Emmet Cohen – Interview on Blue Note at Sea & Jazz Cruise 2020

© Hans-Bernd Kittlaus 2020

Emmet Cohen Blue Note at Sea Jan. 2020 by © Hans-Bernd Kittlaus 2020

Emmet Cohen has been a favorite of Jazz Cruise audiences for the last ten years. In January and February 2020 he stayed on the cruise ship for two weeks playing both the Blue Note at Sea Cruise and the Jazz Cruise playing with Christian McBride’s Tip City Trio, his organ quartet and his piano trio. Soon after, the Corona crisis set in – and Emmet started a weekly live stream from his Harlem Apartment which turned into one of the most popular jazz live streams in the world. So here is what he said on January 29, 2020, at 10am after a CD signing.

HBK: Thank you for agreeing to the interview. A very early hour for a jazz musician.

It sure is. I had to do this CD signing this morning.

HBK: Alright. So let’s start. I am very happy that we are going to have you in Germany this spring (now in October 2020). You are going to play at our new club in Cologne, King Georg.

Yes, so nice.

HBK: You already know with whom you are going to come?

Russell Hall and Kyle Poole.

HBK: Great. The three of you are such a fantastic trio. Let’s start with looking at your last ten years. I read that you are going to turn 30 in a few months. (Mai 2020)

< funny grim look >

HBK: < laughing > That is a point in time when most people reflect on the past and the next years. So what is your view on the last ten years?

Well … it has been everything … I basically graduated from high school ten years ago. I moved to Miami for college. Four years of practicing and trying to figure out how to play the piano. Practice how to have a good sound on the piano … what I want to say basically … it was nice to get out of New Jersey … I was around there a lot … so to leave for a little while … somehow I was scared of leaving … but to go away and to have a chance to walk on my own … a lot of the time, musicians go to Juillard, and play around NYC … they have to evolve in front of everyone … grow up in front of everyone … So I was lucky to do that somewhere else and come back to NY. More prepared to be able to be a professional jazz musician. And then you work on yourself in front of everyone, and every gig is an opportunity to improve or learn something. I had a lot of good opportunities when I moved to NY. A lot of great friends as well.

HBK: You built a kind of community, didn’t you?

One of the most important secrets to my success is the community that I found myself in when I moved to NY. I moved to NY at the same time as Russell Hall and Kyle Poole and Evan Sherman and Joe Sailor, Bryan Carter, Benny Benack III, Tivon Pennicott … you know there is a throng of people … we spent our early days in NY all together … and it helped to have a family like that. Not a closed group, but an expanding family of people. You know you meet people at Smalls or at the Fat Cat, or at the Vanguard, or whereever, and you see these people over and over again. People start to become your family if you get along. So the jazz world has been an incredible extended family.

HBK: Early on, you got some fantastic opportunities to play with the elders.

I had a chance to have a few important gigs with other musicians like Christian McBride and Brian Lynch, and Kurt Elling I worked with for a year. I could explore myself in different contexts. I got a chance to play with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Band. Jimmy Heath was playing first tenor, God rest his soul. I got a chance to talk to him, to hear his stories. We played New Year’s one year, in 2012 at the Kennedy Center in DC. Jimmy Heath was on the bus with the whole Dizzy band going down from New York. And Jimmy was telling stories about having Charlie Parker at his house for dinner with his parents, about lending him his horn, stories about Percy Heath and the Modern Jazz Quartet, about how Miles stole tunes from him and recorded them, but never paid them, but gave him some hundred dollar bills every once in a while when they would see each other. So I was like this is the real history of feeling and nuance that I want to be a part of. So I started to surround myself as much as I could with great jazz masters. Not only myself, but I brought my whole community that I was talking about closer to the jazz masters. I have been working on that since 2015. Recording, and interviewing, and getting to know. And whenever I had a chance to perform with Ron Carter and Jimmy Cobb and Tootie Heath and Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson and George Coleman, Houston Person, Mary Stallings, Sheila Jordan, Barry Harris, Kenny Barron. You know people like that, they gave me a chance to feed my knowledge and my soul. And to spread some of the gospel, some of the truth about what makes the music so special.

HBK: Historically that has always been the way the next generation has learned from the previous generation. But somehow over the last twenty years that has been lost to some degree.

