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Ahmad Jamal

One of the All Time Giants of Jazz

Ahmad Jamal is an acclaimed virtuoso jazz pianist, composer, and innovative trio leader who have entertained fans for five decades.  Miles Davis, Randy Weston, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Gary Peacock all cite Jamal as a major influence.  According to music critic Stanley Crouch, Jamal is second in importance in the development of jazz after 1945 only to Charlie Parker.  Ahmad has recorded 78 albums on the OKeh, Parrot, Epic, Argo, Atlantic, Dreyfus, Verve, Impulse, Telarc and other labels. Twenty two of those albums have been in the Top 50 albums on the Billboard Charts. His top selling “But Not for Me” reached number 3 on the Billboard charts in 1958.  Since the 1950s Jamal has appeared at concert halls, top clubs, and jazz festivals throughout the world.   His unique innovative music is characterized by his use of rhythm and space, multi-tonal melodic lines, extended 'vamps', and sudden surprising stark contrasts.  As a composer Jamal’s signature songs Ahmad's Blues, New Rhumba, Manhattan Reflections, Tranquility, Extensions, The Awakening, Night Mist Blues and If I Find You Again.

"All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal." - Miles Davis 

 "The most exciting, creative keyboard artist living." - Melody Maker (UK) 

 "No musician has had a more profound effect on the orchestral approach to small groups in the last 35 years than Ahmad Jamal." - The Village Voice 

Ahmad Jamal was born as Frederick Russell Jones on July 2, 1930 in Pittsburgh, Pa.  He grew up in the East End section of Pittsburgh, across the Larimer Avenue Bridge from East Liberty. His father toiled in the sweltering heat of the open hearth furnaces of a Pittsburgh Steel mill.  His mother was a maid.  Freddie "Fritz" Jones began playing piano at age three when his Uncle Lawrence challenged him to play what he was playing on the piano.  At age 7 he began formal piano studies with the noted African-American concert singer and founder of the National Negro Opera Company Mary Caldwell Dawson.  He also made his first radio appearance at age 7.   When Mrs. Dawson moved to Washington D.C., Ahmad studied with James Miller, who later taught pianist Horace Parland.  Jamal learned the classics from Dawson and Miller, but his attention was drawn to jazz when he heard Erroll Garner perform at Westinghouse High School and began collecting his recordings.  Jamal began playing piano in Pittsburgh clubs at just age 11 learning jazz from veteran Pittsburgh musicians.  

During his teens Ahmad attended Westinghouse High School and joined the Swing Band directed by the legendary music teacher Carl McVickers Sr.   McVickers also taught Billy Strayhorn, Erroll Garner, and several other jazz greats.  Continuing to work in the clubs of Pittsburgh Jamal played in the big bands of William Hitchcock, Joe Westrey and Jerry Elliott, and in small ensembles with Tommy Turrentine, Leroy Brown, Honeyboy Minor, Horace Turner, Carl Arter and Harold Holt.  He also played at all-night jam sessions at after-hours clubs like the Washington Club in the Hill and the American Federation of Musicians Local 471 Hall.  He saw Art Tatum one night at the Washington Club.

After graduating from Westinghouse High School in 1947 at the age of 17 Fritz Jones went on the road with Pittsburgher George Hudson’s band.  He joined another touring group known as The Four Strings in 1948 that included Pittsburgher Joe Kennedy.  When Joe Kennedy left the group Fritz became the leader of the Three Strings with bassist Eddie Calhoun and guitarist Ray Crawford.  He settled in Chicago in 1948.  Converting to Islam in the early 1950’s he changed his name from Fritz Jones to Ahmad Jamal.   

Legendary record producer John Hammond discovered Ahmad Jamal performing with the Three Strings at New York's Embers club and signed him to Okeh Records (a division of Columbia Records).  Jamal recorded two release with The Three Strings in 1951 and 1952.  His first release in 1951 was “Ahmad's Blues.”  He recorded “Chamber Music of Jazz” on the Argo label in 1955 with  Ray Crawford and bassist Israel Crosby.  Forming the Ahmad Jamal Trio with Crawford and drummer Walter Perkins they released album “The Ahmad Jamal Trio” on Epic in 1955.   Crawford left the trio around 1956 and was replaced by bassist Israel Crosby.

Jamal’ most famous recording was made in Chicago in 1958 at the Pershing Hotel with Israel Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier.  "Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not For Me" was a million selling album that soared to No. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100 album chart and stayed on the charts for 108 weeks.   It featured Jamal’s Latin-tinged version of ''Poinciana" that became his Jamal's signature tune.  With the proceeds of that album Jamal opened a restaurant and club called The Alhambra.

Jamal’s reformed his trio with bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Chuck Lampkin in 1962, when bassist Crosby left to join pianist George Shearing.  With that line-up Jamal released the albums Macanudo (1963), Standard Eyes (1967) Cry Young (1968). In 1969, Jamal began branching out other projects and different styles of music. The album The Awakening featured Brazilian songs.  On Freeflight and Outertimeinnerspace Jamal played the Fender Rhodes electric piano.  During the early 1980s, Jamal released several albums with and toured with vibraphonist Gary Burton.  He also performed frequently with drummer Idris Muhammad. Jamal signed with Atlantic Records in 1985 and release the albums Digital Works and Crystal. In the 1990s, Jamal released “I Remember Duke, Hoagy, and Strayhorn” on Telarc Records. Now in his tenth decade in music, Jamal continues to perform and record actively. Jamal's work been sampled several hip-hop artists, including Kanye West, DJ Premier from Gangstarr, and Jay-Z who sampled Jamal on his hit song "Feelin' It.

In 1994, Jamal received the National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Masters award and was also named a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University.  The French government inducted Ahmad Jamal into the prestigious Order of the Arts and Letters. French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, named him Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in of June 2007.  Jamal was given the Living Legends Award at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in  Washington DC on March 3, 2007.   In 2011 Jamal won the French Jazz Academy awards for ~ "Best Reissue of the Year" for the release "The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions". 

Ahmad Jamal loves Pittsburgh and its contributions to jazz. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post Gazette he said:  "This is one of the rare places in the world that creates the finest musicians. I don't think there's one interview where I don't mention Pittsburgh, because it's a very important place."


Ahmad