WUSF All Night Jazz Focus Artist of the Week: Pianist Ahmad Jamal

 

This week on All Night Jazz, we’ll focus on pianist Ahmad Jamal as we celebrate his 90th birthday. Born on July 2, 1930, Jamal is one of a long line of legendary Pittsburgh jazz men.  “Pittsburgh meant everything to me and it still does, “ he told Gerald Early in his book “Miles Davis and American Culture.” Jamal was a prodigy, encouraged by an uncle to play piano at the age of three.

He began playing professionally at the age of 14, with none other than Art Tatum as an early fan. After high school he joined a small touring group led by violinist Joe Kennedy called the Four Strings. It was a stripped down format which allowed Jamal to develop his style.

He was eventually discovered by A&R genius John Hammond, who also discovered Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday. Hammond signed Jamal to a subsidiary of Columbia called Okeh, where Jamal cut his first recordings.

Jamal relocated to Chicago and began a residency in the lounge at the Pershing Hotel in 1957. In 1958 Jamal convinced Leonard Chess of Chess Records to allow him to record a live album at the Pershing and the result was “Live at the Pershing Lounge: But Not For Me.” It was a massive success, staying in the Top Ten for over 108 weeks and selling over 1 million copies. Jamal recalled later he whittled down the repertoire from 43 songs to the eight that appeared on the recording, using only standards.

“It took me weeks,” he says, “but I chose the eight tracks very diligently.” Interestingly, Jamal didn’t include any of his own compositions. “I was very naive,” he laughs. “But, you know, I can’t argue with the American songbook. I neglected to put in my compositions, but the result was beyond my wildest dreams. It became one of the biggest records in the history of Chess.”

Jamal’s cover of the  Latin tinged “Poinciana” has become a beloved jazz standard. Miles Davis claims he was heavily influenced by Jamal and recorded several of his songs including “New Rhumba.”

In a publicity interview with Universal Music, Jamal said, “Miles was a great supporter of mine. We were both contemporaries, even though he was a little bit older. We were also neighbors. There was an attempt to get Cannonball, Miles and I on record but it was not successful.

When we were at The Pershing, he was downstairs in another room they built for music, so he was able to come upstairs and see my group.” Jamal still tours and records.

We’ll hear pianist Ahmad Jamal all this week on All Night Jazz.