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Famed jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal dies after prostate cancer battle



Acclaimed jazz pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal passed away on Sunday at age 92, ex-wife Laura Hess-Hey confirmed to The Washington Post.

According to The New York Times, his daughter Sumayah Jamal reported that Jamal died from complications related to prostate cancer. He passed away on April 16 at his Ashley Falls, Massachusetts home.

Born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1930, Jamal was age 3 when he began playing piano. As Pitchfork reports, singing instructor Mary Cardwell Dawson — who founded the National Negro Opera Company — provided his earliest musical instruction beginning in 1941. When Jamal was a teenager, noted pianist James Miller gave him lessons.

Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal speaks during the 2016 gala, “Jazz and Broadway,” honoring Diana and Joe Dimenna and himself on May 9, 2016 in Frederick P. Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for Jazz At Lincoln Center)

Jamal’s professional career began in his hometown at age 14, according to The Post. Billboard reports that he played in George Hudson’s Orchestra after graduating high school. In the late 1940s, he performed under the moniker Fritz Jones. His transition to Ahmad Jamal came after he moved to Chicago in 1950 and converted from the Baptist faith to Muslim.

In 1950, he also founded the piano-guitar-bass trio known as the Three Strings, which would become the house band for Chicago’s Black-owned Pershing Hotel lounge, a popular hotspot for Sammy Davis Jr. and Billie Holiday. He would later sign with Okeh Records, The Post reports. In 1955, according to Billboard, Jamal released his first full-length album, “Ahmad Jamal Plays,” on the Parrot label.

He released more than 70 albums during his six-decade career, including solo piano work, jazz trios and string quartet collaborations. The National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master in 1994 and he won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, Pitchfork reports.

According to The Post, critics praised his February 2020 Kennedy Center concert, a performance that came six months before his 90th birthday.

Many celebrated jazz greats have cited Jamal’s unique sound as an inspiration. Miles Davis once said “all my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal,” The Times noted. Davis became friends with Jamal and recorded two of his songs. As Pitchfork reports, Davis wrote in his 1989 autobiography that Jamal “never got the recognition he deserved.”

He inspired hip-hop, too. Many artist and and producers have sampled his recordings. Rappers Jay-Z, Common and Nas used the Ahmad Jamal’s Trio’s 1970 masterpiece “The Awakening” in their own tracks, according to The Post.

“The reward of being a musician is not money,” Jamal told The Boston Globe, The Post reported. “It’s the wonderful, indescribable feeling of knowing you’re performing at your highest level. It’s a spiritual feeling. You can always make money. But you can’t always latch onto your own spirit.”

In addition to Sumayah Jamal, the musician leaves behind two grandchildren.

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