Ahmad Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh, in 1930. He converted to Islam and changed his name to Ahmad Jamal when he was twenty. Jamal became interested in jazz after moving to Chicago, where he was part of a touring group called the Four Strings.
He released his first album at age twenty-one, but it was “Live at Pershing,” recorded in Chicago in 1958, that changed the direction of his music, and ultimately tilted the world of jazz. At a time when bebop was popular and musicians packed as many notes as possible into a measure, Jamal focused on space, touch and restraint. In doing so, he helped shape “cool jazz.”
Despite his influence in Miles Davis and others, Jamal is largely unnoticed by historians and critics. And he was unknown to me, until this week I started reading the memoir of producer Nile Rodgers, whose young mother in 1950s New York established herself as a beatnik by listening to Ahmad Jamal.