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Sweet Inspiration

Cyrus Chestnut Looks Back to Gospel to Find the Future of Jazz

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Instrument of the Lord: Chestnut, at the electric piano, accompanies the choir at Bethany Baptist Church.
Jefferson Jackson Steele
"It wasn't until I went to an official music school," Chestnut says, "that I realized how much I had already learned [about music] in church."
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/11/2001

Bethany baptist church is a boxy brick building in the middle of a grim Southwest Baltimore housing project. It would seem an unlikely place to find one of the world's greatest jazz musicians. But today, the first Sunday in March, Cyrus Chestnut is sitting in the front pew, accompanying the choir on an electric piano.

It is, perhaps, not as unlikely a scene as it might first appear. Chestnut, 38, would not be the musician he is--with a half-dozen major-label albums to his credit and studio sessions with the likes of James Carter, Roy Hargrove, Kathleen Battle, and Michael Brecker under his belt--if he had not grown up playing in Baltimore churches just like this one. In a jazz world where technically dazzling young pianists who sound like Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock are a dime a dozen, Chestnut's Baptist roots give his playing a rootsy earthiness and an emotional punch that separate him from the pack.

Outside Bethany Baptist, a gray drizzle is falling. Soggy white plastic bags are caught in a cyclone fence. An old refrigerator stands by the curb, victim of an eviction and reminder of the poverty that plagues this forgotten Westport neighborhood between Mount Auburn Cemetery and the old Montgomery Ward building. Inside, though, the blond-wood pews are filled with a stubborn optimism. The ushers wear starchy white uniforms with red berets and white gloves. The children are freshly scrubbed and dressed up as if for a school picture. The men wear dark suits, and the women wear extravagant hats with all the swoops and curves of spaceships from a 1950s sci-fi movie.

Chestnut, very short and very round, wears a dark blue suit and rectangular, gold-framed glasses. He joins the organist and drummer to provide the music for the opening processional, the choir hymns, the offertory, collection, and all the bridging music in between. About an hour into the service, the pianist finally gets a chance for his own solo.

He begins with a Bach quote, dissolves it into a jazzy flourish, and introduces the melody from the old spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The hymn begins slow and solemn, but gradually it gathers momentum. Soon all manner of embellishments and harmony notes are swarming around the melody, like moths around a lamp. Chestnut makes further and further detours from the familiar tune, but he always comes home to remind the congregation of the original before taking off again.

Even with all the virtuoso dazzle, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" still has a story to tell. It's a hymn about death, and Chestnut captures the sadness of losing a loved one in his reluctant, bluesy opening. But gradually, wordlessly, he transforms those same blues chords into a confident celebration of the heavenly paradise promised to all good Christians. After all, that's where the chariot wants to take us. By the end, his right hand is trilling triplets over the left's stomping march beat.

It's a stunning performance--and, in its isolation from the rest of the morning's music, as incongruous in this small church as it would be for, say, Ry Cooder to show up for a nightlong blues jam at the Full Moon Saloon in Fells Point and take only one solo. The churchgoers give Chestnut a standing ovation, but soon they sit down and the pastor proceeds with the birth announcements.

The next day, Chestnut is sitting in an overstuffed armchair in a brick rowhouse near Herring Run Park. Though the pianist now lives in the Bronx, he visits his hometown often, and this house is his Baltimore base.

"When I played 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' yesterday," he explains, "I used that Erroll Garner thing of playing a lot of different quotes in the introduction before I settled on the main theme. For some reason, I wound up playing the ending faster than I usually do, but it always changes.

"If you heard me play it today it would be different than it was yesterday, and next week it would be different again. I always keep myself open to any last-minute inspiration because I thrive in the realm of spontaneity. I'm not a play-it-safe guy on stage--sometimes you fall on your face, but then you just turn up the burners and get out of the mess you've created."

Is it any different playing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" than, say, George Gershwin's "Summertime" (which appeared on the pianist's 1998 Atlantic album Cyrus Chestnut)?

"As long as there is a theme, there can always be variations, whether it's a jazz standard, a pop song, or a gospel hymn," Chestnut insists. "I'm like a minister giving his sermon. He will state his theme; he'll improvise variations on that theme; he'll take it to a high point; and then he'll make his closing statement. I'm doing the same thing at the piano.

"That's why I still like playing in church, because church is all about telling stories. That's why it's called 'inspirational' music. You want as much facility with your instrument as you can get, but if you develop technique just for technique's sake, that's what you become--a technician. Those who fall into theoretical concepts end up playing those concepts rather than telling a story about life. That's what I want to do--tell a story about life."

