Berklee Today

After releasing nine albums as a leader and playing on dozens more as a sideman, Cyrus Chestnut is following the path of the jazz pioneers and revealing himself through his music.

Photo by Paul Foley

It is a bright Saturday morning, and there is a wintry snap in the air as I make my way to the Regattabar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to meet with Cyrus Chestnut '85. He is halfway through his two-night engagement in town. I caught his first set last night. The place was packed. Cyrus and his trio (featuring drummer Neal Smith and bassist Zachary Pride) turned up the heat in a program that crossed stylistic borders to include jazz standards, Latin-flavored originals, piano solo renditions of a hymn and Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King," and Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" theme from Chestnut's new CD, A Charlie Brown Christmas. The combination of his impressive jazz chops, deep blues and gospel roots, and affable stage persona totally charmed the audience.

After getting acquainted, we start discus-sing his show of the night before. The calm, collected demeanor he radiated from the stage betrayed nary a hint of the difficulty he had traveling that day. On Friday morning, he started driving from Baltimore to his home in New York. Enroute, an engine light came on in his car. Luckily, he was close enough to Brooklyn to see his own mechanic, who took care of the problem. The unexpected delay lasted long enough to cause Chestnut to miss his scheduled flight to Boston. He finally arrived at his hotel room in Cambridge with just enough time to steam the wrinkles out of his suit and get to the club.

That didn't throw Chestnut, a true pro who has played gigs for over 30 years. He started out at seven years old playing piano at Baltimore's Calvary Star Baptist Church. He would later study classical music at Peabody Conservatory and then jazz at Berklee, where Composition and Arranging was his major.

After graduating, he spent a decade learning the ropes as a sideman with jazz icons like Jon Hendricks, Wynton Marsalis, Slide Hampton, George Adams, Steve Turre, Roy Hargrove '89, Terence Blanchard, Betty Carter, and Donald Harrison '81. The jazz press numbered him among the pride of "young lions" that dominated the jazz scene in the early 1990s. His two-year tenure with Betty Carter led directly to his signing with Atlantic Records. His first release for the label, Revelation, lodged at number one on the Gavin Report radio charts in 1994. Since then he has recorded six more discs for Atlantic, toured extensively with his own trio, and played hundreds of sessions with artists ranging from Bette Midler to Ron Carter.

In conversation, he describes his feeling that the best jazz players have the ability to tell a story with their music. His task as he sees it now is to organically combine his many disparate musical influences and tell the story of his own life through the piano. At 37, he is only a few chapters into it. There are many pages yet to be written.


Did growing up in a musical home have a big impact on you as a child?

There was music going on all the time at home. If the record player wasn't on, my father would be playing the piano and my mother would be singing. My mother says that by the age of four, I was going up to the piano trying to play it. It is interesting: my daughter, who is three, tries to get up to the piano too. Whether she will end up being a piano player like her dad remains to be seen.

Photo by Ken Franckling

I think every kid should be exposed to music or some form of culture. It opens up another side that is different from the nuts and bolts of life. When I was in elementary school, we would go at least once a year to see a presentation by the Baltimore Symphony. I was also going to Peabody Conservatory learning to play Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, and Mozart on the piano.

Your family was very involved with gospel music at church, and you had classical instruction. What other kinds of music were you listening to at that time?

I was very fortunate to have been exposed to a lot of different types of music. My parents played a lot of gospel records by people like Shirley Caesar, James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, Edwin Hawkins, and the Caravans. I was also listening to the radio and my mom's 45s by people like King Curtis, Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cook.

I was tuned into jazz at a young age. When I was nine, I took my own money down to the five and dime store and bought a record called "Thelonious Monk's Greatest Hits" for $1.99. That had a large impact on me. I didn't know who Monk was when I bought it. I just saw the picture on the cover of a man sitting at the piano, and I wanted it. At the same time, the Vince Guaraldi music on Charlie Brown specials made a deep impression on me.

I enjoyed watching your interactions with the audience as you performed last night.

They could be doing so many things other than coming out to hear me, but they came here, and I appreciate that. I don't want to do tricks to get over. I have to get their attention by playing music the best that I can. From the very first note, I try to bring these people in from all places.

I remember working in a duo at the Knickerbocker Bar and Grill. I had been there before to hear other jazz artists, and the people were talking so loudly. I figured people wouldn't pay attention to me, I'd just be background. After we played the first piece, we heard applause. I thought, wow, they are listening. By the end of the night, the chatter had stopped and all you could hear was whispering. That taught me a great lesson. You should never underestimate your audience. Sometimes I feel like telling the people to keep the noise down, but I want the music to get their attention. If I can get an audience interested, then they are going to go away feeling satisfied and that the 20 or 25 dollars that they spent was worth it.

You played the hymn tune "I Need Thee Every Hour" as a solo in the set. Even though it was very different from the other material, you made it fit into the set very nicely.

