Ahmad Jamal: a pianist who freed jazz

The legendary artiste, who passed away on April 16, was the earliest to call jazz ‘America’s classical music’, writes M R Jagadeesh
Last Updated : 21 April 2023, 20:20 IST

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About nine years ago, a day after the American Independence Day, we were fortunate to witness Ahmad Jamal’s maiden performance in India. The concert, held at Chowdiah Memorial Hall, was sold out. Sponsors had spared no efforts to ensure the performance went off successfully and smoothly. They even transported a Steinway grand piano all the way from Mumbai for the concert.

Just before the show in Bengaluru, Jamal had celebrated his 84th birthday in Paris. By then, he already had a staggering body of work spanning six decades.

Ahmad Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh in 1930. His prodigious talent at the age of seven was spotted by his uncle. He marvelled at his nephew’s prolific ability to memorise and play on the piano any score that he was given. By the time he was 10, Fredrick started to compose his own pieces. His formal training in European classical music began and besides Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin, Fredrick found himself attracted more to the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel — the two French composers who also influenced other greats of jazz such as Ellington and Bill Evans.

Somewhere along the way, Fredrick Russel Jones became Ahmad Jamal, like many African American personalities who converted to Islam, to ‘reestablish their African roots’. Growing up, Jamal was taken with the harmonies and dynamics of European Classical music.

In the bebop era of the 40s, like many of his contemporaries, Jamal performed the music of the times, or jazz standards. Slowly but surely, in his process of self-discovery, Jamal started infusing his own original works in his repertoire while reducing the set list of standards. Much of the harmonies in jazz have been ‘borrowed’ from European Classical music and evolved into something new in jazz. The term ‘jazz harmony’ today is well known and employed universally by musicians and audiences often recognize or attribute this to the sound of jazz. Jamal also started developing the use of the ostinato, making it his signature sound.

In the concert in Bengaluru, I watched as Jamal led with hand signals and by maintaining eye contact, which only his sidemen were privy to. He didn’t need a scoresheet or setlist. I’d stand up now and then to admire the interplay and exchange. Drummer Herlin Riley’s snare rolls and hi hat flourishes were backed by the neat basslines of James Cammack. Manuelo Bardena, who has performed with American jazz fusion band Weather Report, added percussion into the mix.

Jamal is considered a drummer’s dream. Using ostinato (similar to the lehera of Hindustani classical music), he was known to also give his sidemen space to showcase their skills.

Jamal was probably the earliest to call jazz ‘America’s Classical Music’. It is no mean feat that jazz giants such as Miles Davis named Jamal as being one of his greatest influences. He was even quoted saying Jamal ‘knocked him out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, and the way he phrases notes and chords and passages’. His music has made its way into hip-hop too, sampled by DJs and hip-hop artistes.

Ahmad Jamal died last week at 92. Long before the term ‘free jazz’ was invented, Jamal had freed himself in his improvisation and steered jazz in a new direction, especially in the most difficult and challenging times, leaving behind a legacy for generations to come.

(The writer is the director of Bangalore School of Music)

Published 21 April 2023, 19:24 IST

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