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Emmet Cohen Interview: Jazz Across Generations

National Scene TCJF Twin Cities

Cohen at the 2017 Twin Cities Jazz Festival. Photo by Larry Englund

By Larry Englund

Emmett Cohen at the 2017 Twin Cities Jazz Festival. He’ll be returning this year with Houston Person

Pianist/composer Emmet Cohen is only 28, yet he’s become an important figure in music and related arts as both a performer, and as someone committed to the transfer of intergenerational knowledge, history and traditions in jazz. Since releasing his debut album, In The Element,in 2011, he has received accolades and awards for his playing, played festivals around the world, and released four albums including recordings with Ron Carter and Jimmy Cobb.

The Carter and Cobb recordings are part of his “Masters Legacy Series.” Future releases in the series will feature Cohen’s recordings with Benny Golson, Tootie Heath, and George Coleman. He’ll be appearing with his trio and Houston Personat the Twin Cities Jazz Festivalon June 22. I got to talk with him on April 9, 2018, the day after he appeared with Albert “Tootie” Heath at Crooners’ Dunsmore Roomin the Twin Cities. He was personable and excited to talk about working with jazz masters, and his own journey into jazz. This version of that talk has been slightly edited for clarity and simplicity.

 OK, Emmet – on your website, it says that you started piano lessons at the age of three at Suzuki.  Did you have any say in that?

No, I don’t think you have a say in anything when you’re three years old, but there was a lot of music – not in my immediate family, not my parents – but on my dad’s side of the family. I think he always wanted to be a musician and it was something that he considered going into as a profession when he was a teenager in the 1960s. He’s 78. Out of high school, he had a recording contract with Brunswick, the same record label with the same management as Jackie Wilson. Jackie’s record came out the same time his record and no one ever call him back again. So he changed professions, but he was really into all types of music, and had a cousin named Greg Kogan who played piano with Buddy Rich and Lionel Hampton, who I met when I was seventeen.

Do you remember your first day of music lessons?

No, I don’t have really specific memories of that. I mean, I have memories of the feeling of what it was like to go into the teacher’s house – I studied with her until I was maybe nine – so six years of going there – and I have memories of how she used to make it fun and inspire me. Reward me with candy at the end of it. You know, it’s more like babysitting, combined with how to connect with a child and influence them to do something and love it. And it’s all about the chemistry between the teacher and student, and I was lucky to have a good teacher at that age who inspired me to want to practice and do a little bit each day when I was so young.

Can you remember a time when you actually thought, “I really like doing this. I want to do this a lot.”

 EC: Well, it’s hard to tell what you really end up liking at a young age and what you’re told that you should like. But I remember being pretty good at an early age. I was able to impress adults and able to communicate with them through music. I think that was the first psychological development of me understanding that I was able to do something other people enjoyed and connected with and felt. That was a big mover and a big catalyst to me wanting to really pursue it and to practice every day and just really be in it for the long haul.

Was there some point when you said, “This is what I’m going to do for a profession.”

I don’t think there was a certain day where I woke up and said, “I know this is what I want to do” but – have you ever read or watched Harry Potter when he’s going to choose his wand? He goes into the store and he doesn’t get to choose his wand. Your wand chooses you. I always felt like that’s a good analogy for how music came to me. It’s almost like something that chose me. I didn’t ever have to decide, “Is this the thing that I want to do?” It just developed very, very naturally. And that’s how I know that it was comfortable. I never had to really make a hard decision. I always was able to find work as a pianist and accompany singers and play in different musical settings. I was lucky enough to find work early on in the community – playing cocktail piano and all those kind of events – you know, playing in restaurants and all that kind of stuff that helped give me confidence that I could make a living doing it. I think everyone’s different; everyone has their own path. I really found a path that worked for me.

How old were you when you started playing in these places?

 I’d say in high school. I started putting on a suit and tie and playing the cocktail hour at a wedding, or a bar mitzvah, or confirmation, or somebody’s party, an event or fundraiser or something like that. I grew up in a good community in Montclair, New Jersey that fostered that. The opportunities were plentiful.

