One of the subtlest virtuosos of jazz piano, Ahmad Jamal's uncanny use of space in his playing and leadership of his small ensembles have been hallmarks of his influential career. Among those he has influenced is most notably Miles Davis. Davis made numerous and prominent mentions of Jamal's influence on his playing, particularly in his use of space, allowing the music to "breathe," and his choice of compositions. Several tunes that were in Jamal's playlist, such as the standard "Autumn Leaves" and Jamal's own "New Rhumba," began appearing in the playlist of Davis' 1950s bands. Jamal's textured rhythms on piano influenced Davis' piano players as well, from Wynton Kelly in the 1950s to Herbie Hancock in the 1960s.
Jamal's piano studies began at age three, and by age 11, he was making his professional debut with a sound strongly influenced by Art Tatum and Erroll Garner. Following graduation from Pittsburgh's Westinghouse High School, he joined the George Hudson band in 1947. In 1949, he joined swing violinist Joe Kennedy's group Four Strings as pianist. This led to formation of his trio Three Strings in 1950-52, which debuted at Chicago's Blue Note club, and later became the Ahmad Jamal Trio. His 1958 album At the Pershing became a surprising smash hit, highlighted by his interpretation of "Poinciana." With the popularity of the album and the advocacy of Davis, Jamal's trio was one of the most popular jazz acts in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
For the most part, Jamal has worked in pianobass- drums trios, using the intricate relationship of the band to explore his sound, directing the trio through seemingly abrupt time and tempo shifts. His piano virtuosity has also been welcomed by a number of orchestras and his abilities as a composer are considerable. His approach has been described as being chamber-jazz-like, and he has experimented with strings and electric instruments in his compositions.
Among his many awards are the Living Jazz Legend Award from the Kennedy Center and the Officier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France.
At the Pershing/But Not for Me, Chess, 1958
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