Ahmad Jamal (File Photo: AFP)
Jamal released about 80 albums, building friendships and influence with greats such as Miles Davis, and was sampled by rappers including Nas, helping to lure a larger pop audience to jazz.
He won myriad awards over the course of his career, including France's prestigious Ordre des Arts and des Lettres in 2007 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.
Born Frederick Russell Jones in a humble suburb of Pittsburgh in 1930, he first sat down at a piano when he was three years old and began studying music seriously when he was seven.
He converted to Islam and changed his name when he was 20, though he avoided the more political side of the era's Black Power movement, putting his focus on a "search for peace".
The jazz scene he entered in the 1950s was often characterised by a hectic, explosive style.
By contrast, Jamal's playing was spartan and reserved, surprising his audience with long empty stretches, sudden breaks and romantic flourishes.
It took a while for people to catch on.
"His musical concept was one of the great innovations of the time, even if its spare, audacious originality was lost on many listeners," the New Yorker wrote last year.
But many were paying close attention.
Though they never collaborated, Davis often paid homage to Jamal. In his autobiography, Davis wrote: "(Jamal) knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrased notes and chords and passages."
He worked in a trio -- most notably with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier with whom he recorded his breakthrough album, 1958's "Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not for Me", which stayed on the Billboard magazine charts for more than 100 weeks, becoming one of the best-selling instrumental records of its time.
US music critic Ted Gioia wrote that Jamal "opened up an alternative universe of sound, freer and less constrained than what we had heard before. The rules of improvised music were different after he appeared on the scene."
"The Awakening" from 1970 developed the sound -- "a fine example of Jamal's stately and understated elegance" in the words of Pitchfork -- but it also had a long afterlife, influencing hip-hop artists in the coming decades, sampled most famously by Nas on his 1990s hit "The World is Yours".
Jamal never stopped experimenting, bringing in explosive percussionist Manolo Badrena in the 1990s and still recording critically lauded work into his late 80s.
"I live an exciting life, and when you live an interesting life, you keep discovering," Jamal told AFP during a visit to France in 2012.
"Musicians blossom and build themselves. Some basic things are still there in my music, the melodic sense for example, but the density of sound has changed with age, and the rhythmic part has become more elaborate," he added.
His death, reportedly from prostrate cancer, was confirmed to US media by his family.