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Artist Stories

Emmet Cohen’s Approach to Jazz

May 2022 — Emmet Cohen has been a recognized powerhouse of music since his Suzuki method days starting at age three. In the midst of touring with his Trio, he has managed to continue the online “Live at Emmet’s Place” series, a who’s who of musician performances, and keeps jazz education at the forefront of every effort. We will be recounting the long list of accolades already attached to his name on our social media pages throughout the month, leading up to his May JAZZ ROOM performances. We caught up with Emmet by phone between shows in Chicago to get a more personal sense of his inspirations and motivations.

Your most recent album, “Future Stride”, feels like an extension of your Legacy Series undertaking, bringing us the rich history of stride piano with your own flare. Tell me why you feel so compelled to revisit the historical figures and forms of jazz?

It starts with love of the music. I fell in love with the message of the music and the piano style. I love the characters – Fats Waller, Willie Smith, Thelonious Monk, Jon Batiste – they all have their own individual style. I love the way it came to be. I live in Harlem where musicians earned rent by competing at stride piano cutting sessions, literally “rent parties”.

How, then do you make it yours, and make it “modern”?

Music and art in general are forever modern. It’s almost like ingredients in the pantry. If you’re going to the pantry, you’re gonna find new ingredients and mix together what’s available in a personal style. That’s what music comes down to. I’m not going to make anything more modern than Monk in his time, or Hancock. But I may listen to three versions of Autumn Leaves, take a little, disregard some, put in “me”, and address who we are speaking to by adding some spice or smoothing it out. Adding personality is what makes it modern.

Your weekly stream “Live at Emmet’s Place” has simply exploded. At version 90, you basically now have a weekly “who’s who” in your living room of all different musical styles, with a huge viewership. What was your initial vision, and how have you built on that?

The initial motivation was survival. When venues shut down for COVID, we had a gig in Kansas that offered to pay our full fee if we transitioned to do it as a livestream from my apartment. The guys had just gotten off the road, didn’t have health or exposure concerns about being together, so we came together, played a concert, and it went viral. We recognized this is something the world needs. Let’s do it again next week. It developed into us playing, but trying not to repeat a tune for 12 weeks. Then we added guests to expand repertoire and vision. It happened naturally. I stayed up nights for weeks and months learning the technology, sound design, microphones, streaming. It has developed into a full crew operation. 90 incarnations later, we now try to showcase different artists, old and young, known and unknown. Even though I’m back on the road, I’d love to keep going in whatever capacity. I have bigger visions to move it to the metaverse and expand to the education side. How can we keep being creative with the music.

You have a particular passion and priority for music education. Given that your performance schedule currently is so intense, why is it important to you to take that time out to educate and mentor young musicians?

One of my mentors is Wynton Marsalis, who has dedicated his life to teaching jazz to young people. With his Jazz for Young People Program, I visited 50 schools a year in New York. It inspires other musicians to practices and play and become jazz musicians.

A core skill you learn with jazz is listening. Playing jazz means compromise; you meet someone halfway and create something beautiful. That’s invaluable in whatever field you take.

Jazz education also cultivates a future audience. Not everyone will be a musician, but can develop a love for the music, support it and make it a part of their lives.

Music makes the world a better place. So, I always add that educational component.

Your upcoming workshop May 19th will include musicians of all ages, instruments, and levels. What is it that you want them to walk away with?

It’s important for me to meet the students where they are. I always like to hear from them first. What are you thinking about? My best class was at age 22 with Wynton Marsalis. I arrived expecting him to stand up there and teach. Instead, he started with “what do you want to know?” So this is something I do. With limited time, I want to steer the discussion that way. Maybe it’s what to do about college. Or how the business works. Maybe they are studying bebop and want to know about Thelonious Monk, and Parker and Gillespie really want to dive into the music. There are infinite topics. So we will start somewhere and then let it develop.

Who taught you one of the biggest lessons you learned in music, and what was it?

I’ve spent a lot of time with jazz masters, and learned the most from the old musicians, Jimmy Heath, Ron Carter, Ornette Coleman, … they teach by example. They carry themselves in a way that deals with life and with music and everything in between. I have received a unique lesson from each one. Ron Carter demonstrated seriousness and focus. Benny Colston was about pure improvisation, searching for that new thing every time. From Houston Person, it was the way he selects music to an audience. My private teacher in Miami, Shelly Berg, spent years working with me to play with feeling, to access what’s inside and dig deep and play from that place. There are so many different ways to learn through travel as well, experiencing different ways cultures live and act and respond to the music.
You are your biggest teacher. Open your eyes and experience.

In a sentence, what does jazz mean to you? Jazz is…

A mirror of life all its joys, all its perils. All the majesty the universe has to offer.

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