Ahmad Jamal: July 2, 1930 – April 16, 2023

Ahmad Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He began playing piano at the age of three, when his uncle Lawrence challenged him to duplicate what he was doing on the piano. Jamal began formal piano training at the age of seven with Mary Cardwell Dawson, whom he described as having greatly influenced him. His Pittsburgh roots remained an important part of his identity. “Pittsburgh meant everything to me and it still does,” he said in 2001. It was there that he was immersed in the influence of jazz artists such as Earl Hines, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams, and Errol Garner. Jamal also studied with pianist James Miller and began playing piano professionally at the age of fourteen, at which point he was recognized as a “coming great” by the pianist Art Tatum. Trained in both traditional jazz (“American classical music”, as he preferred to call it) and European classical style, Jamal was praised as one of the greatest jazz innovators over the course of his exceptionally long career. Following bebop greats like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Jamal entered the world of jazz at a time when speed and virtuosic improvisation were central to the success of jazz musicians as artists. Jamal, however, took steps in the direction of a new movement, later coined “cool jazz” – an effort to move jazz in the direction of popular music. He emphasized space between notes in his musical compositions and interpretations instead of focusing on the fast-paced bebop style. Speaking about Jamal, A.B. Spelman of the National Endowment of the Arts said: “Nobody except Thelonious Monk used space better, and nobody ever applied the artistic device of tension and release better.” These at the time unconventional techniques that Jamal gleaned from both traditional and contemporary jazz musicians helped pave the way for later jazz greats like Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton, Ethan Iverson, and  Bill Charlap. Billy Strayhorn Songs Inc. and the Billy Strayhorn Foundation honor the amazing life lived by this jazz giant.