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In Remembrance: Ahmad Jamal

Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal performs at the Louisiana Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Saturday, April 30, 2011.
Claude Paris
Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal performs at the Five Continents Jazz Festival, in Marseille, southern France, Friday, July 18, 2014.

Pianist Ahmad Jamal, who’s use of space and subtle rhythms redefined jazz, passed away in 2023 at age 92. He helped make “Poinciana” a jazz standard and was a big influence on Miles Davis.

Pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal was born July 2, 1930 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He attended elementary and high school with fellow pianist Errol Garner and became a professional musician at 14. Jamal joined the George Hudson orchestra at 17 and shortly after settled in Chicago, where he formed his own group in 1951.

Originally called the “Three Strings,” the Ahmad Jamal trio was drummerless with piano, guitar and bass. They arranged an extended engagement at Chicago’s Blue Note club in the early '50s.

In 1957, Jamal replaced his guitarist with drummer Vernell Fornier and settled in as the house trio for Chicago’s Pershing Hotel. To this day, Ahmad Jamal’s album But Not For Me: Live At The Pershing remains his most famous recording, featuring their hit version of “Poinciana."

Many popular recordings followed, most of them live, gaining the respect of Miles Davis, among others, who often spoke of Jamal’s use of space in his playing as a major influence in his music, and on his album Kind Of Blue.

In 1962, Jamal moved to New York but disbanded his trio – spending more than two years away from the music business before returning with bassist Jamil Nasser. The new trio stayed together for a decade, recording hit albums like 1970’s The Awakening.

Almost 20 years later, the music from The Awakening was finding favor in the world of hip-hop. Gang Starr’s DJ Premier was the first to sample music from the title track, followed by Jeru the Damaja, Common and Nas – who sampled Jamal’s “I Love Music” for his mid-90s hit “The World Is Yours.”

In 2009, Ahmad Jamal visited the KNKX studios for an exclusive session featuring longtime bassist James Cammack. Jamal told host Nick Morrison that he wasn’t a creator of music, but an "interpreter of creation."

“The old expression ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ is very true, ‘cause the atom has been here for years but we just discovered it, you know?" Jamal said. "We can discover, but we’re not creators as such. We can reflect creativity if we stay in tune with the elements, we can discover some things,” Jamal said.

Jamal was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, a Living Jazz Legend by the Kennedy Center, and in 2017 received the Grammy’s lifetime achievement award. Jamal’s last recordings in 2016 resulted in the trio album Marseille and the mostly solo Ballades, released in 2019.

Jamal retired from touring in 2020, at age 90, but his music continued to reach new audiences.

In 2022, recordings of Jamal’s trio at the Penthouse in Seattle were released for the first time: Emerald City Nights: Live At The Penthouse 1963-1964 and1965-1966. The performances were broadcast live and recorded for posterity by KNKX's Jim Wilke.

Pianist, composer, bandleader and inspiration to all jazz pianists who follow him – Jamal innovated jazz with a unique sense of rhythm and dynamics that brought to a trio the complexity of a well-arranged big band.

A version of this story was originally published April 10, 2023.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a third generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.