Ahmad: Dying into Life

When great jazz musicians die, those of us who loved their music mourn their loss by remembering their sound. We don’t rehearse and recast their lives; that’s for the obit writers to do. When I wrote about Wayne Shorter’s passing a couple of months ago, I complained that jazz’s “great practitioners often get more notice when they die than when they lived.”

That is certainly true with the recent death of Ahmad Jamal whom the unwashed would accuse of playing cocktail music and tinkle-tinkle piano. Now at least some writers have recognized that he created a wholly new sound for jazz—not only with his rhythmic displacements (which Miles Davis often acknowledged) but with his left-hand vamping approach.

That, as pianist Benny Green noted, “laid the template for the essential approach that’s been universally applied by influential pioneers such as Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea.” Add to that roster Keith Jarrett.

Ahmad also made marvelous resurrections of old sentimental yet rich pop and show tunes, a practice Bill Evans and others took up. His 1958 hit, “Poinciana,” made him popular and well-off. About that time I was studying graduate English at the University of Chicago, and friends and I would venture to the Pershing Hotel frequently to meet the man and hear his novel music.

The Pershing was just west of Hyde Park and the University, at 64th and Cottage Grove Avenue, a solid black middle-class neighborhood. The hotel’s lounge hosted many jazz greats. Ahmad was young, approachable, and played piano like no one else. I have a number of his albums from those days when he played with the great Israel Crosby (bass) and Vernel Fournier (drums).

Another 1958 success was his version and subsequent album “But Not for Me.”

After his “Poinciana” triumph Jamal went on to greater acceptance though recently, I think, was somewhat passed over as a member of the jazz pantheon. His music changed but was always strong and involving. Here’s what he did some years ago (1970) with Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance.”

Ahmad left us at age 92. For me there seems something magical and strange about dying at that age. My two good jazz friends, Sue Mingus and Sy Johnson, both died last year, also at 92. I keep wondering how and if I’ll catch up with them—and now with Ahmad Jamal.

7 Replies to “Ahmad: Dying into Life”

  1. I saw him not long ago. I sat behind him and to his right, with a clear view of his elegant, long fingers playing his divine music.
    As for your musings on longevity, I might point out that Roy Haynes recently celebrated his 98th birthday.

  2. John – When I first met you in Oaxaca thru our mutual friends Peter & Connie, we had an impromptu listening session at your house. You asked what I liked and I said Monk, so you played some very early Minton’s era stuff that I’d never heard. “Next?”, you asked. And I said “dealer’s choice.” You played Ahmad – can’t remember which album or cut – but it was the first time I’d paid attention to his singular pianism. I’ve been a fan ever since. Thanks for the intro and this appreciation. Charlie P.

    1. I remember your visit, Charlie. Very glad to have been your intro to Ahmad’s depth. When are you coming back this way?

  3. I had the good fortune of meeting Mr. Jamal twice and what stood out to me was that the poise with which he played was the same poise he had when talking to a fan. Here in Chicago his passing has been mentioned in more than a few media outlets, which actually surprised me.

    Living around the corner from where the Pershing used to stand, I make it a point of showing visitors where it once stood.

  4. Good piece, John. It gave me a new appreciation of Ahmed Jamal. And, of course, Wayne Shorter was a giant and a real favorite of mine.

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