by Kalya Ramu
by John Nyman
“It’s 100 years after the roaring 20s, since the Harlem Renaissance, since Prohibition, and here we are 100 years later throwing a Harlem rent party—in the same spot, on the same street.”
Joining us from the book-and-houseplant-lined walls of his Harlem walk-up minutes after getting off the yoga mat, renowned jazz pianist Emmet Cohen cut a different figure from his slick, tuxedo-clad appearance on the cover of his newest album, Future Stride. Both personas, however, are very much part of Cohen’s creative philosophy. Buoyed by his deep gratitude for both the contemporary New York jazz community and the older generation of jazz masters he’s studied and performed with in his ongoing Masters Legacy Series, Cohen’s thoughts give an invigorating glimpse at the insight and innovation behind his contributions to a genre he calls “forever modern.”
Five Questions with Emmet Cohen
Favourite jazz club in NYC?
The most legendary, magical place is the Village Vanguard, so that immediately comes to mind. But I’ve also had a lot of homes.
Favourite place to find inspiration in NYC?
Central Park is a big inspiration for me. It’s a place of unlimited nooks and crannies to explore.
One book that changed how you think about being a musician?
There’s a wonderful book I read by Yaa Gyasi, called Homegoing. It’s the story of two sisters born in Africa, and it follows their lineage over 300 years,
One musical instrument you wish you could play?
I wish I was a better drummer. I’m obsessed with the rhythm section: piano, bass, and drums.
Most important quality in a band member?
Empathy. But also awareness of what the time and place is calling for.
We’ve been hearing a lot about how ‘New York is back’ as the city recovers from the events of the past year. What’s your sense of the current artistic atmosphere?
They say New York is the city that never sleeps, but I also think New York is the city that will never die.
It seems like we’re almost on the other side of it now, but a lot of people were in dire straits this year, and I think it was a tough period to get through—particularly for people who made their rent doing a $100 gig here and there. Seeing that economy evaporate created a lot of dissonance among freelance, independent artists. I think it was very difficult to know what to do at that time.
But there were a few people who stepped up for the community at large. My friend Benny Benack III, who plays trumpet, was out on the streets playing outdoor gigs, creating environments where people could come and play outside at a socially distanced jam session. We were out there playing in the freezing cold! But you adjust. Jazz music has always adjusted, and it’s always adapted. That’s what it preaches and teaches: it’s about flexibility, it’s about adaptation, and it’s been amazing to see how the music has evolved in that time and space.
"It’s become less about me me me me me, and more about how I can help the people who need it."
My friend Evan Sherman did a lot of playing out on the street as well. He wasn’t part of the establishment; he would just set up a band in the street and bring some music to the people.
Another one is Spike Wilner, who runs Smalls Jazz Club. Smalls stayed open the entire time, doing live streams, taking sponsorships, paying musicians to come in and play. He really kept the flame alive. He evolved with the protocols, set up partitions so that 13 people could come into the club, etc. That’s not really even financially viable, but it does something for the lifeblood of the scene.
"We lugged drums up a five-floor walk-up and just turned on an iPhone. It sounded like a Game Boy, but it got almost 40 or 50,000 views."
That’s what we tried to do with Live from Emmet’s Place through a virtual channel. It’s 100 years after the roaring 20s, since the Harlem Renaissance, since Prohibition, and here we are 100 years later throwing a Harlem rent party—in the same spot, on the same street. I live on Edgecombe Avenue, the same avenue Duke Ellington and his whole band lived on, in addition to Billie Holiday and so many others. And we’re doing our modern-day Harlem rent party virtually, which is an adaptation a century later. I think one of the most rewarding things about what we did was the fact that musicians would come here and play with us and say, “Man, I haven’t played a gig with other humans in eight or nine months. This feels so good!” That revitalizes the individual musicians, but it also introduces a whole new audience to who these people are and what their music is about.
I think what it really comes down to is the sense of community—and how we can continue to feed life and energy into that sense of community for people who need it most, especially when they can’t get together in person.
Your "Live From Emmet's Place" livestream has been a mainstay of lockdown-era culture over the past year. Will you be continuing with your virtual series of concerts?
It wasn’t like I schemed up a big idea to have the best livestream series in the world for jazz. We were supposed to play in Kansas on March 23rd, 2020, and the promoter called us and said, “Hey, I know you’re supposed to play here tonight, but the state of everything is looking pretty rough. The University of Kansas wants to give you the full performance fee just to do something from your house. Say it’s sponsored by us, and put something good out into the world. We need this.”
So, I was quarantining with my two bandmates, who are basically family: Kyle Pool and Russel Hall. They live just a stone’s throw away, down the street here. And they came up and we did this little livestream. We lugged drums up a five-floor walk-up and just turned on an iPhone. It sounded like a Game Boy, but it got almost 40 or 50,000 views. People were so grateful that there was this place to go, this place to join others and do something. And that’s what the music has been for so long: a place for people to come together and feel the vibrations together. I realized this was something that was necessary in the world. So, we said, “Why don’t we do this again next week?”