 As you were in that phase of being a teenager and playing out, were there any particular musicians that you looked to for inspiration?

Yeah, my dad would take me around to hear music – a lot of different musicians. He took me to see Ray Charles when I was eight or nine. He took me to see Jimmy Smith when I was maybe thirteen, fourteen years old. He took me to see Monty Alexander, Marcus Roberts, Keith Jarrett. I got to be exposed to that. Living in Montclair, New York City is right there. It wasn’t a huge trip to go into the Jazz Standard and see someone play, or go down to the Vanguard and check out Cedar Walton. I would go up and talk to guys like Monty Alexander and they’d be very encouraging.

Had you already decided on jazz as the genre for you?

I played classical piano from age three to eighteen very seriously. I studied at Manhattan School of Music pre-college, and took lessons every week along with theory and ear training, and sang in a classical choir. For seven years I did all types of college-level classes there – every Saturday all the way through middle school and high school. I had to quit sports when I didn’t have my Saturdays free anymore. Studying all those years, I really love and respect classical music. I think it’s the root of all American jazz sound, the root of the harmonic aspect of that. You know, someone like Duke Ellington… The rhythmic aspect comes from Africa – New Orleans, through Africa and the black aesthetic. With the harmonic aspect, a lot of it is a mixture of blues and all that stuff but also classical music. When considering the classical idiom, orchestral works, and classical composers and every instrument, the range is so broad. I think that one of the greatest sources of inspiration is classical music.

Cohen’s debut album from 2011

You know, I fell in love with classical music but I realized that I didn’t want to have a career in playing the notes that are exactly on the page. And practicing them day in and day out, to then regurgitate them exactly as they are on the page. I felt like there was more – another avenue for me to go down, to be creative, and to explore music in a group context that was free and imaginative. There was this other language called Jazz that I began to explore. And the more I explored it, the more I realized that you’re able to break down the boundaries and reconstruct them according to your concepts and philosophy and life experiences, and that’s when I knew that jazz was really the way for me to go.

And were in your teens at that time?

Oh yeah, I was in [my] high school years, playing a lot of New York City late night gigs, and going and checking out music, and trying to sit in with people as much as I could. One of my best friends ever, still to this day, is a drummer named Evan Sherman. He is from New Jersey too, and played drums, and he was very serious about going into New York – going to small jazz clubs and the Village Vanguard and all the clubs and being around the jazz masters. Once we connected, we really embarked on that journey together and explored different kinds of music all over the city. That inspired me even more to want to get to that level and to be a professional musician. Over the years, it slowly happened and now in January, Evan and I will play at the Village Vanguard with Ron Carter on bass for the first time. I played there once with Christian McBride last year, but it’ll be Evan’s first time. And that’s the spot that we went and saw Cedar Walton, and we saw Roy Hargrove, and Barry Harris, and just so many musicians that we look up to in that legendary space.

 You mentioned Ron Carter – that brings me to this whole concept that you developed, of partnering with older musicians to do recordings. You did it with Jimmy Cobb, and with Carter, and now you’re touring with Tootie Heath. What made you go in that direction? What made you decide you needed to do that?

Well I felt like there was an urgency and there was a big generation gap. You know, creative projects are often born out of necessity. And there was a huge disparity between the oldest generation jazz master and youngest generation of young “lions” – for lack of a better word – but young, serious musicians in their 20s and 30s, and there wasn’t really an opportunity for us to go out and play and be heard by these guys, and get to know them. Because in this time, they’re mostly in their house, and they come out when they play, and there might not necessarily be an opportunity to meet them. And if there is, it’s two words and they don’t know you from anyone else in the club. So I wanted to create an artistic project that would allow for the collaboration between the oldest generation and the youngest generation, and really hone in on what that apprenticeship is and should be – with the intergenerational transference of knowledge and passing of the torch and all that stuff. What that really is and what it feels like and how we can contribute to the history and the idiom.