I like to give an honest performance and draw from a number of places. I did a solo record called Blessed Quietness that is a collection of hymns and spirituals. It would have been too easy to play those in a traditional spiritual style. I am not the type of person who wants to do things the way everyone else does them. I need to find a different angle.

People will come up to me after a set and say this or that tune sounded just like Oscar Peterson or Ahmad Jamal. I am not trying to be them; I am trying to find out who Cyrus Chestnut is. If I have to go through these people and their representative styles to get to Cyrus Chestnut, then so be it. But I am not satisfied to just try to sound like Oscar Peterson or Ahmad Jamal.

We still have Oscar and Ahmad. It makes little sense from a career standpoint to adopt someone else's style.

Their legacy will live on after they go on to the other side, and their music will be with us forever. Betty Carter always used to say that jazz is about finding out who you are. That's what I am trying to do.

Did you have any teachers at Berklee who were particularly influential in your development?

Sure, there were people like Donald Brown, Donny Nolan, and Alex Elin. I used to arrive at Alex's room 10 minutes before class and we would play piano duets. Before I knew him well, Phil Wilson asked me to get together and play with him. Hanging out with him was an inspiration. He gave me the opportunity to be in the International Dues Band and the Rainbow Band. I appreciated Phil extending his hand to me.

Do you still play with any friends you met back in your student days?

I have worked with Terri Lyne Carrington ['81], Mark Whitfield ['87], Donald Harrison ['81], and some others. I arrived at Berklee in September of 1981. Those coming up after the class with Branford Marsalis ['80], Jeff Watts ['81], and others left included Tim Williams ['88], Greg Osby ['81], Makoto Ozone ['83], and others. We would get up, go to classes from nine to five, eat dinner, and then go to a jam session. The ensemble rooms used to be open from 6:00 p.m. to midnight, and there were sessions going on every night. Anyone who didn't have a gig would go to a session. Then you'd go back to your room to do some homework, get a few hours of sleep, and then do it all over again the next day.

It sounds like that was a great opportunity for growth.

It was. I tell everyone that I grew up here in Boston. I came here at 18, not knowing anything about Boston. My parents brought me up, and we stayed overnight at the Sheraton. They got me settled at 90 Hemenway Street the next day, and then I had to go take my placement tests. My dad came in to tell me that they had to leave for home. After that, I was on my own; there was no family. I had to make my own way. So I grew up in a lot of ways in Boston.

Who was the first prominent jazz artist that you worked with?

Jon Hendricks. In 1986, I was working the hotel circuit in Boston when I got a call from Mark Ledford ['82] who told me about auditions for Jon's group. In the rhythm section were bassist Larry Gales and drummer Mike Carvin. I felt like the green boy with them. I'm glad that I had the good fortune of being exposed to some of the great jazz pioneers.

Your time with Betty Carter has been referred to as a rite of passage in your career. Can you explain?

The first time I met Betty Carter was at a master class when I was a student at Berklee. I went there, and someone in the audience said, "Betty, we've heard you talk; now we want to hear you sing." She said, "But my piano player is gone." Someone yelled out, "Get Cyrus Chestnut." Before I knew it, the students in the Berklee Performance Center were chant-ing my name. She invited me up, and I was shaking. She called "Body and Soul,"and I thought, great, I know this one. This is going to be fun. As I went to the piano she said, "Play it in G." I had always played it in C. When I sat down and couldn't think of what the first chord would be, Betty started singing the chords to me. Afterwards, I went backstage figuring I would apologize and take my whupping like a man. She gave me a hug and said it was wonderful. I learned a good lesson that day about being nervous. You have to find a way of channeling nervous energy so that it can be of benefit to you. I told myself that someday I would make it up to her. Years went by, and then I got a phone call to work with her, so I got the chance to make it right.

How did you end up signing with the Atlantic Jazz label?

These days, most artists have a producer or a manager with ties to a record company shop a deal for them. It wasn't that way for me. Someone came and heard what I did and liked it.

It happened while I was working with Betty Carter at a club called SOB's on a double bill with Abbey Lincoln. It was a weird day. Betty was in a mood and decided to give me and the other members of her trio [Chris Thomas and Clarence Penn] one of her famous lectures. We decided that in the next set, we would just go out there and really nail it.

Chestnut: "They could be doing so many things other than coming out to hear me, but they came here, and I appreciate that. I have to get their attention by playing music the best that I can. From the very first note, I try to bring these people in from all places."
Photo by Ken Franckling

The club was loaded, and a guy from Atlantic Records was in the audience. A few days later, I got a call from Betty's manager, who was all excited, saying, "Yves Beauvais, a producer from Atlantic has called, and he wants you to give him a call." Betty had taught me about following up with contacts made along the way, collecting press clips, and getting a promo picture. I made an appointment to meet with Yves and brought in my makeshift press kit and a demo I had made of my tunes. He said that maybe we could do something.

Not long after that, I was at a pay phone at a subway stop in New York checking my phone messages. There was one from Yves Beauvais saying Atlantic wanted to sign me. I just started yelling and jumping up and down in the subway.

