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Exploring the Music of Ahmad Jamal on his birthday (July 2nd) Happy 84th Birthday, Ahmad!

Ahmad JAmalOn this date July 2nd in 1930  jazz, composer, pianist and educator Ahmad Jamal was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Now, while I have seen his name on the JazzWeek charts over the last several months when his latest release Saturday Morning (No 29 on the 2013 Jazz Week Year End Chart)  was on the charts. His name sounded sort of familiar, but I admit I didn’t know much about the man and his music. So when I read at Wikipedia today, that American music critic Stanley Crouch places him second in importance in the development of jazz after 1945 I was surprised. As I read on, I read….

Trained in both traditional jazz (“American classical music”, as he prefers to call it)[7] and European classical style, Ahmad Jamal has been praised as one of the greatest jazz innovators over his exceptionally long career. Following bebop greats like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Jamal entered the world of jazz at a time when speed and virtuosic improvisation were central to the success of jazz musicians as artists. Jamal, however, took steps in the direction of a new movement, later coined “cool jazz” – an effort to move jazz in the direction of popular music. He emphasized space and time in his musical compositions and interpretations instead of focusing on the blinding speed of bebop. Because of this style, Jamal was “often dismissed by jazz writers as no more than a cocktail pianist, a player so given to fluff that his work shouldn’t be considered seriously in any artistic sense”.[17] Stanley Crouch, author of Considering Genius, offers a very different reaction to Jamal’s music, claiming that, like the highly influential Thelonious Monk, Jamal was a true innovator of the jazz tradition Read More

and at AllMusic I read….

….One of the most individualistic pianists, composers, and arrangers of his generation, Ahmad Jamal’s disciplined technique and minimalist style had a huge impact on trumpeter Miles Davis, and Jamal is often cited as contributing to the development of cool jazz throughout the 1950s. Though Jamal was a highly technically proficient player, well-versed in the gymnastic idioms of swing and bebop, he chose to play in a more pared down and nuanced style. Which is to say that while he played with the skill of a virtuoso, it was often what he chose not to play that marked him as an innovator. Influenced by such pianists as Errol Garner, Art Tatum, and Nat King Cole, as well as big-band and orchestral music,Jamal developed his own boundary-pushing approach to modern jazz that incorporated an abundance of space, an adept use of tension and release, unexpected rhythmic phrasing and dynamics, and a highly melodic, compositional style. Read More

Ok so that explains a little of my lack of hearing about Jamal. First I have not really explored “cool jazz” all that much and secondly because he is often dismissed as nothing more than a “cocktail pianist”. Hum, often what we don’t understand we tend to minimize don’t you think!!  By that cocktail thing  people may be referring to the fact that he often plays ballads, about which Jamal says….

….. “I like doing ballads. They’re hard to play. It takes years of living, really, to read them properly.”[11] From an early age, Jamal developed an appreciation for the lyrics of the songs he learned: “I once heard Ben Webster playing his heart out on a ballad. All of a sudden he stopped. I asked him, ‘Why did you stop, Ben?’ He said, ‘I forgot the lyrics.'”[7]

When I read that last line, I though back to what Jane Ira Bloom said about playing ballads, and trying to sing the song through her saxophone! So after reading about Mr Jamal, I think that I have a new found respect for the man and his music. Hell, after I read that he taught himself to play at the age of three I had respect for him. Anyway, I went back and listened to “Saturday Morning”, again as I was writing this post, this time paying attention to the spaces in the music and sure enough there they were….. and if Miles thought that was great, who am I to argue. So Happy Birthday, Ahmad Jamal and thinks for your lasting impact on jazz music…….


Here’s a performance of “Saturday Morning” be sure to listen for those spaces……


Ahmad Jamal 
All About Jazz