Legacy Of Ahmad Jamal: Jazz Legend Who Found His Way To Islam

Exclusive promotional portrait of jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal leaning with one arm over the keys of a piano. Image: James J. Kriegsmann, Getty Images


Ahmed Jamal was a legendary jazz pianist known for his unique playing style and innovative improvisation who converted to Islam at the age of 20, finding harmony between his music and faith

Ahmad Jamal, one of the world's most influential jazz pianists who influenced hundreds of musicians throughout his 70-year music career, passed away on April 16, leaving behind hundreds of compositions. As a fellow musician, I felt we owe him a debt of gratitude and thought it was important to write about Ahmad Jamal. It was disappointing that in Türkiye, apart from some brief news articles stating "Ahmad Jamal passed away," there was no other news coverage even though he was one of the most influential jazz pianists in the world.

For this very reason, inspired by his decision to convert to Islam at the age of 20 and how it was reflected in his music, I decided to honor him in an article.

Starting from the 1940s, some black jazz musicians adopted Islam as their religion. Over time, some black musicians became Muslims, particularly in the 1960s. In a 1959 interview, Ahmad Jamal said: "When my people were brought here from Asia and Africa, they were given various names like Jones and Smith. I didn't acquire a name. So as part of the history and heritage of my ancestors, I redefined my original name. I returned to my origin and became Ahmad Jamal."

Some of these Muslim musicians developed their unique style of music, moving away from the famous bebop jazz era in the 1940s. At that time, and even now, there was a bias that "rock, jazz or pop music is only for Christians, and Muslims cannot make it." These musicians broke this prejudice.

For this, my particular interest lies in the musicians who chose Islam.

In the 1950s and '60s, many African American figures such as Mohammed Ali, Malcolm X and Idris Muhammed converted to Islam. However, this didn't always prevent cliche news about religion from being used in the media. Some even went so far as to suggest that Ahmad Jamal converted to Islam because he was a distant cousin of Malcolm X, who also converted during the same period. However, this information was denied by Ahmad Jamal himself.

Composers and musicians such as Yusef Lateef, Max Roach, Abdullah Ibrahim, Art Blakey and Ahmad Jamal have shown audiences worldwide that jazz carries no language or cultural barriers from an Islamic perspective but instead can be a universal language of communication. But, of course, they faced racist rhetoric and had to fight musical battles. For example, Ahmad Jamal's bank accounts were blocked during a concert in Germany for a ridiculous reason; they mistook him for a terrorist because of his name and surname. Isn't that a joke?

After converting to Islam, Ahmad Jamal responded to questions about his religious conversion by saying, "Listen to my music; the answer is there." During his performances, he would ask the audience to be quiet during the call to prayer and even took short breaks for prayer during concerts. His album "After Fajr," also my favorite, was inspired by the morning prayer. Along with Ahmad Jamal, all the musicians mentioned above are people from whom I draw inspiration, not just from their music but also from their life stories and perspectives. You don't have to be a musician to gain inspiration from them; their attitudes toward life can teach us a lot.

In 2006, after giving a concert in Istanbul, Jamal was interviewed by Esra Okutan for the Mesam magazine. When asked about his religious conversion, Okutan asked: "Your name was Fritz Jones. How did you choose Islam?" Jamal replied: "My name is Ahmad Jamal. I was born a Muslim." When Okutan asked the question again, she received the same answer.

After examining Jamal's English interviews individually, I found the part where he explained why and how he converted to Islam.

"Usually, I don't give interviews because I express what I want to say through the piano. My name is Arabic, but I prefer not to get into religious debates. Because life taught me that if I waste my time talking to fools, I will eventually start speaking like them. I take my outlook on life from the Quran. My life motto is 'Love for all, hatred for none.' When I was 21 and studying philosophy of religion, I chose Islam because it led me from darkness to light and helped me find direction," he said.

Many critics in the jazz world hailed Jamal as the legendary figure that came after the genius Charlie Parker in jazz. Unfortunately, some jazz critics and historians have not given him the importance he deserves, even calling him a "cocktail pianist." However, it should be noted that critics did not criticize him because he is a Muslim. The main criticism was his unique playing technique incorporating silence and pauses in his touches, which differed from the usual improvisational approach in jazz based on continuous and enthusiastic improvisation. This made him a subject of criticism, as this approach is not typical in jazz. This is a problem that all innovative composers who approach music in a new way face.

Ahmad Jamal was one of the pioneers of a new style of improvisation, which Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock would later develop and refine.

While these negative critiques continued, Ahmad Jamal achieved his first significant success with his live album "Live at the Pershing: But Not For Me" in 1958. The album spent 108 weeks on the bestseller list. Clint Eastwood also helped popularize the album by using two tracks in his films.

In addition to this success, there is another well-known fact about Jamal among jazz enthusiasts: his influence on Miles Davis. Miles Davis, who lived next door to Jamal for a period, was greatly impressed by his sense of rhythm, his concept of leaving space while playing, and the lightness of his touch on the keys, as he often mentioned. He even said he would listen to Ahmad Jamal whenever he got stuck while composing. Not only Miles Davis but also world-renowned jazz pianists like Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett are among those influenced by Jamal's music.

Jamal, who has won numerous awards throughout his career, received his most important award, the Grammy Award, in 2017.

Ahmad Jamal compared his piano playing technique with classical Western music. He criticized the often-assumed dichotomy between jazz and classical music, stating that American classical music is jazz. He also criticized the perfectionism of European classical music, saying that it is a restrictive structure for composers and, therefore, a genre of improvisation.

At the beginning of the 20th century, composers such as Claude Achille Debussy, Ravel and Igor Stravinsky opened the doors to freedom in melody, harmony, sound intensity, rhythm and tone. His rhythm sense, the concept of playing with spaces, the lightness of his touch in his compositions, and the pauses in his improvisations are reminiscent of this freedom. With this inspiration, he developed a new improvisation form in jazz.

Music career

Jamal was born in 1930 in Pittsburgh as a child of a Christian family. He moved to Chicago in 1950 and converted to Islam, taking the name Ahmad Jamal. In 1951, during a night they performed as a trio at The Embers, a nightclub in Manhattan, they caught the attention of the famous record producer and talent scout John Hammond and collaborated on an album.

In 1961, he opened a jazz cafe in Chicago called "Ahmad Jamal's Alhambra," which served only nonalcoholic drinks but closed due to financial difficulties. Throughout his career, Jamal released more than 60 albums, with live recordings being his most successful and popular recordings. From the 1980s until his death, he focused on playing in America's major clubs and important European jazz festivals. Most of the listeners in Türkiye have known him through the event called "Cazz during Ramadan," organized by Hakan Erdoğan, who brought together Muslim jazz artists from around the world in Istanbul.

Jamal brought silence and space to jazz. His music became a part of his life as he said: "Music and personality must travel together."

When he came to Türkiye for a concert, translator and writer Sevin Okyay interviewed him. While reading the interview, a question and answer caught my attention. I thought there was no need to say another word after this answer.

"What does it take to be a good and responsible musician?" asked Okyay.

"To live right. This is already true for every profession. Live right," Jamal replied.