Chestnut is touching on the crisis confronting modern jazz. Never before has the genre enjoyed as many technically accomplished musicians as it does today, thanks largely to the acceptance of jazz as an academic discipline at high schools and colleges across the country. But never before have jazz musicians seemed to have so little to say--hence the impulse of so many young players to re-create the glories of 1950s jazz rather than forge a new language of their own. Ever since Charlie Parker and John Coltrane transformed jazz from a dance music into an art music, the genre has increasingly become an insular world created by intellectuals for intellectuals--"America's classical music," as it's so often labeled. That nickname was meant to boost the status of jazz, but it's also a symptom of the music's alienation from its populist roots.

Those roots lie in the blues and gospel, the essential emotional counterpart to jazz's cerebral side. Traditional gospel shares the cathartic confessions and ecstatic exclamations of the blues. (Thomas A. Dorsey, widely known as the "Father of Gospel Music," was blues legend Ma Rainey's pianist in the 1920s.) But gospel also possesses an institutional infrastructure and a devotion to spiritual concerns that might make it a better bet to heal the emotional/intellectual divide afflicting jazz.

From his armchair, Chestnut is warming to this theme. "Yes, you have to use your intelligence in your music," he says. "But you also have to use your emotions and your spirit, because that's just as important a part of who you are. [The late jazz vocalist] Betty Carter always told us, 'We're not playing for ourselves; we're playing to connect with other people. But we want to win them over with skill--no gimmicks or tricks, just good music.' It would be easy to put on a clown suit and get over, but it would be a hollow victory."

The gospel influence has a long if often ignored history in jazz--it was barely mentioned in Ken Burns' recent PBS series, for example. But Duke Ellington tackled this fusion in the middle of his career with "Come Sunday" and pursued it for the rest of his life, culminating in his ambitious, large-scale "Sacred Concerts." Ellington's two most obvious heirs as composers, Charles Mingus and Wynton Marsalis, followed his example in works such as Mingus' "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" and Marsalis' "In This House, on This Morning."

The list goes on: John Coltrane's most beloved album, A Love Supreme, is essentially a prayer, as is Pharoah Sanders' "The Creator Has a Master Plan." Mainstream pianists such as Ray Bryant and Gene Harris have conspicuously drawn from gospel sources, and so have avant-gardists such as Don Pullen and Dave Burrell.

But no one has given this jazz-gospel fusion the priority that Chestnut has. The pianist recognizes that the twofold nature of the religious experience--gut-wrenching in its emotions, abstract in its spirituality--make it a uniquely suitable forum for restoring the visceral impact of jazz without sacrificing the music's intellectual complexity. On that Sunday morning in March, one possible future for jazz was being worked out in a small brick church in one of Baltimore's least promising neighborhoods.

If any musician is going to unite jazz's airy present with its earthy past, it will be someone like Chestnut, who studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but also at Mount Calvary Baptist Church on Milton Avenue in East Baltimore, near the Baltimore Cemetery.

"I got a great musical education at Mount Calvary," the pianist says. "I had instruction in ear training, arrangement, and improvisation. They didn't call it that, but that's what it was. It wasn't until I went to an official music school that I realized how much I had already learned in church.

"In church, someone would start singing without ever telling you what key the song was in. I'd just have to listen and start playing along. That was my ear training. I had to take the basic chord progressions of gospel and adapt them to fit the song. That was arrangement. But nothing was set in stone, and you were always changing things around to fit the moment. That was improvisation."

When Chestnut was growing up in Govans in North Baltimore, Mount Calvary was his family's church. It was a small brick building, not unlike Bethany Baptist. Chestnut's mother, Flossie, who worked for city social services, was the choir director; his father, McDonald, a postal worker, was the church pianist. McDonald Chestnut also played piano at home, and by the time Cyrus was 5, the boy was imitating his daddy at the keyboard.

"I loved gospel," he remembers, "but I listened to all kinds of music. My mother had old 45s by Sam Cooke, Little Richard, and Jackie Wilson, and I would listen to AM radio stations like WSID, WEBB, and WWIN. I would turn the dial just to hear what was going out. If I heard something with a good groove, I'd just listen to it. It might be country, an old waltz, or something very funky; I didn't care.

"When I was in the fourth grade at Northwood Elementary School, we went to see the Baltimore Symphony [Orchestra] play Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. I thought even that was cool. I liked the Charlie Brown cartoons on television because the music pulled me in. I didn't know that music was jazz, but I did know I liked the groove."