Your first Atlantic Record in 1994, Revelation, sold really well.

I benefited from all the juice that was going into revamping the Atlantic Jazz label at that time. I was working with Roy Hargrove at the time, and when the record went out, it got a lot of press. Michelle Taylor from Atlantic called me and said the record was getting so much attention that they were going to need me to leave Roy's band and go out to support it. The label had only expected it to sell five or ten thousand copies, but it did a lot of things that they didn't expect. It was number one on the Gavin radio charts for two months; the New York Times called it one of the best jazz records of the year. So, a lot of things started happening, and I was very appreciative.

Last night you said that your latest Atlantic CD, Cyrus Chestnut and Friends: A Charlie Brown Christmas, found you acting as captain of a ship with an all-star crew. The players include Michael Brecker, Manhattan Transfer, Steve Gadd, Pat Martino, Brian McKnight, and many more. How did that project come about?

I was talking with Steve Debro from Atlantic, who said they had been talking with people from [Charlie Brown cartoon creator] Charles Schulz's office about doing a recording of the Charlie Brown Christmas music. It started off as a project that many different artists would contribute to and I would just play a few tunes. They ended up leaving the project in my hands.

Atlantic wanted the record to be something big and to have some star power, so they enlisted the production team of Guy and Ed Eckstine. They are sons of Billy Eckstine. They were able to get Vanessa Williams, Manhattan Transfer, and a lot of other great musicians.

Did you write the charts?

I arranged about 85 percent of the record. Bob Belden helped with the vocal arrangements and the violin part in "Skating." I don't look at this as a remake of the original. Vince Guaraldi did a great job on that. It has been 35 years since it came out and it is still well received. I look at the new recording as the world of Charlie Brown as seen by Cyrus Chestnut. On some songs, I didn't want to make too radical a change, but others I wanted to go a little further. The Guaraldi version "My Little Drum" [a.k.a. "Little Drummer Boy"] was a bossa nova, and he only played an excerpt of the melody. I envisioned a drummer boy on 125th Street. There is a little r&b undertone and then a little country flavor to it. Don Alias and Steve Turre played beautifully on it. For most of the pieces, I tried to find a new approach.

It sounds like you spent a lot of time thinking about the songs before you started arranging them.

A lot of thought went into this project. I really like this music. I didn't want it to just be another ho-hum Christmas record. It takes me back to when I was six or seven years old. About three days before the sessions began, I had a set of arrangements all set to go. Then I tore them all up and started over again. I wanted to approach the music from right here, right now, utilizing everything that I have been exposed to.

A few years ago, you toured and recorded with classical diva Kathleen Battle. After that, you said you wanted to move beyond the boundaries of jazz in your musical pursuits. What did you mean by that?

The record I did with her started me thinking about bringing various musical elements to the table. Working with [arranger and producer] Bob Sadin, I sat at the piano as he gave me ideas. I remember him telling me to imagine Herbie Hancock meeting [gospel music innovator] Thomas Whittfield. I found myself in those sessions thinking more of blending jazz, gospel, classical, and Brazilian music together rather than thinking of slipping into the gospel bag here, the jazz bag there. I wanted to put all of the musical ingredients that I have experienced in a pot together. Hopefully when it is served, it will be something that represents me.

What direction might you take in the future ?

Everyone talks about my gospel roots, saying that I "take the people to church" when I play. So I have thought about doing something in that vein, but I couldn't just do a straight gospel record. I have been doing research on Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Mahalia Jackson, Thomas Dorsey, and Paul Robeson. I want to go back to the history of gospel music, maybe even go back to before Thomas Dorsey. I don't want to do a repertoire record. I just want to listen to the music from the 1930s, '40s and '50s and bring it up to the year 2001. I want it to reflect the history but to have another twist to it. It might be like Blessed Quietness Part II; it will have a little different angle. I like it when I hear music that makes me stop and go, huh? I like to do that in my concerts too and give the people something unexpected.

What would you say to young musicians who see your career and would like to do what you are doing?

First, you have to be in love with music. If you love it, then you will do whatever it takes. It's not all peaches and cream; sometimes it can be hard and cold. But when I feel I have been able to get to an audience and have one person say that I made their day, that's my pay. I'm not in this for the money or to live the large life. I do it because I think it is important to share this God-given gift. It is rewarding to look out and see an audience of people clapping and showing their appreciation.

Young musicians should know that there is a price you pay. The dues are ongoing. I am starting to see that you don't just pay a certain amount of dues, get a record contract, and then that part is all over. The challenges may not be the same ones, but they are still there. If you are willing to do what it takes, it can be great.

As most would say, I don't have any regrets. I could have stayed playing in a church or been a teacher, and the time may come when I do something different, but performing music now is where I am at. I like the space that I'm in. I just want to tell my story the best way I can. I look forward to writing music for the gospel album and continuing to play classics or standards. The jazz pioneers wrote their own music and played standards in their own way. I am just trying to follow that path.