Jamal was a jazz innovator known for his minimalistic and restrained playing, which laid the groundwork for “cool jazz.” He is perhaps best known for his arrangement of the jazz standard “Poinciana,” which appears on his best-selling 1958 album Live at the Pershing: But Not For Me, and the 1970 Ahmad Jamal Trio album The Awakening.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Jamal began playing piano at age three. He studied under Mary Cardwell Dawson—noted singing instructor and founder in 1941 of the National Negro Opera Company—at the age of seven, and pianist James Miller during his early teens. By the time he turned 17, Jamal began touring in George Hudson’s Orchestra. In 1951, Jamal moved to Chicago and founded his first trio, the Three Strings. They were discovered by John Hammond, who signed them to Okeh Records. Later the same year, Jamal released his first album as a bandleader, Ahmad’s Blues, on the label. The Three Strings became the house trio at Chicago’s Pershing Hotel in 1958, and it was during their residency there that they recorded the now-legendary But Not For Me.
In a 1985 interview with NPR, Jamal said jazz is “sort of a unifying force” across generations. “[In Pittsburgh] I used to practice and leave the door open hoping that someone would come along and discover me one of these days. It never happened. I had to leave home for that,” he laughed. “I was asked a few days ago, we were doing a seminar in Kansas City at the university there, and a young man asked me what is my favorite product, my favorite LP or whatever, and I said, ‘The next one.’ The most put-together one, or the one I think was close to artistic perfection, as much as I can get to my own person, would be 628, the one At the Pershing. I made one mistake though!”
Throughout his six-decade career, Jamal released over 70 albums, ranging from solo piano work to jazz trios to collaborations with string quartets. His last was 2019’s Ballades. Two years prior, in 2017, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his work.
The Awakening, Jamal’s 1970 masterpiece recording with Jamil Nasser on bass and Frank Gant on drums, has been sampled in tracks by Gang Starr, Shadez of Brooklyn, and Nas. Miles Davis also considered Jamal a huge influence, writing in 1989, “I have always thought Ahmad Jamal was a great piano player who never got the recognition he deserved.”