This past winter Chestnut paid tribute to that childhood experience by releasing Cyrus Chestnut & Friends: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Atlantic). The friends included the Manhattan Transfer, Vanessa Williams, Brian McKnight, Kenny Garrett, Pat Martino, Wallace Roney, Christian McBride, Michael Brecker, and Steve Gadd. The music is a mix of traditional Christmas fare, Vince Guaraldi's jazz instrumentals for the TV classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, and a Chestnut original called "Me and Charlie Brown." It's the pianist's most pop-oriented recording and a reflection of his ambition to build bridges between jazz and the broader public.

Chestnut didn't realize that it was jazz he loved until 1972. "When I was 9, I got a $2 allowance each week," he recalls. "I went down to the Woolworths at the Alameda Shopping Center and saw they had a $1.99 record bin, which was just the right price for my allowance. I found this one album with a very colorful cover with a man playing the piano. I liked the way it looked, so I bought it, took it home, and listened to it over and over."

The album was Thelonious Monk's Greatest Hits. It was a near-perfect example of how a pianist could twist music into strange new harmonies and angular rhythms and yet never lose a strong sense of melody and groove. In a sense, Chestnut has been following that model ever since.

That same year Chestnut got his first paying job as a musician, playing piano for the Israel Baptist Church in East Baltimore's Collington Square neighborhood, and he started taking classical lessons at Peabody Prep. His family moved out to Harford County in '76, and Chestnut wound up in the North Harford High School Jazz Band.

"Moving to the suburbs was a big adjustment," he says. "I had never gone to school on a school bus, and I had never been the only black kid on a bus. But music was always my friend; I was known as the guy who could play piano. After high school, I was thinking of going to Towson State, but when I looked at the program at the Berklee College of Music and saw Oscar Peterson, Monty Alexander, and Ray Brown on the faculty, I knew this was a real jazz school. So that's where I went."

As a teenager too young to drink and without a car, Chestnut hadn't connected with Baltimore's club-oriented jazz scene while he was in high school. But when he started returning home from college in Boston, he discovered just how much music was going on in his hometown. He started playing in a local band and "sitting in at clubs like the Sportsmen's Lounge, the Gentleman 10, Club 2300, the Haven, the Bird Cage, and the Sphinx Club. I used to work on the harbor cruises--the Bay Lady and the Lady Baltimore--and after I'd get off, I'd go see organist Dave Ross and his trio. They would groove so hard that when they asked me to play, I had to say, 'Oh, no, that's holy ground up there; I can't touch that.'

"I asked Dave how he could groove like that all night long. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'The first thing I do is search for a groove, and once I find it, I hang onto it for dear life.' I've always remembered that. Before you hear any flash and dash from me, I'm going to find that groove. Before you hear any fanciness from me, whether I'm in church or in a club, I make sure the music is grooving.

"You can always tell musicians who come from Baltimore," Chestnut continues, "because they have a different kind of groove--they're straight-out funky. And musicians here like [pianist] Charles Covington and [sax player] Mickey Fields were major-league talents. Mickey might have taken it easy if he was flirting with the ladies, but if someone from out of town came through the door, especially if it was a real big name, Mickey would stand up straight, turn up the heat on his saxophone, and blow them off the stage.

"One time I was walking around at Artscape and I heard these melodies that were so intense that I had to find out where they were coming from. I followed the sound all the way to the other side of the festival, where I found Charles playing the piano. He has a harmonic capacity like no one else. I don't know why he and Mickey never made it big."

Unlike Covington and Fields, Chestnut was ready, willing, and able to tour as a sideman with other musicians. After graduating from Berklee in 1985, he worked a steady succession of jobs with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Jon Hendricks, Terence Blanchard, and Donald Harrison. But it wasn't until 1991 that he landed the job he most wanted--pianist for singer Betty Carter.

In the '80s, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Carter's band were the top finishing schools in jazz. Both bandleaders hired the best young musicians and held them to very high standards for a few years before releasing them to become leaders themselves. After Blakey died in 1990, Carter carried on alone; the pianists who graduated from her group include Benny Green, Stephen Scott, John Hicks, Geri Allen, Mulgrew Miller, and Marc Cary. Chestnut can be heard playing with her on the 1992 Verve album It's Not About the Melody.

"Dealing with Betty meant always being on your toes because you never knew what she might do next," Chestnut recalls. "She would always throw you a curve ball, and you would have to go with her wherever she led. You had to shift gears on a moment's notice. Fortunately, I was used to that from church, because a lot of singers there will change keys or tempos whenever the spirit moves them, and you have to identify what they're doing and go there.

"Betty always told me that jazz is about finding out who you are. Even back in the days of Jelly Roll Morton, when things were tough for blacks, a jazz musician could always be himself on the bandstand. No one ever got lynched for playing a sharp ninth chord. The United States is built on the philosophy that people can be who they really are, and jazz is one place where that philosophy is realized.

