Cyrus Chestnut - dad's example was the key


He may have played with big names including Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, Isaac Hayes and Bette Midler and been lauded as one of the leading pianists in jazz today, but for Cyrus Chestnut the ultimate ambition is to be able to emulate someone much further down the ladder of fame, his father.


McDonald Chestnut played the organ in church and the piano at home in Baltimore and he was the young Cyrus’s first musical role model. From the age of two the youngster would climb onto the piano stool and try to pick out the same tunes that he’d heard his father playing. He must have shown some musical tendencies because his father became his first teacher, showing him proper fingering and scales. Soon the son was showing more promise than the father could happily harness, so at the age of five, Chestnut began classical studies that he would follow through at Baltimore’s Peabody Preparatory into his high school years.


And this might have led to him becoming a professional classical pianist but for a discovery at the age of nine that didn’t interrupt his studies but did send him on a search for knowledge.


“I came across Thelonious Monk quite by chance,” says Chestnut down the line from Barcelona ahead of his appearance at Fife Jazz Festival this weekend. “I had no idea who he was, I just saw this picture on the front of a record sleeve of a man playing the piano and he looked so cool. When I heard the record, it was tunes like Crepuscule with Nellie and Epistrophe and I really enjoyed them. I thought, I must hear more music like this, so I started tuning the radio dial looking for that sound and that’s how I discovered jazz.”


By this time Chestnut had been playing piano at the local Baptist church for three years, so between the classical technique he was learning at school and the feel of religious music that was, he says, bred in the bone, he was able to apply himself to jazz. He went on to graduate with a degree in jazz composition and arranging from Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he was awarded the Eubie Blake Fellowship, the Quincy Jones Scholarship and the Oscar Peterson Scholarship and was clearly a model student. These days, though, he maintains he’s a student of the streets.


“I just like music. I’m not into categories,” he says. “I get lots of satisfaction playing Chopin nocturnes or Bach inversions but I’m just as happy with rock and pop music, Brazilian music or even Celtic music, which I’d love to find out more about. And I think this broad interest is pretty typical really. I mean, I could play Bud Powell solos all night but if you study Bud Powell, sure, he was a jazz piano great but he could play Bach, too, and I think it’s much healthier to be open to all styles and just enjoy the love of playing music.”


This was something Chestnut picked up from Dizzy Gillespie, with whom he toured Japan as a twenty-something in the 1980s. Later he would work with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, although by that time Gillespie had passed on and the band was continuing as a tribute.


“I’m so glad I actually got to play with Dizzy as well as his big band,” he says. “Because he was an amazing man, very special and so full of enthusiasm. I could talk for hours about what I learned from him but mostly it was his passion for music that struck me.”


Chestnut went on to tour with the great singer and lyricist Jon Hendricks and two former Wynton Marsalis band members, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and saxophonist Donald Harrison, before getting the call from Marsalis himself in 1991. Yes, he says, Marsalis is strict and disciplined but he’s also very encouraging, something that Chestnut reckons Wynton inherited from his father, the great New Orleans educator and pianist, Ellis Marsalis.


“I got the chance to spend some time with Ellis as well and he was very disciplined and encouraging, too. I think you need that to help you discover who you are as a musician. The other thing about both Ellis and Wynton is that, as well as exposing you to a lot of extraordinary musicianship, they’re actually a lot of fun, too. I still occasionally get called to work with Wynton’s band and it’s always a really special experience.”


Before beginning to record and tour in his own right, Chestnut played with one more huge influence, the late singer Betty Carter, whom he credits with encouraging him to take chances and play in a way that makes his own trio distinctive.


“I’ve been working on this trio thing for quite a while now and I love it because it’s a challenge,” he says. “It’s not like being in a quartet or quintet, where even if you’re the leader, you spend a lot of the time in the role of accompanist. You’re the focus, you’re responsible for melody and you determine how everything goes. And working with Betty Carter really prepared me for that. She always wanted you to win over an audience with skill rather than gimmicks or tricks. She believed that jazz was about creation, not re-creation and that’s a lesson that I take on stage every night.”


Chestnut has appeared in Scotland before – twice being a guest at Nairn Jazz Festival – but his trip to Fife will be his first to the central belt. The venue in Dunfermline, though, is familiar, at least in name, especially for a musician who is the former first-call pianist for the Carnegie Hall Big Band in New York.


“Yeah, I saw Carnegie Hall on the tour schedule and thought, wow, there’s two,” he says. “And now I’m getting to play at the other one – or is the one in the New York considered the other one?”


Whatever the order of seniority, he reckons he knows how to get to both venues: “Practise!”


From The Herald, February 2, 2011.

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