What I found is once we started doing it, the blessings that it actually brought to the jazz masters as well, affirmation of what they’ve done their whole life was being carried forward and cared about and taken seriously. Also just the vitality and the freshness that they respond to, gives them kind of new life and new energy, as you may have seen with Tootie Heath last night. When Jimmy Cobb sits down to play “Two Bass Hit”, I can tell that he is transported back to his 20s, and he feels like a young man when he’s playing. And when the songs are over, the set’s over, all the aches and pains come back. I think it’s really a spiritual and almost religious experience for these guys, for them to give and receive, it’s just been a really rewarding project in many, many aspects in my life and facets in my life.

What have you learned from some of these jazz masters?

 Yeah, I’ve learned so much from each one. I spent time with Jimmy Cobb, Ron Carter, Jimmy Heath and Tootie Heath, George Coleman, Benny Golson. We’re playing a couple gigs with Houston Person – one in Minneapolis at the Jazz Festival this year. So I’ve had a chance to really be around them – and those are the people I played with. I’ve been around Roy Haynes and the other people that I haven’t played with, and each one of them is so different – their personality, their style, and just their level of consciousness about music and life.

I think one of the things that I’ve really learned is that – being an individual and being unique, being yourself and sticking to what you believe – I think that’s something that they all share and all have in common. They’re all very emphatic about the music, and how it’s guided their lives, and how it’s guided the shape of America. That’s another thing – they’ve lived through the 1950s and the 1960s, and toured in the South in the time of segregation, and were really inventing America’s music in a place where America didn’t accept them. And that story to me is really, really powerful because they gave so much to people… the culture and the society and environment of what it means to be an American. For me, to carry on to make more people aware about what that is and what it means, and how I can bring it closer to my generation. The project is not only about me, it’s about bringing as many of my peers and deserving colleagues as I can to elevate them up to play with these guys. And that’s what the project’s really about – it’s connecting the generations. And obviously I’m a part of it, but it’s supposed to be bigger than just me.

Another thing that I’ve learned is that… So so so much… I’m trying to figure out which direction to take it in. They each have their own set of ideals. Someone like Ron Carter – he’s very serious about professionalism, he’s very serious about being on time, he’s very serious about dressing appropriately and presenting a certain quality, aesthetic to the audience – so from him, I learned that and I’m very aware, after having played with him and traveled with him, of the importance of all those things. Someone like Tootie Heath – it’s important to remember the humor. That’s necessary to become that old and to watch all of your peers pass away one by one, and the feeling he talks about when he comes to New York now, and it sets in that all of his friends – Cedar Walton, Clifford Jordan, Clifford Jarvis, Art Taylor, Jimmy Bond, and all these people that were his best friends. You know, all the people that he came to New York with, and was excited to be around, they’re all gone.

Tootie Heath at Crooner’s Dunsmore Room

I think humor is a way that he deals with that. I’ve learned it’s important to take things lightly and to be able to laugh at yourself and other people, and there are a lot of comedians in music – but he’s been through so much – his brother Jimmy Heath has been through so much. They all really teach one thing. And I think that one thing comes down to “hope” – I think that’s the key word. Because that’s something that jazz really embodies, maybe over any of the other elements you could associate it with, is hope. When you hear Roy Eldridge play, Louis Armstrong play, and you hear Dizzy Gillespie play, when you hear John Coltrane play and screaming for those high notes, or you hear Charlie Parker play one blues scale – you hear the hope in the music. And no matter what’s going on around you in society, in the world, persecution against people – that hope is what will bring you to the next day. Your hope for better times for you, for your children, for future generations – and that’s what I’ve learned from them – they all embody this feeling and spirit of hope.

Who are you listening to these days?

Listening to music is always a huge part of the conceptual approach to my whole group of friends. I have a great community of musicians who play and they’re in their 20s and 30s who I’ve spent six years growing with and developing with in New York City, and playing with older musicians and now younger ones, and people all over the world and traveling, presenting the music, and one of the things that we always talk about and always practice and always teach, is listening to music together and really connecting with the ancestors who shaped the way that we play now, and the way the whole history has developed, and it’s always important to go back to the architects of jazz. And the architects include guys like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Sidney Bechet, Roy Eldridge, you know, Miles [Davis] to a certain extent. And those are some of the real architects of, you know, Coleman Hawkins of the tenor saxophone, Lester Young, Ben Webster – you know, the guys who invented the modern language of how to play this music, and a lot of times that can get lost in people who learned to play in college, or people who learned to play – you know, these days, they might hear ONE person play that’s alive now in their prime and be really into that person, but they have missed that person’s influences, or their influence’s influences.

