On Sunday, the jazz world mourned the loss of Ahmad Jamal—the legendary pianist who had been courageously fighting prostate cancer —at the age of 92.
Sumayah, daughter of the esteemed musician, unveiled that Jamal had passed away in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts.
Renowned composer and bandleader Ahmad is an absolute legend in the jazz community, garnering reverence from icons like Miles Davis for his six-decade-long career.
Jamal’s iconic I Love Music was creatively used as a sample in Nas’ classic rap track The World Is Yours, back in 1994.
In 2017, the maestro was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in recognition of his enduring impact on music and also received an accolade from the Kennedy Center as a ‘Living Jazz Legend’ ten years prior.
From the moment Jamal Ahmad was born in Pittsburgh on July 2, 1930, his notable talent shone through – by age three he had already begun taking piano classes.
Four years after launching his career, he started extensive professional training with opera director Mary Cardwell Dawson as his mentor. He dedicated himself to mastering the works of jazz legends like Earl Hines and Erroll Garner, captivated by their artistry.
Yet the Jazz luminary loathed being referred to as ‘Jazz’ and instead preferred to name his beloved genre “American classical music”.
At the tender age of 14, renowned pianist Art Tatum already saw Jamal’s potential and heralded him as a ‘coming great.’ Upon graduating high school in 1948, he swiftly moved on to touring professionally with George Hudson’s orchestra.
Born Frederick Russell Jones to a Baptist family, the maestro dedicatedly adopted Islam in 1950 and changed his name to Jamal Ahmad ever since.
In the 1950s, Jamal skyrocketed to success when he joined The Three Strings trio and sealed a recording contract with Okeh Records. His renowned 1958 record At the Pershing: But Not For Me permanently etched its name in Jazz history as one of the most influential albums ever produced.
As the decades passed, Jamal kept bringing his music to life through performance and recording. He became a mentor of jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara while also contributing songs to movies like The Bridges of Madison County and TV shows such as M*A*S*H.
In his 1989 autobiography, Miles Davis praised the pianist Ahmad Jamal and wrote, ‘All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal.’
The renowned trumpet player then continued to share that Jamal ‘knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrases notes and chords and passages.’
In 2013, Jamal told The Guardian: ‘The repertoire I learned as a child is vast. I listened to music from Tatum and Erroll Garner to Mozart.
‘I’ve composed since I was 10 years old – I used to do 20% my own pieces and 80% other people’s; now it’s turned the other way. After a certain time you discover the Mozart in you, the Duke Ellington or Billy Strayhorn in you.
‘It takes time to discover yourself. You also have to find and keep players who are in tune with what you’re doing; you have that empathy, the quality of breathing together.’