Unlike Yusef Islam (once known as “Cat” Stevens), Ahmad Jamal didn’t sacrifice his music in the wake of converting to Islam. While Jamal did abandon the name Fritz Jones, he didn’t lose his passion for jazz. In fact, with a musical career that has spanned more than five decades, Jamal is nothing short of legendary. Even at the age of 76, Jamal continues to create sounds that influenced one of the biggest names in jazz – Miles Davis.

Davis was said to have admired Jamal’s approach to piano in both the building of tension within his music and the sudden release of it all – the musical space that was created by silence was just as important was what was being played.

According to fans, in an early recording session of Kind of Blue, Davis asked his pianist to “sound more like Ahmad Jamal.”

The kind of tension and release that Jamal is able to generate in songs such as “Poinciana,” which boosted him to the top of the jazz scene in 1958, has left a mark on the world of music, even fifty years after the fact. Artists like J Dilla, Common and De La Soul sample Jamal’s virtuosic piano chords in their songs.

“Jamal is a living culture bearer – one who lived through many of the great developments in the jazz piano and in jazz-fusion,” said Musicology Professor Mark Clague.

This musical culture developed when jazz became the experience of men in New York and New Orleans after World War II, when it hit the basements of clubs and the streets of the city. It developed when these clubs banned black singers like Billie Holiday from singing with mixed-race bands. It developed when the radio airwaves shifted from playing music with a commercial swinging sound to a self-consciously artistic one. All these moments in jazz will be heard in Jamal’s performance.

If history could be brought back to life, it would be in this music. When the building cycle of a Jamal tune hits you, it’s like you’ve been transported back to Birdland.

Ahmad Jamal

Tomorrow at 8 p.m.

At Hill Auditorium


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