And that’s part of this master’s thing too – just going back to the source and really trying to get the information from the place it was created, and not the place that it’s developed to. And so, listening to music is really, really important. As a piano player, I listen to a lot of Thelonious Monk, and a lot of Bud Powell, Barry Harris who’s still here with us at the recording of this interview, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams I was listening to today. To get inside all of the architects and the characters of the piano for me as a pianist, is one of the most important things I can do. That’s another thing I learned from all those masters, I asked them about all those people – when they got to know them, what their mannerisms were like, what they would say, what they talked about with other people, how they dressed, what was the culture surrounding all of this stuff. You know, you can get a lot of from books and a lot from movies and documentaries and newspaper clippings and YouTube videos, but to get the stories that are passed down, that’s something really, really special that we get from these masters. The oral histories.

I was very pleasantly surprised when you guys played The Charleston last night. I have never heard anybody do that in a jazz setting – that was just really fun. And you seem to have a lot of fun playing. [EC: Yeah.] It it’s very apparent watching you play.

You know, it brings me great joy to explore music each and every night, and that’s something I really love about jazz – is that you can make it different and you can adapt to the scenario. So when we play with Tootie Heath, we adapt to his style of playing and his conceptual approach, and challenge him in some ways, but also try to meet him halfway in other ways, and play stuff that he would have never thought about playing, or stuff that he grew up listening to that wasn’t cool in his day but now it’s cool again. You know, anything like that. You know, I don’t think John Coltrane would have – he played on Coltrane’s first record – I don’t think he would have picked The Charleston to play because maybe it was not cool in that day. But now, I don’t think any jazz is cool in our day – you know, to the mass public. To me and to the people I surround myself with, that’s the coolest thing you could possibly find.

That was almost a master class in using the tambourine by him last night. That was another nice surprise.

Yeah, he’s very free. If you listen to Bobby Timmons record “Live at the Village Vanguard” with Ron Carter – he uses finger cymbals on there just like he was using last night. A lot of people don’t know that or haven’t noticed it. There are a lot of details to notice when you go back and listen to those records. But also, when I noticed him playing the tambourine, it’s very, very childlike, and a lot of the greatest musicians of all time were able to get into a mental state similar to that of a child – where you’re just playing, you’re uninhibited about what’s going on, what people think, what you should be doing, what you shouldn’t be doing, what things you need to take care of, or how your family members are fairing that are feeling sick or whatever.

All the jazz masters, they play and they have a level of innocence, and I felt that from Tootie last night when he was playing that tambourine. He wasn’t playing to impress anyone, he wasn’t playing to fill a quota, or play what he thought he should be playing. It was just him and the tambourine, and it was him and all of his experiences playing with Monk, and Lester Young, and brushing with Charlie Parker in the back room, and Percy and Jimmy Heath, and Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus and all them… And all that inside of him and he’s sitting here in Minneapolis just being one with the tambourine, fitting into a context with us. I think that’s one of the greatest gifts he could be able to bestow on an audience to be able to be there and experience that. I have a great teacher, Shelly Berg, he said that “Music is the mortar of humanity. It binds us all together.” And that is one hundred percent true in my experience. Wherever you go, if you play something that’s honest and heartfelt and true, the expression touches people and it brings people together in a really unique and spiritual fashion.

 That sounds like a good way to end this interview. Thank you.

 You’re welcome.

You can hear Emmet Cohen and his trio playing with Houston Person on the Main Stage in Mears Park, downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota at 8:30pm on Thursday, June 22. They will also be performing at the TD Victoria Jazz Festival in Vancouver, June 27 and June 28, at the Montreal Jazz Festival on June 30 with Houston Person and July 1 & 2 with Benny Golson at the same festival. For more information on Cohen’s appearances, go to his calendar.