Jazz Profiles from NPR
Ahmad Jamal
Produced by Greg Fitzgerald

Ahmad Jamal  

Noted for his melodic improvisations, lean style, use of space, and deceptively simple embellishments, pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal has also brought the jazz trio to the highest levels of collective expression. His ensemble was one of the most popular trios of the 1950s and '60s and he has had a major influence on his fellow musicians.

Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones on July 2, 1930, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A child prodigy who began to play the piano at the age of 3, he began formal studies at age 7. While in high school, he completed the equivalent of college master classes under the noted African-American concert singer and teacher Mary Caldwell Dawson and pianist James Miller.

Listen to Jamal's childhood friend, violinist Joe Kennedy Jr., talk about the piano lessons they took together

After mastering his classical studies, Jamal heard a local pianist named Erroll Garner playing jazz and decided to head in the same direction. He joined the musicians union at 14, and upon graduation from Pittsburgh's prestigious Westinghouse High School at 17, he began to tour, drawing critical acclaim for his solos.

Listen to Jamal describe the influence of Erroll Garner on his music

In 1948, Jamal got his first professional gig playing with the George Hudson Orchestra. A year later he started playing with his friend Joe Kennedy Jr. and his group The Four Strings. With Jamal's tight arrangements and minimalist approach, the group recorded Chamber Music of the New Jazz. The album captured the attention of a young trumpeter named Miles Davis.

Listen to bassist Jamil Nasser discuss the effect of Jamal's music on Miles Davis

Jamal formed his first trio, The Three Strings, in 1951, with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Eddie Calhoun. While performing at The Embers club in New York, the group was "discovered" by legendary talent scout and producer John Hammond, who signed them to Columbia's Okeh label.

Live at the Pershing  

In 1956, Jamal switched to a piano-bass-drums format and two years later, with drummer Vernell Fournier and bassist Israel Crosby, Jamal recorded a live album at a jazz club in Chicago. That album, Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing, went on to become a classic and the track "But Not for Me" remained on the Billboard Top 100 for more than two years.

Today Jamal is still recording and entertaining devoted audiences all over the world. His playing is more physical and powerful and relies less on the subtle spacial qualities of his earlier work. His recent recordings and performances rely much more on his own compositions, though it's still difficult for concert-goers not to cry out for his popular 1958 tune "Poinciana."


View the Ahmad Jamal show playlist


ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Live at the Pershing

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org


More InfoBrowse the Official Ahmad Jamal Web site