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Remembering Ahmad Jamal, jazz piano legend and Grammy Lifetime Achievement winner

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal died Sunday at the age of 92. Jamal helped define American jazz during his eight decades of performances. Even Miles Davis took cues from him early on in his career. Karen Michel has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "AHMAD'S BLUES")

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Ahmad Jamal was a bit of a cipher - cagey about his name, fond of wearing shades in the daytime, revealing only what he wished in his music and in his life.

AHMAD JAMAL: People get after me, Karen, because - if I may - because I say there's no such thing as a creative person. This business of - we don't create a fly or a raindrop or a snowflake, but we can reflect creativity. And when we reflect creativity, we discover. And that's the whole thing about life - discovery. And that's what I live for - discovery.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "AHMAD'S BLUES")

MICHEL: That discovery began when he was just 3 years old in Pittsburgh, where he was born on July 2, 1930, named Frederick Russell Jones.

JAMAL: My mother's piano - I walked by it, and my Uncle Lawrence said, can you do that, what I'm doing? And uncle was quite surprised that I played everything he played. And the rest is history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MICHEL: By the time he was 20, he'd been a touring musician and become Ahmad Jamal. Jamal shows me a photograph of the place of what he calls his birth.

JAMAL: This is the oldest mosque in the United States, where I went to study. I studied at this mosque in Chicago.

MICHEL: It's in Chicago that he had a jazz club and before he was 30, a hit record - "Poinciana." It stayed on the charts for 108 weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAMAL: I just knew that we had something of value. I had the feeling that it was going to be a success. Not to the extent that - no, of course, you can't be that clairvoyant.

MICHEL: Still, jazz critics weren't convinced of the seriousness, the merits of Jamal's chops, dismissing him as a cocktail pianist. They weren't fighting words. As Jamal said, he wasn't playing jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAMAL: I don't think you'll ever find anywhere in the, quote, "bible" - quote-unquote (laughter) - of Duke Ellington where he called himself, I'm a jazz player. He's an American classicist. That's what he was. That's what I am.

MICHEL: Jamal played and released new recordings well into his 80s, increasingly performing his own compositions and continuing to influence younger players, MacArthur Award-winning pianist Jason Moran among them.

JASON MORAN: I think Ahmad is timeless in a way that almost doesn't age. So there's something about what he - how he perforates the music, the air that he kind of infuses into it that always allows for the contemporary listener, no matter what decade they are in, to kind of fit themselves inside or have a moment to digest the crazy phrase he just played, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MICHEL: When we last spoke at his bucolic home with a creek and a waterfall out back, Jamal was healthy, vibrant, watched his diet. We'd stopped talking long enough for a snack. Then I asked him about the inevitable - death.

JAMAL: You can't take anything with you - only thing that's going in there is, what did you do? What did you do? That's all that's going in there because paradise and hell begin right here, in my opinion. I've experienced both a little bit, just a little bit. I hope I experience a whole lot of paradise in this world and in the hereafter, believe me.

MICHEL: May it be so.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Michel