I bet every generation says that. After Lester Young and Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge and those guys, they probably said Oh no, everything’s gone. I think that is still always going on. Maybe one day I’ll be the one to have the connection to Benny Golson who has the connection to Art Farmer and Cedar (Walton) and Billy Higgins and all those guys. The Dizzy Gillespie Band grew up with John Coltrane who played Johnny Hodges solos in his mother’s house every morning. To be a part of that and spread my love for it through my music and in conversation. That stuff is important to me. It’s always been like that. And it always will be like that. I am happy to be part of it.

HBK: I remember when you played on the jazz cruise for the first time you were already pretty much formed as a piano player, right?

It is hard to see yourself … you are never fully formed … that is what I learned from Harold Mabern and Barry Harris.

HBK: Compared to your age.

I guess for my age I was advanced. Looking back now, there were a lot of things I hadn’t been through, thought about, or people I had not played with. In the last ten years I got to play with all those jazz masters, Christian McBride … have so many experiences in the music … every day is a new experience …getting called to play somewhere, playing fundraisers with Wynton Marsalis, staying up all night listening to Harold Mabern preach about the music. I had so many experiences that hit me from so many different angles. I was a good technician, but now I have more of a concept how to lead a band, how to put a set together, how to play the appropriate music for the audience that you are in front of, how to entertain, when to play more, when to talk more, what people want to hear. Not so direct and obvious, you know, a little more slick. There is a lot to know. Looking back ten years, it seems like I wouldn’t have known anything back then.

HBK: < laughing > That’s not true.

Sometimes that’s a good thing too. Once you know stuff you have all these preconceived notions about how it should go. Back then maybe it was more free and more easy, you know. I didn’t overthink as much.

HBK: You started very early, right?

Classical piano.

HBK: I read that you started at three.


HBK: < laughing > That is early. So you have gone through all this education. I think you had a bachelor degree in Miami, a master in NY. What is your view on the educational side? I hear very different views on this. Some musicians say it takes away the creative part. It is too much focused on the technical aspects. And others say it has been their saviour.

Yeah … I think it is a little bit of both. Nothing’s very black and white in the artistic world. I always liked school, not only music school, but school for any art, theatre or dance or film or painting or acting, creative writing. There are so many different directions you can go into in the artistic world. Institutionalized education creates structure around it, because they have to. You have to figure out for yourself how much to take from an institution, how much to learn from the approach to follow the guidelines, and then make decisions on your own eventually when to break off from that, when to say no, I don’t agree with some things … you have to figure out what to take from school … you know being around the teacher is important, being around the community is important. I don’t know if the day-to-day classes are so important, but they do have an impact on how you learn to work. So there are things you learn in school which are good. But school is not for everyone, but some people really benefit from it. You know I did it, had great teachers and had a great community of people in the school … ressources … I got to practice on a grand piano in school … I didn’t grow up with a grand piano, but with an upright. So it was amazing to me to sit with a grand piano every night for four years in college. And little things like the library, all the ressources. It gives you experience too. They have projects in school, especially in jazz schools. There are a lot of different options.

HBK: How come that you started to play the Hammond?

I went to a jam session in New Jersey, and they closed the piano and put it away. There was just the organ. I wanted to be part of the jam session. I watched it a few times and noticed the organ player’s job is also the bass player’s job. So I had to figure out how to do that. I remember the first song I ever played on the organ at a jam session was „Bye Bye Blackbird“. I practiced it all week and all month … I practiced for a long time to get independence between my hands … there is the bass function and there is a melody and choral function, and it is separate whereas on the piano they are more together.

HBK: That’s what I find so amazing. You don’t play the organ like a piano. You really play it like a different instrument.

I mean it is. And it’s got its own history. And I would go to the club and practice after school figuring out how to work the drawbars, how to turn the thing on is a whole process. If you don’t do it exactly right it is not gonna give you any sound. And getting to know the instrument. I fell in love with it, with the sound and the power and the role in the band, in a jazz ensemble.

HBK: I was at one of your sessions at Smoke last May.

You were? That‘s right. We talked.

HBK: You played with Bruce Harris. How long have you had this gig?

