Celebrated pianist-composer Ahmad Jamal continues his performance schedule at home in the U.S. and around the world, as he has for the last seven decades. Noted for his outstanding technical command and identifiable sound as a piano stylist, Jamal was born on July 2, 1930, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A child prodigy who began to play the piano at the age of three, he began formal studies at age seven. While in high school, he completed the equivalent of college master classes under the noted African-American concert singer and teacher Mary Cardwell Dawson and pianist James Miller. He joined the musicians’ union at the age of 14, and he began touring upon graduation from Westinghouse High School at the age of 17, drawing critical acclaim for his solos. In 1951 he formed his first trio, The Three Strings. Record Producer John Hammond “discovered” The Three Strings performing at New York’s The Embers Club, and signed them to Okeh Records when this imprint was revived as a base for jazz and R&B releases under the Columbia (now Sony) umbrella.
Working as the “house trio” at Chicago’s Pershing Hotel in 1958, Jamal, with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier, made an on-location recording for Argo (Chess) Records entitled But Not For Me. The resulting hit single and album, which also included Poinciana—now Jamal’s trademark—remained on the Top 10 Best-Selling charts for an unprecedented 108 weeks. The resulting financial success enabled Jamal to realize a dream, and he opened a restaurant/club, The Alhambra, in Chicago. Here the trio was able to perform while limiting their touring schedule.
Although Jamal performs in many configurations and with many other jazz artists, the solo and trio formats form the core of his work. Following his Crosby/Fournier configuration, his trio with bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Frank Gant dominated his large recorded output, as well as concert dates, from the mid-1960s to the mid-'70s. His current quartet is with bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley, and percussionist Manolo Badrena.
Considering his trio “an orchestra,” Jamal not only achieves a unified sound, but subtly inserts independent roles for the bass and drums. The hallmarks of Jamal’s style are rhythmic innovations, colorful harmonic perceptions, especially left hand harmonic and melodic figures, plus parallel and contrary motion lines in and out of chordal substitutions and alterations and pedal point ostinato interludes in tasteful dynamics. He also incorporates a unique sense of space in his music, and his musical concepts are exciting without being loud in volume. Augmented by a selection of unusual standards and his own compositions, Jamal would notably impress and influence, among others, trumpeter Miles Davis.
In 1970, Jamal performed "M.A.S.H. Theme (Suicide Is Painless)," the title composition by Johnny Mandel for the soundtrack of the film M*A*S*H and in 1995, two tracks from his smash album But Not For Me—Music, Music, Music, and Poinciana were featured in the Clint Eastwood film The Bridges of Madison County.
In 1994, Jamal received the American Jazz Masters fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts. The same year he was named a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University, where he performed commissioned works with the Assai String Quartet.
In June of 2007 the French Government inducted Jamal into the prestigious l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Former recipients being William Faulkner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jackson Pollock, Ella Fitzgerald, Alan Ginsberg and Toni Morrison.
Ahmad Jamal's music remains youthful, fresh, imaginative and always influential. His most recent recording, from 2014, is a two-CD-plus-DVD live set with flutist Yusef Lateef from the Olympia theatre in Paris. His 2008 recording It’s Magic hit the charts at No. 13 immediately after its release in the U.S., being touted as one of his finest works yet to date. Hailed by critics as a career highlight, the album graced the Billboard Top Jazz Albums chart, the iTunes Jazz Top 10, and peaked at No. 2 on the Jazz Week Radio Chart In France. Jamal was awarded Best International Album (Album International de Production Francaise) by Les Victoires du Jazz, the French equivalent of the Grammys. The album also garnered Record of the Year from Jazz Man magazine.
New England Conservatory (NEC) will bestow honorary Doctor of Music (hon. D.M.) degree to Ahmad Jamal at its 144th annual Commencement Exercises, Sunday, May 17 at 3 p.m. in NEC’s Jordan Hall.