"Jazz music has always adjusted, and it’s always adapted. That’s what it preaches and teaches: it’s about flexibility, it’s about adaptation."
How has the pandemic inspired you to think differently about the New York jazz scene and your role within it?
I think everything influences what happens in the future: all my experiences, all my relationships, all my friends, every single book I read, every time I enter my yoga mat and take a class and connect with the earth, every time I cook a meal… I think that it's more than just the jazz scene, it’s more than just what’s next for that or what’s my role. It’s about who I want to be. It’s about asking how are all these things I’m doing intertwined, how can I relate them all, and what can I give to the world and the scene? What I’ve noticed about the jazz scene now is that I’ve become someone who can offer opportunities, who can raise someone up who needs to be discovered. It’s become less about me me me me me, and more about how I can help the people who need it.
I try to take it one day at a time. The longer distances can be harder to look ahead to, but as we look at the next year or year and a half, things are opening back up, so I’m going to be on the road a lot more. Probably more than I was even before the pandemic, since everyone’s trying to make up for everything that was cancelled, and there are new things on top of that. People want us to license Emmet’s Place and take it around the country. So, a lot of exciting things are happening, but at the same time I’m trying to remember to be whole, pure, and down to earth.
On your latest album, what is the inspiration behind the name Future Stride, and how did the events of the last year or so contribute to the atmosphere and spirit of the album?
Funny enough, the album was recorded before the pandemic. But the concept, basically, is that there are so many paradoxes in jazz. Like in life, there are so many opposite forces that work to create the balance of what something is or can be. With Future Stride, we have really gone back into the lexicon as a group and as a community. There are many people in our New York jazz community, like Joe Saylor, Bryan Carter, Evan Sherman, Yasushi Nakamura, Tivon Pennicott, Bruce Harris, Patrick Bartley, Benny Benack III, and Ruben Fox. These are all people I grew up playing around and in a community with. The whole trend of the community really reached back into the history: we wanted to know about all the decades and eras of jazz.
One particular style and movement we were interested in was the early jazz movement, from people like Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Mary Lou Williams, Earl Hines, and James P. Johnson. I didn’t find much of their music in the New York scene that I was part of, so I really wanted to go back and explore that, and I spent many years dealing with their music. I really wanted to find a way to incorporate it, because this stuff is forever modern. It can make people feel things that are current and relevant in this time. When I play stride on the piano, people react to it like it’s affecting them currently—it’s not like I’m playing this old, antiquated thing. It’s very much now, very much present, and very much forever modern. In that sense, it’s like all great art.
"When I play stride on the piano, people react to it like it’s affecting them currently—it’s not like I’m playing this old, antiquated thing. "
So, Future Stride is about dealing with that music, revitalizing it, incorporating it, and mixing it into the other styles of music and other decades of jazz. It’s about dealing with 100 years of music, but in a natural way. It’s not about how to put all this stuff together mathematically. It’s about the fact that we love all this stuff, and we’re going to play it! Maybe we’ll take the solo piano piece and orchestrate it out into a piano trio, then play it for 20 days in a row on the road, and all of a sudden it’s our own. That’s how so much of the music was developed.
The other part of the album is that we’re looking into the future, and how we can affect the atmosphere and the landscape of music and humanity. And stride right into it, smooth. You know, smooth the edges.
"We’re saying we’ve learned all these lessons from the jazz masters, and we’re taking the lessons we’ve learned and bringing them to our generation."
I’d also been doing this project called the Masters Legacy Series. It’s an ongoing project where I play with the oldest generation of jazz musicians, the ones with the wealth, the knowledge, and the connection to the history, and pair them with the musicians in our generation, to focus on that intergenerational transference of knowledge. Part of Future Stride is a direct response to that. We’re saying we’ve learned all these lessons from the jazz masters—people like Ron Carter, George Coleman, Jimmy Cobb, Jimmy Heath, Tootie Heath, and Benny Golson—and we’re taking the lessons we’ve learned from those masters and bringing them to our generation, to make the music come to life in our time.
After that, there was this natural evolution of building a team. I have someone working in the back end now. For people who can’t watch the full shows, I choose my favourite tracks and then post them individually on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. There’s something there for everyone. We’ve had such a wide range of people coming through: people like Joe Lovano, Catherine Russell, and Samara Joy. It’s been crazy inspiring to see it unfold.
To answer your question, I don’t know if it will ever truly, 100% go away. Will we be doing it every week when I’m on the road? Probably not. But I think there’s a time and place to keep it going, and to keep adding to the archive we’ve created. Those decisions kind of make themselves clear.