Ahmad Jamal, (b. Frederick Russell Jones), an American jazz pianist known for his rendition of But Not ForMe, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 2, 1930.
Ahmad Jamal began playing piano at the age of three, when his uncle Lawrence challenged him to duplicate what he was doing on the piano. Jamal began formal piano training at the age of seven with Mary Cardwell Dawson, whom he describes as greatly influencing him. His Pittsburgh roots remained an important part of his identity ("Pittsburgh meant everything to me and it still does," he said in 2001) and it was there that he was immersed in the influence of jazz artists such as Earl Hines, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams, and Erroll Garner. Jamal also studied with pianist James Miller and began playing piano professionally at the age of fourteen, at which point he was recognized as a "coming great" by the pianist Art Tatum.
Born to Baptist parents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Jamal did not discover Islam until his early 20s. While touring in Detroit (where there was a sizable Muslim community in the 1940s and 1950s), Jamal became interested in Islam and Islamic culture. He converted to Islam and changed his name to Ahmad Jamal in 1950. In an interview with The New York Times a few years later, Jamal said his decision to change his name stemmed from a desire to "re-establish my original name." In 1986, Jamal sued critic Leonard Feather for using his former name in a publication.
After the recording of the best-selling album But Not For Me, Jamal's music grew in popularity throughout the 1950s. In 1959, he took a tour of North Africa to explore investment options in Africa. Jamal, who was twenty-nine at the time, said he had a curiosity about the homeland of his ancestors, highly influenced by his conversion to the Muslim faith. He also said his religion had brought him peace of mind about his race, which accounted for his "growth in the field of music that has proved very lucrative for me."
Upon his return to the United States after a tour of North Africa, the financial success of Live at the Pershing: But Not For Me allowed Jamal to open a restaurant and club called The Alhambra in Chicago. In 1962, The Three Strings disbanded and Jamal moved to New York City, where, at the age of 32, he took a three-year hiatus from his musical career.
In 1964, Jamal resumed touring and recording, this time with the bassist Jamil Nasser and recorded a new album, Extensions, in 1965. Jamal and Nasser continued to play and record together from 1964 to 1972. He also joined forces with Vernel Fournier (again, but only for about a year) and drummer Frank Gant (1966–76), among others. He continued to play throughout the 1970s and 1980s, mostly in trios with piano, bass and drums, but he occasionally expanded the group to include guitar. One of his most long-standing gigs was as the band for the New Year's Eve celebrations at Blues Alley in Washington, D. C., from 1979 through the 1990s. Until 1970, he played acoustic piano exclusively. The final album on which he played acoustic piano in the regular sequence was The Awakening. In the 1970s, Jamal played electric piano as well. It was rumored that the Rhodes piano was a gift from someone in Switzerland.
In 1985, Jamal agreed to do an interview and recording session with his fellow jazz pianist, Marian McPartland on her NPR show Piano Jazz. Jamal, who said he rarely plays "But Not For Me" due to its popularity since his 1958 recording, played an improvised version of the tune – though only after noting that he has moved on to making ninety percent of his repertoire his own compositions. He said that when he grew in popularity from the Live at the Pershing album, he was severely criticized afterwards for not playing any of his own compositions.
In 1994, Mr. Jamal received the American Jazz Masters fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts. The same year he was named a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University, where he performed commissioned works with the Assai String Quartet.
In 2007 the French Government inducted Mr. Jamal into the prestigious Order of the Arts and Letters by French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, naming him Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Mr. Jamal’s previous recording A Quiet Time (Dreyfus Records), released in January 2010, was the number #1 CD on jazz radio for the year 2010 and continues to soar. Also this year the French Jazz Academy has voted "The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions 1956-1962" released by Mosaïc "Best reissue of the year with outstanding research work". His music remains, youthful, fresh, imaginative and always influential.
In December of 2011 Mr. Jamal was awarded with DownBeat’s 76th Reader’s Poll Hall of Fame.