Watch CBS News

Afro-American Music Institute in Pittsburgh preserves work and legacy of Ahmad Jamal

Afro-American Music Institute preserves work and legacy of Ahmad Jamal
Afro-American Music Institute preserves work and legacy of Ahmad Jamal 03:21

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — At the Afro-American Music Institute in the Homewood South neighborhood, the legacy of jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal can still be felt and seen. 

Dr. James T. Johnson Jr. and his wife, Pamela, considered Jamal a friend.

This couple have been running a music school for over 40 years and in that time, they've seen some great musicians. Jamal ranks high on their list. 

"I remember a time we were at his brother's house," said Johnson. "And we were sitting on the floor like two little kids, just cracking jokes. I mean, on the floor. Ahmad Jamal is sitting on the floor. I said wow, I have arrived. I am sitting on the floor like a little kid with Ahmad Jamal."

Jamal was born in Pittsburgh in 1930 and joined the long list of Pittsburgh's jazz greats. He learned from many of the best. Mary Cardwell Dawson was one of his teachers, and he was inspired by folks like Erroll Garner.

By the mid-1940s he was blazing a trail in the jazz music world. Johnson says Jamal had an inner music. He developed his signature style that Johnson says it's hard to imitate – moving and spiritual, from grand to soft, flowing and breathing. He became renowned and influential to many.

"Ahmad Jamal is really known more outside of the United States and appreciated than he is in the United States, as with most Jazz musicians," Johnson said. "But, I can start right at the top and say Ahmad Jamal inspired Miles Davis. That is a pretty much-known fact that he taught Miles Davis about spacing."

One other musician Jamal inspired was Johnson's son, James Johnson III. He had been playing the drums since he was a kid and when he was old enough, Jamal put him in his trio and took him on tour around the world.

"I'm smiling because, I believe it was yesterday, I told my son, I said, I don't think you realize who you were working with," Dr. Johnson said. "But I think he kind of admitted that he may not have known the magnitude of what he was doing at such a young age by playing with Ahmad Jamal and touring across the world with this master."

The Johnsons hope to keep the life and work of this grand master of music alive by putting his name on the Afro-American Music Institute's new performance space they are looking to build in the near future.

"My dream," said Johnson, "is to see The Ahmad Jamal Hall become a place where people will know about the events that are about to happen and not know what the event is. But they will know that it's good and they are going to show up anyway."

For more information on the Afro-American Music Institute and its work to preserve the legacy of Jamal, click here.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.