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Jazz Appreciation Month: Pianist Ahmad Jamal

Pianist Ahmad Jamal performing with bassist James Cammack
Pianist Ahmad Jamal performing with bassist James Cammack

His playing influenced Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and no – we’re not talking about a horn player.  We’re talking about pianist Ahmad Jamal. Paige Hansen has more for our series during Jazz Appreciation Month.  

Since the early 1950s, Ahmad Jamal has been a driving force in jazz, profoundly influencing a number of musicians. Jamal's earliest recording sessions were with piano, bass and guitar; he soon replaced the guitar with drums. In each of these formats, Jamal's approach was groundbreaking.

The great critic Stanley Crouch wrote, "Through the use of space and changes of rhythm and tempo, Jamal invented a group sound that had all the surprise and dynamic variation of an imaginatively imagined big band."

This song – "Pavanne" – with its simple and charming melody, is one of Jamal's earliest recordings and one of his most influential. The tempo of Jamal's arrangement makes the song almost jaunty, and the interplay with the bass and guitar is precise yet loose. This recording inspired Miles Davis' composition "So What" and John Coltrane's "Impressions." 

Jamal was a child prodigy and began playing at age 3.  He studied privately and then played in clubs in his native of Pittsburgh as a teenager. He was immersed in the influence of jazz pianists like Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn and Erroll Garner.

His most famous recording, "Poinciana," became a hit record and was on jukeboxes and radio stations all over America. In "Poinciana," you can clearly hear the lightness and wonderful use of space — two of the many qualities of his music that Miles Davis prized and sought to emulate.

Jamal often adds a second percussionist to his work and will sometimes employ electric bass. He was also one of the first jazz musicians to make the move from analog to digital recording. In  1985, Jamal released Digital Works,  a vehicle for revisiting and re-imagining some of his earlier work, including this great groove called "One."

Ever-evolving and always engaging, Jamal is a jazz icon who refuses to rest upon his laurels and at the age of 90 is still influencing and mentoring musicians including pianist Hiromi.

Highlighting the virtuoso Ahmad Jamal during Jazz Appreciation Month – I’m Paige Hansen.

Paige Hansen has been heard on radio station 88.5 KNKX-FM for over 20 years where she’s hosted news & jazz. You can currently hear her hosting jazz weekdays & Sundays. She is also an active musician, writer and singer.