Innovative pianist who preferred the term American classical music to jazz, and became a favourite of hip-hop artists
The dapper and sagacious Ahmad Jamal may have looked more like a UN delegate than a jazz musician, but he was recognised as a truly great jazz artist by some of the music’s most notable pioneers. Jamal, who has died aged 92, was hailed in the 1940s and 50s by Art Tatum and Miles Davis, and more recently by McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett. In the 90s, when a jazz piano-trio renaissance was being led by gifted newcomers such as Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, Geri Allen and Esbjörn Svensson, Jamal did not retire to the sidelines but played better than ever. The former Wynton Marsalis pianist and composer Eric Reed has said that Jamal is to the piano trio “what Thomas Edison was to electricity”.
He was a fascinating philosopher of contemporary music and a lifelong critic of the entertainment business, which he accused of fleecing African-American artists. Although he recognised the structural and technical distinctions of jazz and European classical music, he was adamant that there was no superiority of one over the other in what he called “the emotional dimensions”. “You have to know what the hell you’re doing,” he told me in 1996, “whether you’re playing the body of work from Europe or the body of work from Louis Armstrong.”
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