Ahmad Jamal, Pioneering Jazz Pianist Who Influenced Both Miles Davis and Hip-Hop, Dies at 92

Ahmad Jamal, Pioneering Jazz Pianist Who Influenced Both Miles Davis and Hip-Hop, Dies at 92


Ahmad Jamal, one of the most elegant, eloquent and influential pianists and composers in modern jazz, died on Sunday, his wife, Laura Hess-Hey, and his daughter, Sumayah Jamal, told the Washington Pst. The pianist was 92 and died in Ashley Falls, MA, after a battle with prostate cancer.

Renowned for his economical and deliberate style, Jamal – born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh on July 2, 1930 – was an inspiration to jazz giants such as McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Bill Charlap and Miles Davis. The latter famously recorded Jamal’s composition “New Rhumba” for his 1957 album “Miles Ahead.”

In his 1989 autobiography, “Miles,” Davis stated that the pianist “knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrases notes and chords and passages.” Davis is also renowned for saying, “All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal.”


Jamal’s spare sense of uncluttered, open rhythm was also, oddly, an influence on such great hip-hop producers as J Dilla (De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High”), DJ Premier (Gang Starr’s “Soliloquy of Sadness”), Pete Rock (on “M.O.P.’s “Stick to Ya Gunz,” and Ski (Jay-Z’s “Feelin’ It”), all of whom sampled some of the pianist’s finest, funkiest work.

As an improvisationalist, Jamal was free before free jazz was a thing, and utilized repetition and ostinatos as some of his earliest signature touches.

Avant-garde pianist and producer Vijay Iyer told NPR that Jamal’s sense of time, “is that of a dancer, or a comedian. His left hand stays focused, and his right hand is always in motion, interacting with, leaning on, and shading the pulse.”

Producer, curator and Jazz Detective label owner Zev Feldman released two sets of previously-unheard Jamal performances as the 2022 debut for his new label in “Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse (1963-64)” and “(1965-66).”  Last week, on this writer’s Pacifica National Public Radio program “Theater in the Round,” Feldman called Jamal “a genius” and an “absolute joy to work with… a living legend.”


As they listened to the Penthouse club tapes, Feldman recalled, “Mr. Jamal was in the front seat the entire way. He reviewed every bit of every tape, made comments on the audio and how we might adjust things. We drove the release of those live albums together.”

Ahmad Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones on July 2, 1930 in a Pittsburgh, PA, neighborhood ripe with fellow jazz giants – pianists Errol Garner, Earl Hines and Mary Lou Williams lived within walking distance. Jamal delivered newspapers to Billy Strayhorn’s doorstep. By the time Jamal was 3 years old, he could duplicate nearly any piano solo that he’d heard. After beginning formal lessons at the age of 7 and professional career at 14, pianist Art Tatum hailed Jamal as a “coming great.”

“I studied Art Tatum, Bach, Beethoven, Count Basie, John Kirby, and Nat Cole,” Jamal told Wax Poetics. “I was studying Liszt. I had to know European and American classical music. My mother was rich in spirit, and she led me to another rich person: my teacher, Mary Cardwell Dawson, who started the first African-American opera company in the country.”

One of the earliest Black American artists to change his name when adopting the Muslim faith, Jones – who was born to Baptist parents – converted to Islam, changed his name during an tour stop in Detroit, and always prayed in Arabic in keeping with Muslim traditionalism.

Jamal began making his first records in 1951 with an ensemble called The Three Strings (later retitled the Ahmad Jamal Trio). This group became famous for their club residency at Embers in New York City when Billie Holiday producer John Hammond saw the band play and signed them to the Okeh label.

By 1957, Jamal’s Trio became doubly famous as the house band at Chicago’s Pershing Hotel and releasing its live album, “At the Pershing: But Not for Me.” With this success, Jamal opened his own jazz club in Chicago, the Alhambra, where he recorded several additional live albums until the club’s closing in 1961. Jamal also famously toured North Africa in 1959 to explore his ancestors’ homeland.

With the closing of the Alhambra, Jamal moved to New York City, and took a brief break from musical performance until recording new music in 1965 with albums such as “Extensions” and “The Awakening.” After those albums, he moved from strictly playing acoustic piano into working with electronics and electric piano on instrumental recordings such as “Suicide is Painless,” the theme song from director Robert Altman’s 1970 film “M*A*S*H*”, which was released on a 1973 reissue of the film’s soundtrack album, replacing the original vocal version.

During Jamal’s lifetime, he earned accolades such as being named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1994, received France’s Ordre des Arts and des Lettres honor in 2007, and honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.

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