Pianist Ahmad Jamal lives in New England, but his 70-year career in music started, and is largely defined, by Chicago.

 “My second home,” he says of this city, and for good reason. Jamal not only was one of the artists whose music was helped built the legendary Chess label — home to rock and blues pioneers Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and many others — he also recorded his best-selling album here. “At the Pershing: But Not For Me,” recorded in 1958 at the Pershing Hotel in Chicago, remains a landmark album of that era. Jamal’s minimalist performance style on standards by George and Ira Gershwin (“But Not For Me”), Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (“The Surrey With the Fringe on Top”), among others, provided a new vocabulary for jazz. Not only would the album become one of the very first true blockbuster sellers, earning a place next to the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Time Out,” it also would launch Jamal on the international stage where he remains today.

Ahmad Jamal, "At the Pershing: But Not for Me."

Ahmad Jamal, “At the Pershing: But Not for Me.”

“Chicago was vibrant. We had so many clubs, it was unbelievable was what going on,” says Jamal, who will perform Oct. 10 in an SCP Jazz Series concert at Symphony Center.

Jamal, 84, grew up in Pittsburgh and started playing piano at age 3. He turned professional as a teenager and ended up moving to Chicago in 1950, where he formed a trio with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier. Here, he became a fixture on both the city’s downtown and South Side nightclub circuits, but his home base soon became the Pershing Lounge at 6400 S. Cottage Grove, where the trio performed five sets a night, six nights a week, for over a year.

While the earlier be-bop era brought hard-driving tempos to the forefront, Jamal’s playing felt like a cool breeze. Elegant, with open spaces to let the music breathe, his phrasing is masterfully dynamic. His early recordings emphasized textures and rhythmic shifts rather than blitzkrieg tempos and improvisational peaks and valleys. The discipline of his style influenced jazz pianists Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, among others, but trumpeter Miles Davis became one of Jamal’s greatest champions, famously saying on record that “all [his] inspiration” comes from the pianist’s playing.

Jamal says that he and Davis formed “a mutual admiration society” over many years, starting when they often watched each other’s sets in Chicago, and the next decade, in New York, where they were neighbors, living just blocks apart. Davis recorded Jamal’s “Ahmad’s Blues” and “New Rhumba,” and they remained friends until the trumpeter’s death in 1991.

“We didn’t hang out all the time, but we enjoyed quality time, not quantity. We were both in leadership roles with our own groups,” he says.

Jamal also enjoyed a lengthy career at Chess, recording nearly 20 albums for Argo and Cadet, two of the label’s jazz subsidiaries, that took him through the late 1960s. Jamal enjoyed a “wonderful relationship with brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, who both allowed him “complete control over everything, from the graphics to the music.”

“I did what I wanted to do, it was a wonderful time,” he says.

The success presented new opportunities. Jamal opened his own club on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the Alhambra, described as a “new concept in nightspots” and “castle-like” by Ebony magazine in October 1961.

Ahmad Jamal in the studio, circa the late ’50s (photo from the album cover of "The Complete Argo Sessions").

Ahmad Jamal in the studio, circa the late ’50s (photo from the album cover of “The Complete Argo Sessions”).

According to the magazine, the opulent $100,000 club had “alabaster columns, mirrored walls and crystal chandelier to add to the gleaming splendor.” The entrance had “an imported mosaic tile floor and heavily ornamented arch made of gold leaf decorated styrafoam [sic].  … Four separate arcs of water from brass fountainheads complete the luxuriously romantic setting.” The club also had “the only electronic sound-light booth” in a Chicago club at the time and employed three chefs from the United States, Bengal and Lebanon to serve dishes from all three regions.

Jamal soon realized his heart was not in nightclubs and he sold the business almost a year after it opened, but not after he recorded a successful live album there in 1961. “What did a musician need with 43 employees?” he says today, with a laugh. “But nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

By 1962, Jamal had relocated to New York. He continues to release albums and tour the world playing what he classifies as, not jazz, but “American Classical Music.” The distinction comes from his childhood in Pittsburgh where musicians proved their versatility.

“We didn’t have a separation between a European body of work and an American body of work. That’s why I resent the statement that ‘I play jazz’ or ‘I play classical.’ I can play a Mozart concerto and also play [the standard] “Lullaby of Birdland.’ We didn’t limit ourselves,” he says.

At home, Jamal says he in the midst of writing, and he expects to debut a new composition at his Symphony Center performance. In what has turned into a life in music, he believes there is no room to rest on laurels.

“Anytime you close your mind, you’re in trouble, whether you’re a journalist, whether you’re a musician, whether you’re a doctor or a lawyer,” he says. “You stop discovering, you’re dead. I try to discover things every day — new music, countries. Life is a discovery.”

Mark Guarino, contributing pop music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, also writes for the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian, the Washington Post, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, Agence France-Press and other outlets.

PHOTO: Ahmad Jamal and his trio in concert at the Detroit Jazz Festival. | Photo: Detroit Jazz Festival

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