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Pianist Ahmad Jamal may have had a bigger impact on jazz than you think

Caught up in the end-of-the-millennium hoopla last year, Jazz Times asked 300 musicians to vote for Jazz Artist of the Century. The ballot included five obvious names: Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, and space for write-in votes and comments. Many comments were published in the December 1999 edition, but none were as provocative as this left-field salvo from pianist Hal Galper: "Ahmad Jamal has had as much influence on jazz as Louis, Duke, Bird, Coltrane and Miles. Sure, Miles gave him the nod from time to time, but Ahmad's major contributions have yet to be recognized."

Widely respected and influential as a pianist, the 69-year-old Jamal is not usually put on the same pedestal as Ellington, et al. Sure, Jamal's 1958 album, Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing, stayed on Billboard's album chart for 108 weeks, going as high as No. 3. Sure, he has contributed some important songs, such as "Ahmad's Blues," to the jazz repertory. But when it comes to jazz history books, encyclopedias, magazines and textbooks, Jamal rarely gets elite treatment. A review of exactly what Jamal did during the '50s suggests he should.

Raised in Pittsburgh, Jamal started playing the piano at the age of three and began his formal studies when he was seven, about the same time he started delivering papers to Billy Strayhorn's family. Jamal attended the same elementary school and high school as his idol, Erroll Garner. Many of Garner's ideas rubbed off on Jamal, including his sense of formality and use of dynamics. Aside from Garner, Jamal's main influences included Nat "King" Cole, Earl Hines and Art Tatum; he incorporated aspects of their styles into his playing, including Cole's light, open, airy beat and Tatum's harmonic inventiveness.

Ahmad Jamal left some major impressions on Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
Jacques Beneich
Ahmad Jamal left some major impressions on Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

In 1951 Jamal moved to Chicago. His trio featuring bassist Israel Crosby and guitarist Ray Crawford, who would be replaced by drummer Vernell Fournier in 1956, eventually took up residence at the Pershing Hotel, where the trio became a local hit and Jamal refined his style. It wasn't long before the innovative Jamal started getting the attention of other players.

Jamal's most important contribution was his use of space, something he skillfully employs to this day. Compared to the piano kings of the early 1950s -- Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Bud Powell -- Jamal seemed almost minimalist, playing fewer notes and using silence to his advantage. By allowing the music to breathe, Jamal made fast runs even more dramatic. His arrangements were inventive, and Jamal often drove crowds into a frenzy with simple embellishments, powerful dynamics and a thrilling use of tension and release, all of which were new at the time.

Ramsey Lewis, whose trio was also playing in Chicago during the '50s, was one of the many pianists paying close attention. "Many times we would hightail it out to the South Side [after a gig] to see Ahmad Jamal, Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier, because the trio was really playing great music as a very cohesive unit," says Lewis. "Having the occasion to go and hear him was simply a delight, because he had the room rocking. It was always packed, and it was always a happy feeling at the Pershing when Ahmad was playing there."

Jamal's style floored other pianists such as Bill Evans, Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan. Among his many other contributions, Jamal redefined chord voicings. "Ahmad was the first one to introduce the new left-hand voicings on the piano [in the '50s]," Galper says in a telephone interview from his home in Boston. "Bud Powell's left-hand voicings were very simple and very open. They allowed the right hand a lot of freedom. Ahmad Jamal had more notes in the left hand. They were richer left-hand voicings, which meant you had to play more disciplined lines in the right hand. Everybody was flipping out over these new voicings, like, 'What are those?' "

While Jamal influenced several pianists, he seems to have had the biggest impact on trumpeter Miles Davis. The chameleonlike Davis, a champion of Jamal's ideas and styles, integrated elements of them into his horn playing, most notably the use of space and melodic understatement. Davis had applied these influences during the Birth of the Cool sessions of '49 and '50 before he even heard Jamal, but noticeably ignored them during his heroin-plagued early-'50s work. Upon hearing Jamal, Davis refocused his energies on those concepts.

In the mid-'50s Davis even once told his pianist, Dallas-born Red Garland, to play like Jamal. The trumpeter was so enamored with Jamal's sound that he studied every aspect of the trio, even telling his drummer, Philly Joe Jones, to emulate Crawford's percussive effects and accents. Davis recorded songs from Jamal's set list and in many instances used Jamal's arrangements. Some of Davis's versions, according to Galper and Jamal, were note-for-note copies of Jamal's arrangements.

"Miles is the great promoter of Ahmad," says Galper. "It is through Miles's promotion of Ahmad that the music got changed, but it was Ahmad's ideas that set it all up. Miles kind of overshadowed Ahmad. He didn't give Ahmad enough credit."

By the mid-'50s a now-clean Davis was leading jazz's most potent and most copied ensemble, one often credited with several innovations, including techniques and concepts borrowed from or inspired by Jamal. Of course, Davis's group did forge its own identity, and made its own innovations, and Jamal was just one of many influences on Davis. "Miles made no qualms about the fact that at that point he thought Ahmad was the freshest thing out there," says Lewis. "In jazz, it's sort of like building blocks. What came before and sometimes during contributes to all of us, no matter who it is. We're all a hodgepodge of everything that was before and still is."

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