than 100 weeks. The single "Poinciana" became an instant hit. NPR’s Murray Horwitz and A.B. Spellman said the song became “standard dance music” around the U.S.
After a world tour and a brief, failed stunt as a club owner, Jamal disbanded the Three Strings and entered into semi-retirement in 1962. Two years later, he returned to music, teaming up with bassist Jamil Nasser until 1972. His first album after his hiatus was 1965’s Extensions, also a huge hit. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Jamal continued to perform and record with mostly trios, but occasionally added a guitar into the standard bass-drum-piano mix. His most well-known gig during this time was as the house band for the annual New Year’s Eve party at the D.C. club Blues Alley, where he played for nearly two decades.
In the past few decades, Jamal has received incredible acclaim for his contributions to jazz. In 1994, he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University. In 2007, he joined France’s Order of the Arts and Letters, an extremely prestigious group of worldwide artists.
Jamal’s career continues to this day. In fact, he released a new album, Saturday Morning, in 2013. For nearly four decades, he has refused to return to But Not For Me and play only his hits. He prefers instead to continue to break new ground.
One of Jamal’s greatest innovations in jazz is his treatment of individual instruments in a jazz ensemble. He composes for them like a classical composer, focusing on their individual sound and how it contributes to the overall whole, with solo departures and unified harmonies weaving in and out of his compositions. Although he’s commonly referred to as a bebop musician, because of his classical training, Jamals’ sound is widely considered more controlled and expansive than other bebop artists. In fact, many characterize it as a sort of fusion between big band and bebop.
It’s clear, though, that Ahmad Jamal has no need for labels. For more than 50 years, he has paved his own way.