In addition to his numerous awards, including the 2015 Honorary Doctor of Music degree from the New England Conservatory and the NEA Jazz Masters Award, Ahmad Jamal was just honored by the Recording Academy (formerly known as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) with a 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award for his “outstanding contributions of artistic significance to the field of recording.” This recognition prompted me to go back over some of his landmark recordings and, while so doing, I discovered some biographical information I thought might be of general interest.
For example, Jamal was born in Pittsburgh in 1930, just seven years after Erroll Garner was born in the same city! They each began playing at the age of 3, and attended the same elementary and high schools together. One can only imagine how much they influenced each other, but Ahmad mentions Garner as those among whose music he studied in his early days, along with Ellington, Nat Cole, and Art Tatum. Another early mentor was Mary Cardwell Dawson, a noted educator, and the person responsible for placing the first African Americans in The Metropolitan Opera Company. Under her tutelage, Jamal completed the equivalent of college master classes while still in high school.
Obviously precocious, he was composing and orchestrating at the age of 10, while learning the music of the Great American Songbook. His repertoire was so large that players three or four times his age hired him, gaining him membership in the musicians’ union two years earlier than the former minimum age of 16. He joined the George Hudson Orchestra, which also featured trumpeter Clark Terry and arranger Ernie Wilkins, a year later, and went on the road, playing the major venues around the country, including the historic Apollo Theater in NYC and The Howard Theater in Washington, DC.
His first trio, The Three Strings, featuring piano, bass, and guitar, caught the ear of producer John Hammond, who recorded them for Okeh records.
The Three Strings: "Ahmad’s Blues"
The Three Strings: "Billy Boy," arranged by Ahmad Jamal
He later changed the personnel to piano, bass, and drums, and with Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier, recorded what is now the iconic live album at the Pershing, But Not for Me, which features “Poinciana.”
Ahmad Jamal, "Poinciana"
“Poinciana” remained on the Top Ten charts for 108 weeks, which was unheard of for a jazz record. The resulting financial success made it possible for Ahmad to open his own club in Chicago, The Alhambra, which gave the trio a home base.
That recording continues to bring in the money and is still a crowd pleaser, being used by Clint Eastwood in The Bridges Of Madison County and by Martin Scorsese in The Wolf Of Wall Street. It has also been choreographed by dance companies the world over.
Another influential recording was his first Argo (Chess) Records album, that included “New Rhumba,” “Excerpts From The Blues,” "Medley" (actually “I Don't Want To Be Kissed”), and “It Ain't Necessarily So,” all later picked up by Miles Davis and Gil Evans for the Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess albums.
Ahmad Jamal “It Ain’t Necessarily So”
Ahmad Jamal “New Rhumba”
Interestingly, in a career that spans over 70 years, Jamal has never been a sideman. If you google him as a sideman, all that comes up is a guest spot on the 1994 Ray Brown Trio disc called Some of My Best Friends are…the Piano Players and another with Shirley Horn on her 2003 release May the Music Never End. He has always been a leader, a stylist, and an influence on many besides Miles, including McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock.
It is also surprising to find that Jamal has never won a Grammy! So, after all these years, and the many memorable recordings, it is nice that he should be honored with this Lifetime Achievement Award.