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Vibraphonist Khan Jamal Has Died at 75

In the course of his career, Khan Jamal frequently visited the WRTI 90.1 studios, as a jazz vibraphone and marimba player. He co-founded the band Sounds of Liberation in 1970.

Vibraphonist Khan Jamal, who combined jazz-funk, post-bop, and a spirit-seeking philosophy, died on Monday at Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia. He was 75.

Jamal was a pivotal figure in Philadelphia's avant-garde jazz scene during the 1970s and '80s, a period characterized by nimble creativity and little recognition. A legendary instrumentalist and bandleader, he collaborated with heavy-hitter musicians and local standouts such as Byard Lancaster, Sunny Murray, and Monnette Sudler.

"He was a great talent," Sudler recollected. "He was innovative, melodic, perceptive, and intuitive. He believed in what he's doing, and he encouraged others to pursue their aspirations and dreams."

A Jacksonville, Florida native, born Warren Robert Cheeseboro on July 23, 1946, music had always played an essential role in his life. As well as being raised by a stride pianist mother, he lived near such music legends as John Coltrane in North Philly. As a teenager, he picked up the vibraphone and later attended the Granoff School of Music, where Dizzy Gillespie and Coltrane had also studied, and the Combs College of Music. Jamal also studied privately with Bill Lewis, with whom he later recorded “The River,” a collection of vibraphone and marimba duets, in 1978.

The Clef Club of Philadelphia's Music Education Director Lovette Hines remembers Khan - then known as “Cheese” - talking about musical concepts when they were kids in Philadelphia. Reconnecting as adults, Hines was delighted to discover his friend had become a genuine and influential musician. He summed up Jamal's playing style and body of work in one word: originality.

"Khan was able to find his voice on his instrument, and he sounded unlike anyone else, especially with the vibes. His music could easily have sounded like Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton, or even Roy Ayers on the R&B side, but what makes Khan's music so special is that it came at the right time. It fit the style of music at the time, as well as the changing social and environmental situations in the Black community. As the music became freer and rooted in the culture of Africa, it became more culturally home-based. With the spirituality in his music, he had the perfect sound and melodic structure for the period."

Philadelphia enjoyed a progressive jazz revolution during the 1960s, with Sun Ra's Arkestra and Odean Pope's jazz fusion band Catalyst as well as Jamal and Lancaster's Sounds of Liberation. During the 1970s, Jamal was part of Sunny Murray's group Untouchable Factor. Among his musical credits are performances with Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society, Joe Bonner, Billy Bang, and Charles Tyler.

Record producer T. Morgan recalled Khan's first foray into the recording studio as a member of Sounds of Liberation, leading into his role as a world-class artist.

"He became just an outstanding musician and I was so happy that he was able to make a career out of that talent that he had," said Morgan.

The truth is that Jamal straddled a divide, as his talents were more appreciated in Europe than in America.

"My dad used to go over there and send big chunks of money home," recalled his oldest son, Khan Jamal II. "Then, he'd come back home and would have to think about getting a job."

In recent years, Jamal's music has received renewed attention as a new generation discovers the more than two dozen records on which he appears as a leader, co-leader or sideman.

"Drum Dance to the Motherland," a 1973 Dogtown album by the Khan Jamal Creative Art Ensemble, was reissued by Eremite Records, which referred to it as "the most iconic underground jazz release of the 1970s." Jamal's 1984 album "Infinity" has also been reissued by Jazz Room, a rare covetable album with Lancaster on alto saxophone and flute, Murray on drums, Bernard Samual on piano, Clifton Burton on harmonica, Reggie Curry on bass, Dwight James and Omar Hill on percussion.

Jamal is survived by a brother, Johnny McGee; two sons, Khan Jamal II and Tahir Jamal; and three grandchildren, Kiyani Jamal, Mahogany Jamal, and Khan Jamal III. According to his son, the Clef Club of Philadelphia will hold a memorial concert in the next few months.

Bobbi I. Booker is an award-winning multimedia journalist and radio personality whose velvety voice has been a mainstay in the Delaware Valley for over two decades. She can be heard on Spirit Soul Music, Sundays from 6 to 9 a.m., and Jazz Through the Night, weeknights from 12 midnight to 6 a.m.