About five years. They have been really nice to me there, and have given me a place to call home and to try music out every week, to have a community of people. Anyone I meet anywhere in the world I can invite there, and they can play a song at the end of the night and be part of the music. That is an important thing … to provide a place to have a jam session. It is just a good place to have a community.

HBK: Yeah, it is perfect.

Music is about community for me, the people and the music. I asked Jimmy Heath „What about this music makes it so special for a lifetime“. He said it is not the music, it is the people who are special. He met so many great people throughout his life … and I wholeheartedly agree.

HBK: Well, I mean it is a life style, isn’t it?


HBK: When I look at your recordings, the legacy series, when I look at your bands I have an association that I want your opinion on. Do you know the Italian piano player Antonio Farao?

I know the name, but I don’t know him.

HBK: He is a great player. He released a CD about 20 years ago and called it „Black Inside“. Could that be the title of an Emmet Cohen CD?

Black Inside … what does that mean?

HBK: I guess he wanted to say that inside he felt like a black piano player.

< Thinking > No, no … the answer is no. First of all, if somebody else has a title on a CD I would not take that. And I don’t agree. It is not about race … at the end of the day. I mean it is an important aspect, and jazz has served a very particular role in the country and has evolved and existed in many different parts of American history. Everywhere from the Great Depression when Fats Waller and other people were playing rent parties, all the way up to Wynton Marsalis playing classical and jazz and winning a Grammy in both categories. And everyone in between … John Coltrane, Charles Mingus. It is important to recognize it is Black American Music. And to understand them, especially as a white musician. But none of the masters ever said anything about colour or race. It is all about if you can play you can play. That is what they all say. You play … that’s what it’s about. I think that is a very European mind set … Black Inside. Nobody in America would think that is appropriate. You know what I mean.

HBK: I agree that the title is kind of strange. But on the other hand, race has always been an issue in jazz, right?

Yeah … but wanting to be something that you are not, or wanting to be something inside? You never know what it is like to be a black man outside, you know, from appearance, and you have to go through racial prejudice, and you have to be discriminated against based on the way you look. Fear of being shot by a police officer when you get pulled over in the mid-west on tour. I mean those things are not funny. It is our job as white people to be conscious of that and aware of that. And treat it with an air of seriousness … because there are so many injustices. It is about being aware and being conscious and being supportive … and doing what you can to be supportive and understanding under the circumstances, and trying to move things forward in a positive direction.

HBK: You have released some of your music by yourself, right?

Some. I made a record with Brian Lynch, and we decided to put it on his record label Holistic Music Works. I have done a couple of independent records, and then I partnered for Jimmy Cobb and Ron Carter with Cellar Live, a label based in Vancouver. So I recorded for them. I have done the last three or four independently. I just recorded last week for Mack Avenue. It will be the beginning of my contract with them. Should be released in September (now scheduled for early 2021).

HBK: Do you think that a label like Mack Avenue has a lot of advantages?

I’ll let you know in two years how it compares to being self-released. But yeah, there are a lot of advantages. They have a lot of connections, they have world-wide distribution, they have associations with jazz festivals and clubs, with magazines. Christian McBride is the face of the label. He is such a tremendous supporter of my success and my career. You know it is one piece of the puzzle. It does not need a record label to make records. It is a postmodern time where it takes a lot of different moving parts to sustain. Longevity, you know. You don’t stay with a record label for forty years. You can see that with Miles, with everybody. They dance around and they try to find the right thing for the time that you are in … I am excited to be with Mack Avenue now and to build a nice relationship. See how we can work together to bring some positivity into the world and to get my music out there.

HBK: With whom did you record last week?

Russell Hall, Kyle Poole, my trio, and then I had a few guests on the record. Marquis Hill and Melissa Aldana.

HBK: Regarding your legends series, I like that idea that you record with these legendary musicians. I have the Ron Carter CD which is really fantastic. And I am looking forward to the new ones (George Coleman, Tootie Heath + Benny Golson). When I saw you in NY in May I had a chance to see your set with George Coleman at Birdland.

Oh yeah. That was a magical night.

HBK: Yeah. That was fantastic. Did you make the recording around that time?

No, the recording was made two years ago. It set in the can as we say for a while. Then I had some pressure to release all the stuff that I had in the can before I started the contract with Mack Avenue. So I released them to the end of the year 2019. Now I don’t have any left-overs anymore.

