How Islam Inspired the Music of the Late Jazz Legend Ahmad Jamal

The sacred influenced an edgy genre and helped transform it into a celebrated and storied art form

How Islam Inspired the Music of the Late Jazz Legend Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal performs in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on Oct. 25, 2000. (Frans Schellekens/Redferns)

Some described his touch as sparse. Others called it hypnotic. More still observed that his fingers floated atop the keyboard with a sensitivity that resisted musical clutter and allowed songs to breathe. Ahmad Jamal’s laid-back style was so formative to the development of jazz that Miles Davis once broke from his usually prickly demeanor to reveal that the Pittsburgh-born pianist, who died in April 2023 at the age of 92, was the source of all his inspiration.

From the beginning, Jamal was destined to leave a mark. At age 3, he started playing the piano. By 14, he had caught the ear of the jazz virtuoso Art Tatum, who hailed him as a “coming great.” Before long, he left the Steel City, claimed a regular seat in the rhythm section of George Hudson’s famous orchestra and, later, joined a touring group called The Four Strings. While various recollections of his life and career mention the success that stemmed from his 1958 breakout album “At the Pershing,” which featured his wildly popular rendition of “Poinciana,” this 28-year-old wunderkind had decades more left in the tank. He led various trios and quartets that projected verve and virtue from the bandstand. He recorded more than 60 albums, many of which are widely regarded as classics. He traveled the world and took on public business ventures, and cultivated a personal and sonic appeal that split right through the insular world of jazz and found wider success on television, on the big screen and even in the samplings of modern hip-hop artists.

Thrumming below his success, though, was a distinctive part of his identity that today is often given a quick mention and then relegated to the land where biographical snippets function more like trivia material than meaningful insights about art: his conversion to Islam.

Jamal adopted the Muslim faith in 1950, announcing around that time that Frederick Russell Jones, as he was born, simply was no more. One evening outside the stage door of the Braddock Hotel in Harlem — so the story goes — the trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, also a Muslim convert, delivered a “philosophical presentation” about the religion’s moral worth. It “had everything to do with being all that you can be,” Jamal later remembered. The message touched him and he soon joined the Ahmadiyya movement, a messianic group that enjoyed wide appeal among African Americans in the mid-20th century. “I accepted Islam because it took me from darkness into light and gave me direction,” he said in 2017.

On the whole, Jamal was guarded with his religious convictions. He preferred to let his music do the talking. It was, he believed, the truest way to express himself. Perhaps he was right. There is a lot to learn from the sounds that shaped his catalog about just how deeply Islam influenced his iconic aesthetic and, consequently, all of jazz.

At first listen, it is easy to pick out the so-called space in Jamal’s style. Some of his playing could be notey, but the consensus among listeners is that he considered every drop of his hands against the keys. He took great care to avoid playing for the sake of playing. Instead, he backed up, backed off, and knew that beautiful music had dips and dives, shuffles and stops. His job was to live in those openings, to honor a song’s spirit, not to throttle it with ego. An Ebony magazine profile from 1961 pointed out that Jamal would “sit for as much as 16 bars without touching a key as his percussion section swings” — four measures longer than an entire 12-bar blues. That passing silence was the musical result of deeper creative focus. “Discipline” was how he preferred to characterize it.

This patient and methodical approach to his art seemed to parallel an abiding sense of order that animated his religious life. Jamal insisted on being “in constant discourse with the Creator.” To that end, he was long committed to Islam’s five daily prayers, explaining that sacred pauses from the daily bustle were what kept him playing with such finesse. Each prayer marked a division of his day, a time to stop and reflect, a time to listen, and to situate himself within a larger matrix of creative activity. A 1959 profile of Jamal in The New York Times mentioned the resolve of his commitment to prayer, noting the special premium he placed on “the first prayers at 5 a.m.” More than four decades later, those early morning devotions would find musical voice in his 2005 album “After Fajr,” the title track of which featured lyrics that echoed the muezzin’s call from the minaret and told of the glories of meeting with God at dawn.

In addition to being a divine entreaty, prayer for Jamal was also about the ritual act itself. “You have to live according to the rules,” he said. “That’s how you find soul.” Meaningful communication with his creator, then, would come by way of intentional reverence: preparing, nurturing and sustaining a religious disposition. The idea was, it seemed, that practice made piety. He abided by Islamic prescriptions that governed prayer and by the Muslim religious life more broadly. (Ed Michel, who produced Jamal’s 1970 album “Awakening,” remembered that the pianist observed the Ramadan fast during the recording session and insisted that the band stop precisely at sunset — and not a minute later — to eat.) Ritual for Jamal became an embodied conviction that manifested itself in the interruption of sound. It was like a reminder that God, who created all sounds and set the universe into forward motion, also created silence. And so, to blaze through a jazz standard or through each day without recognizing the need to stop, reflect and refocus was to ignore the very rhythm of the world as it was intended.

