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Vibraphonist and Bandleader Khan Jamal Dies at 75

A key figure in the 1970s avant-garde, he also explored the sounds of fusion

Khan Jamal
Khan Jamal (photo: Andrew Lepley)

Khan Jamal, a vibraphonist and percussionist whose music found a rapprochement between avant-garde experimentalism and fusion groove, died January 10 at Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was 75.

His death was confirmed by his son, Khan Jamal II, to WBGO radio in Newark. Cause of death was kidney failure.

Jamal came of age when jazz’s free and avant-garde movement was reaching full flower. His résumé reads like a roll call of the most important musicians of that movement in the 1970s and ’80s: the Sun Ra Arkestra, its offshoot band Cosmic Forces, Byard Lancaster, Sunny Murray, Ronald Shannon Jackson, David Murray, Jemeel Moondoc. In later years he also worked with Matthew Shipp, Roy Campbell, and Odean Pope. Jamal was a highly regarded and frequent bandleader as well, recording 16 albums under his own name. In addition, he founded the acclaimed, exploratory Philadelphia septet Sounds of Liberation.

At the same time, Jamal maintained a highly melodic approach to his instrument that could make him, in a free setting, the only tonal soloist. Nor did he feel a need to shun the more commercial directions that jazz fusion took in the 1970s; Jamal was happy to use electric timbres and funky rhythms to his own ends. He was also closely aligned with the Black Arts and Black Consciousness movements, and in that spirit kept a through-line of African traditions and ideas in his music. He added the West African balafon to his arsenal of instruments, and in the 1980s worked closely with South African bassist Johnny Mbizo Dyani.

“Some guys told me I was crazy to play [free],” Jamal recalled in a 2012 interview with Cadence magazine. “But I said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ See, this is all music and music is all music, and you can’t get around that.”

Warren Robert Cheeseboro was born July 23, 1946 in Jacksonville, Florida. His mother, Willa Mae Cheeseboro, was a stride piano player from Philadelphia, but when she became pregnant by entrepreneur Henry McCloud, her family sent her to Florida to have the baby. Once delivered, the Cheeseboros returned to Philadelphia, where Warren’s grandmother raised him. (His mother married Johnnie P. McGee in 1948.) His grandmother was also a pianist, classically trained but adept at the blues and boogie-woogie, and taught her grandson to play from a very young age.

Cheeseboro was more interested in percussion, however. As a teenager, he would come home after school and pull out a big barrel on which to play hand drums along with Art Blakey records. After encounters with Milt Jackson and Lionel Hampton, he began to gravitate toward the vibraphone. He got a set in 1964 and found a teacher, Bill Lewis, at Philadelphia’s Granoff School of Music before moving on to Combs College of Music. During those years, Cheeseboro cast aside his “slave name” and became Khan Jamal. He also worked with the Sun Ra Arkestra and joined several of its members in the offshoot band Cosmic Forces.

Jamal established a collaboration with drummer Sunny Murray early in his career, playing in a band with him in Philadelphia and then briefly moving to New York, where they shared a loft space on the Lower East Side. Jamal spent much of his time hanging out at Rivbea and Artists House—the lofts owned by saxophonists Sam Rivers and Ornette Coleman—where he built up relationships with fellow experimental musicians.

Back in Philadelphia, Jamal founded Sounds of Liberation in 1970 with saxophonist Byard Lancaster (another mentor), guitarist Monette Sudler, and percussionists Rashid Salim and Omar Hill. He also recorded his own debut album, Drum Dance to the Motherland, in February 1972. Nevertheless, work was hard to come by, and so Jamal decamped for Paris in 1974. “Within a few weeks, I had a few articles and did a record date,” he recalled. “It didn’t make me feel good about America.” He moved back and forth between Paris and Philadelphia (where he raised his family) for years. He also spent some time in Copenhagen, where he met Dyani and began working regularly with him.

Philadelphia remained his primary base, however—and it was within easy reach of New York, where Jamal played and recorded with Archie Shepp, trombonist Grachan Moncur III, and Ronald Shannon Jackson. At home, he kept a close circle of longtime collaborators, including Lancaster, Sudler, and Hill. After 2009, heart problems considerably blunted his ability to perform. He practiced every day and occasionally busked outside of Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Stadium, but for all intents and purposes he was retired—although his name remained in circulation thanks to a 2010 reissue of Sounds of Liberation’s sole studio album, 1972’s New Horizons; 2019’s unearthing of a Sounds of Liberation concert recording from Columbia University in 1973 (released, ironically, as Unreleased); and last year’s re-release of his own 1984 album Infinity.

In addition to his son and namesake, Jamal is survived by another son, Tahir Jamal; a half-brother, Johnny McGee; and three grandchildren, Kiyani Jamal, Mahogany Jamal and Khan Jamal III.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.