"It was in Betty's band that I started to figure out who Cyrus Chestnut was and what he had to say. Why is there a gospel influence in my music? Because I grew up in the church. Why is there a classical influence in my music? Because I took lessons at Peabody. I learned to be as honest as I could in my playing and to bring everything I am to the music.

"Betty told me was that when I was done with her, I would be ready to go out on my own. And she was right."

While he was with Carter, Chestnut recorded two albums under his own name for the Japanese label Alfa; they were later reissued in the United States by Evidence as Nut and Another Direction. They captured a young pianist of considerable skills still looking for his own voice. He had found it by the time he left Carter and released his first U.S. album for Atlantic in 1993.

The title was Revelation, and that's just what it was. At 31, Chestnut was too old to be considered a young lion, but his delayed arrival meant he burst on the American scene as a mature talent. Backed by his bandmates in the Carter group, bassist Christopher Thomas and drummer Clarence Penn, Chestnut was more than just another fast-fingered pianist; he was a storyteller at the keyboard.

The album spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the Gavin jazz-radio chart and was named the best jazz album of '94 in a Village Voice critics' poll. Suddenly Chestnut was a figure to be reckoned with, and the invitations for festivals and recording sessions came flooding in. One of the most unusual came from opera star Kathleen Battle, who was preparing a crossover album of spirituals, So Many Stars (Sony Classics, 1994), with jazz figures such as James Carter, Christian McBride, and Grover Washington Jr.

"This was a high-cotton studio session," Chestnut remembers. "I had never been in a room with so many stars, and they had one of the best Hamburg Steinways I've ever played in my life. The producer, Robert Sadin, told me he wanted me to play like Thomas Whitfield meets Herbie Hancock. Now I knew Thomas Whitfield, the great gospel pianist, and I knew Herbie Hancock, the great jazz pianist, but I had never thought about putting them together.

"But I tried it, and I got it all working at once. I came out of that session and said, 'Wow, this can really work.' It was like a door had opened for me and all I had to do was step through. I had never wanted to be a re-creator of other people's music; I had always wanted to create something that was all my own. I had never wanted to wear a lot of different hats--the jazz hat, the gospel hat, the classical hat. I wanted to take them all apart and sew them into one big hat. And this showed me how."

Chestnut dealt with his gospel background explicitly on the 1996 solo- piano album on Atlantic, Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns, Spirituals, and Carols. But even more impressive was a series of albums for that label that integrated the storytelling gospel musician with the virtuoso classical musician, the playful blues musician with the composing-on-the-run jazz musician: 1995's TheDark Before the Dawn, 1996's Earth Stories, and 1998's Cyrus Chestnut. These were three of the decade's finest jazz releases.

Chestnut also appeared in two films during this period. In 1996, he was cast as the young Count Basie in the Robert Altman's Kansas City, as much for his roly-poly figure as for his humorous, melodic way with the blues. The following year, Daniel Berman's Nutman's Got the Blues, a 15-minute portrait of Chestnut, was released by Rhapsody Films as part of the anthology video 3 Piano Portraits.

After appearing in films, guesting on big-budget recordings, and playing at jazz festivals all over the world, it might seem strange that Chestnut would still make his way to an unimposing church in a down-and-out Baltimore neighborhood once or twice a month to donate his skills for a small Sunday service. But he doesn't see it that way.

"It's a give-and-take situation. I get so much from church that I'm glad to give something back," he says. "Anytime I can be a blessing to someone else, I want to come through. And I still get a lot from church, not just spiritually, but also musically. When I make a recording I'm trying to be the best Cyrus Chestnut I can be, and part of that is Cyrus Chestnut the gospel musician. And I don't want to lose touch with that."

It is now late afternoon in Chestnut's Northeast Baltimore rowhouse, and the living room filled with Bible calendars and Chinese pottery dims with shadows. Chestnut's 3-year-old daughter, Jazz'min, has crawled up in his lap and is resting her head against his shoulder.

"If I only played jazz, I'd only have jazz ideas feeding my playing," the proud papa says. "But when I play in church, I'm forced into different circumstances. I never know what they're going to sing or how they're going to sing it, but I try to create the illusion that we've rehearsed the song together. I try to be part of the team and try to make the whole service successful. It keeps me thinking, because I may improvise something new to fit the situation and that will teach me something I can use later."

Over his daughter's drowsy head, Chestnut's eyebrows lift and a big grin spreads. "Plus," he says through the smile, "I enjoy it so much."

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