HBK: You have been in Europe with your own band already, right?

Not really.

HBK: Last year in Germany?

Oh yeah. Stuttgart. We played at Bix. It is just starting.

HBK: Europe is still a good jazz market.

Yeah, of course, one of the best.

HBK: Jazz in Europe … a lot of European jazz musicians have fought the idea that the US is dominant, but the audience has always loved the US musicians.

Yeah … a lot of musicians moved to places like Copenhagen and Paris …

HBK: In the 60’s …

To escape … to get away from all the injustices in America.

HBK: And we have always had a lot of touring musicians in Europe … we still have that that musicians come over by themselves and play with local people. And it is perfect for the local musicians to get that experience. But in your case I prefer your trio < laughing >

Yes, I am trying to play not as much with local musicians anymore. It is not as powerful as bringing your own band.

HBK: I can imagine that Mack Avenue as a label will also help you to become more visible in Europe.

I sure hope so.

HBK: Yeah. They have really good distribution in Europe. When I look into your newsletters you are on tour all the time.

I am tired out … no. I love to travel, I love to see the world, I love to see many people in different cultures, and exchange music … and pleasantries … which all my heroes have been doing. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, they all needed to travel to bring the music to the people. That is one of the foods for people’s souls. And an important part of what we do as musicians is to bring the music to the people. It is a mission. When it gets hard to travel you remember the mission.

HBK: Mack Avenue may also help you to win a Grammy.

< makes a funny face > I do not know anything about that.

HBK: I thought that your CD with Ron Carter would have been a candidate, but they did not really look at it.

Popularity contest … I am not worried about that.

HBK: Yeah, but a Grammy still gives a lot of visibility.

I would not say no, but I do not know anything about that world. It is politics. I stick to play the piano. And when something happens that is fine. I do not stay up at night thinking about how can I get a Grammy. What kind of chord can I play when Ron Carter plays. That is what I focus on.

HBK: < laughing > Well, having a career all your life has its business aspects.

Of course. I have my own manager.

HBK: You have anything else that you like me to include in the article?

No. If you have some more questions email me, and I can answer. Probably more intelligently in writing than I can do it here at 10 o’clock in the morning after a night of tequila.

HBK: You have been doing very well. It was a good talk.

I am glad because sometimes it is hard to find the words this early in the morning.

HBK: You suggested the time < laughing >

I had to be up anyway for the CD signing. So it actually worked out.

HBK: Thank you very much, Emmet.

Thank you. I can’t think of anything else off the top of my head, but if you have any questions just email me … Danke schön.

HBK: Bitte schön < laughing > I am looking forward to seeing you next week with your trio and with Veronica.

Yeah, I talked to her yesterday. I got an offer to go to India with her.

HBK: Oh yeah. We talked about that via email two weeks ago when I was in India. You said you had never been to India and wanted to go there.

And two days ago I got an offer to go there. It is crazy how that works. For a jazz festival.

HBK: Yeah. In the country there is not  much jazz, but they have a few festivals. When I listen to some traditional Karnataka music in the south it has some elements that I interpret as jazz. They don’t think about it that way, of course.

I like the music. It is different in time signatures and harmonically.

HBK: That is what I like about guys like Vijay Iyer or Rudresh Mahanthappa. They try to bring these Indian elements into jazz.

Not my favorite music, these guys < laughing > but I respect them. The feeling of the music is separate from jazz. It is not in the way I have learned it through the masters like Jimmy Heath and how he learned it from Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

HBK: I saw that you are going to play with Ron (Carter) at the Village Vanguard in February.

Yeah. That is gonna be amazing. It is coming up actually. It is a few weeks away, and I need to prepare.

HBK: Are you going to record that?

I want to. But there have been so many recordings lately that I am not sure I can do it this time. And I already have a record with Ron Carter.

HBK: Recording live at the Village Vanguard is still special.

I know. But it is up to Mack Avenue now. (the concerts were actually recorded)

HBK: Gerald (Clayton) recorded at the Village Vanguard when I was in NY last year. It will come out on Blue Note Records.

He really deserves it.

HBK: Alright. Thank you very much, Emmet.

Thank you, man. I hope it was ok.

HBK: Absolutely. I appreciate it.

Hans-Bernd Kittlaus