Ahmad Jamal

American jazz pianist (1930-2023)

Ahmad Jamal (born Frederick Russell Jones, July 2, 1930 – April 16, 2023) was an American jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, and educator. For six decades, he was one of the most successful small-group leaders in jazz. He was a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master and received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy for his contribution to music history.

Jamal in 1980




  • When my people were brought over here from Asia and Africa, they were given various names, such as Jones and Smith. I haven't adopted a name. It's a part of my ancestral background and heritage: I have re-established my original name. I have gone back to my own vine and fig tree.


  • [In response to a comment ("I sometime-get the feeling that Jamal would rather crawl into the piano than off the bench at the conclusion of a performance, so deeply involved is he in his music") by critic Philip Elwood] Maybe so. But I regret that I still don't have enough time to spend with my instrument. I think I could become more at one with it if I did.
  • It was 25 cents here, $6 there. At $6, one gets to thinking it's a lot of money. So then economics started dictating the direction of my career, and that's when I started devoting more time to jazz. When I got up to $60 a week, which was as much as my father was making, I said, well, this is it. And I was doing that before I left high school.
  • Miles, Thad Jones, Clark Terry, Gil Evans, myself—the reason we always stay young is because we've been part of three eras. We heard Lunceford, Hines, Basie at their peak--I was a sponge, I absorbed that era. Then it was the Gillespie-Parker era—we were still young, and again we sponged it up. Now we are living in the electronic age . . . and we're still listening.
  • A guy that knows all these electronic things may be great [...] but a guy who knows acoustic and electronic is better. Just like a guy who knows Mozart only may be great, but a guy who knows Mozart and Duke Ellington is better. And a guy who knows Mozart and Brahms and Ellington is even better . . . It's musical depth perception.
  • If you're applying for credit and write that you’re an insurance salesman, or a member of the Chicago Symphony, you won't have trouble. But just write "jazz musician" and you can't even buy a sofa on credit.
  • [On querying the permanent use of the word "jazz"] So was the word Negro ! Yet you hardly hear it anymore—it's now Afro-American or black. All sorts of linguistic changes are going on: Instead of chairman we now say chairperson in order to upgrade the position of women in our society. Jazz is an important-enough area of our culture to demand constant refinement.
  • Years ago, when I was growing up and bands like Basie and Ellington came to the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh, where I was born, they were called entertainers. You can hardly use that word today, when men like Max Roach and Jackie McLean have tenure as professors at major American colleges.
  • When 1 was 7, my mother arranged for me to take piano lessons. They cost one dollar a lesson. She was a domestic. She walked to work to save that dollar.
  • Performing is like being the matador in a bullring. You have to be constantly concerned about what you're doing or you get gored.
  • When I pass a piano anywhere, I have to touch it or play it.
  • "I do things differently," he asserts. "I put it down to my parents, and to being raised in Pittsburgh, which is unique. I was delivering papers to Billy Strayhorn's family when I was seven years old. It was Mary Lou Williams's town, Kenny Clarke's, Art Blakey's, Earl Hines's, Roy Eldridge's, George Benson's, Stanley Turrentine's, Earle Wilde [sic], the exponent of Liszt, Maxine Sullivan, Loren Mazel [sic] the conductor. My father was an open-hearth worker in the steel mills, but they got me playing the piano when I was three years old.
  • "I was playing Liszt's Eroica etudes when I was 11 . . . though I can't play it now." (Jamal reflects on this with a laugh.) "It all made me eventually settle on calling this great music 'American classical music' instead of jazz. It's the only art form that developed in the United States except for American Indian art. It managed to survive because it's so strong and so natural and so pure."


  • [Jazz and the European classical repertoire] In Pittsburgh we didn't separate the two schools [...] We studied Bach and Ellington, Mozart and Art Tatum. When you start at 3, what you hear you play. I heard all these things.
  • [When asked how he practiced] With the door open, hoping that someone would drive down my street in a big luxurious car and hear me! [...] I was never the practitioner in the sense of 12 hours a day, but I always thought about music. I think about music all the time.
  • 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." That's what Nat (King) Cole was talking about, "You have learn to live with a song."
  • [Jazz] interpreted the works of composers such as the Gershwins or Irving Berlin beyond their wildest dreams. Take the pianist Art Tatum; most of the body of work he did wasn't his own music, and yet it was totally his. That's a process that has allowed what is called jazz to add so much to the world's culture. Look at the Juilliard School, the New England Conservatory, institutions that wouldn't have thought of teaching Louis Armstrong – now Louis Armstrong is teaching them, they all have jazz departments, and they teach kids from all over the world.
  • I listened to music from Tatum and Erroll Garner to Mozart. I've composed since I was 10 years old – I used to do 20% my own pieces and 80% other people's; now it's turned the other way. After a certain time you discover the Mozart in you, the Duke Ellington or Billy Strayhorn in you. It takes time to discover yourself. You also have to find and keep players who are in tune with what you're doing; you have that empathy, the quality of breathing together.
  • [On maintaining high levels of energy into old age] It's a divine gift, that's all I can tell you [...] We don't create, we discover – and the process of discovery gives you energy
  • I'm still evolving, whenever I sit down at the piano [...] I still come up with some fresh ideas.
  • I always tried to divest myself of the music business. I wasn’t too thrilled with the music business at any time [...] So I have always sought to do other things.

About Jamal

  • Listen to the way Jamal uses space. He lets it go so that you can feel the rhythm section and the rhythm section can feel you. It's not crowded ... Ahmad is one of my favorites. I live until he makes another record.
    • Miles Davis The Jazz Review interview (December 1958), cited in Ian Carr Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography (Harper Collins, [1982] 1999), p. 100
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