Jamal’s was also music that he hoped might transcend categorization, even as the public situated it squarely in the world of “jazz,” a term he loathed on account of its sometimes seedy associations. He described his art as “American classical music.” That label never stuck, but it conveyed his disdain for the idea that the music of Bach or Beethoven stood in contrast to a lesser form of creativity that primarily found life in smoky clubs. His moral view of the world forbade those kinds of distinctions.

Apart from the fact that Jamal had grown up playing sonatas and rhapsodies, he didn’t see them as wholly separate from the sphere in which he worked. The perceived chasm between jazz and European classical music, in his view, only reinforced stereotypes about race and class and often suggested the existence of social hierarchies that he believed ran afoul of God’s egalitarian plan for the world. The “peace of mind” that he said Islam gave him came at a turbulent time for race relations in America. Islam offered Jamal a way of being a Black Muslim during a counter-hegemonic period in history. He could nurture and express this identity through a creative outlet that communicated his racial and religious sensibilities and commanded public attention.

It was also the case that the American Muslim landscape during the 1950s and 1960s was characterized in part by racial divisions and competing interests. When groups such as the Nation of Islam, for example, tilted toward provocation with fiery rhetoric about the white race, Jamal expressed disgust that Muslims would engage in separatism of any kind. The “law-abiding, true Moslems,” he said, were those for whom such divisions did not exist. True to form, he did not cast aspersions or use his work to make a statement that was obviously divisive. Instead, the peace Jamal discovered in Islam took the form of an artistic style that allowed him to communicate his religious values through his sound and his image. He took to heart the Ahmadiyya community’s message of “love for all, hatred for none,” and imagined an alternative human history through his work.

Jamal polished a style that was completely his own, not burdened by the constraints of European classical music but still able to explore it; not encumbered by the expectations of jazzheads but nevertheless situated in that genre. His was a world of “ensembles” and “trios,” “chamber music” and bebop. His interludes were like movements that changed the pace and introduced new ideas but still swung hard and steady. His seat behind the keyboard was like a conductor’s podium, and his group was not just three men but an entire orchestra of improvisers. “Bach, Mozart and Beethoven all improvised,” Jamal quipped. “Improvisation is synonymous with freedom.” God’s radical oneness — that defining characteristic of the Muslim faith — meant pushing to the periphery all of the worldly fractures that might get in the way of experiencing an all-encompassing divine essence. Why limit the creator’s ability to break through by imposing constraints on art?

It was, Jamal believed, his creator who was responsible for whatever beauty came from his instrument. “It comes to me,” he said, as if to emphasize the direction of divinely inspired creativity. He liked to say that raindrops and snowflakes weren’t human creations. In fact, nothing was. In his view, all things — music included — came from God. The job of artists, then, was not to conflate their own abilities with the generative power possessed only by the creator of the universe but, rather, to acknowledge that music, art and other similar mysteries that spring from human hands are the upshots of a grander design. “All we can do is discover those things and reflect their creativity,” Jamal noted.

Letting go had a lot to do with that. Giving his bandmates artistic space and autonomy did as well. Where Charles Mingus would famously wave off soloists whose playing he disliked, Jamal trusted that, while he was the bandleader, his role was merely a worldly one. Real music — true music — happened when four or five guys on stage ceded creative power to the world’s composer and simply let themselves be vessels for whatever came next. Is this not like the doctrine of submission that lies at the very heart of Islam? Of accepting that the Muslim faith is about more than agreeing to a certain set of precepts or beliefs? Of living one’s life in a way that is in complete surrender to God, at all moments and times?

On the bandstand, this surrender took the shape of intuitive listening. One gets the impression that Jamal aimed to hear something other than mere notes and rhythms. Instead, he yearned to perceive the divine in the art of his colleagues. He allowed them to measure the perfection to which they aspired by their own metrics, not by his approval, which revealed an extraordinary sense of compassion and humility on his part. Cannonball Adderley once observed that Jamal’s religion “must have something to do” with his tendency toward restraint, noting that it was he who gave the bass and drums support, not vice versa. “He lives that way. He seems to be always at peace,” Adderley remembered.

Indeed, that was so. Jamal’s long presence in the world of jazz was defined by a sense of calm that he projected through his music and his famously unruffled disposition. Perhaps in our efforts to remember this now-departed heavyweight and describe his sonic impact, we might heed the simple advice that he once gave when asked about his conversion to Islam: “Listen to my music. The answer is there.”

In the steady grooves. In the hushed passages. In the rises and falls. And in the clean-as-a-whistle, no-frills kind of playing that made him a pioneer.

In his music lives the spirit of his genius. There, a commitment to his faith that colored everything he did. There, the sacred influence that turned an edgy genre of music into a celebrated and storied art form.

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