Cyrus Chestnut
Courtesy photo
Cyrus Chestnut

A deep connection to gospel music and a resounding sense of swing

Jazz and gospel pianist Cyrus Chestnut brings trio to Vermont Jazz Center for Oct. 14 concert

BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont Jazz Center will present Cyrus Chestnut in a trio concert on Saturday, Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. Called "the best jazz pianist of his generation" by Time magazine, Chestnut will appear with bassist Herman Burney and drummer Kelton Norris.

Chestnut's repertoire includes selections from the Great American Songbook, spirituals, jazz standards, and original music as well as surprising transformations from other genres.

Along with his interpretations of jazz-related gems, his recordings include compositions by Elvis Presley, Erik Satie, and even Beethoven. Chestnut carefully arranges each piece, developing it with reharmonizations, introductions, and interludes. His approach is characterized by two constants: a deep connection to gospel music and a resounding sense of swing.

As a youth, Chestnut was immersed in, and continues to follow, the spiritual beliefs of the Baptist church. His training as a musician followed a path from church musician to the Peabody Conservatory Preparatory Program and the Berklee College of Music.

He quickly became known as a consummate sideman, touring the world and making recordings with several jazz legends. He is now recognized as a leader in his own right.

Chestnut currently holds the position of master instructor of jazz piano and improvisation at Howard University. He continues to tour and record as a soloist, with his own groups, and as a high-level sideman at noted jazz festivals and venues.

At the root of Chestnut's gift has always been a deep connection between jazz and God.

"I believe the ability to play music is a gift from God, and every time I play, I'm thankful. Every time I sit down to play, for me, is worship and expression," he told DownBeat magazine.

In an interview with, Chestnut reflected on the many musical skills he learned as a member of the church.

"The church was a great training ground. It was an unspoken school, much like the Betty Carter and the Buhaina [Art Blakey] schools; the church taught me ear-training, how to improvise, and the principles of accompaniment.

"It was my job to figure out the keys and chords behind vocalists. People would sing in all 12 keys and modulate, and I'd have to follow them. Playing for the choir you had to give support.

"At the end of the preacher's sermons, I'd provide the musical 'amen.' You listen in church and use your ears - it wasn't about you but what you could contribute to the whole."

This thread has continued throughout his career. In most of his albums as a leader he includes at least one spiritual.

For example, on his most recent recording he pays a moving tribute to his recently departed father in a hauntingly beautiful solo version of the traditional hymn "I Must Tell Jesus."

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As a youth, Chestnut continued to study the classics while holding his position as pianist and organist at the church. He then went on to study jazz composition and performance at Berklee.

After graduating, his path led to stints as a sideman with vocalist Jon Hendricks from 1986to 1988, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and saxophonist Donald Harrison from 1988-to 1890, and Wynton Marsalis in 1991.

Soon after, Chestnut joined forces with the legendary singer Betty Carter and has often said that working with the National Medal of Arts award–winning singer was his "graduate school." He learned from her that "jazz is about finding out who you are." Indeed, that notion of identifying his purpose in life has become Chestnut's North Star.

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In an interview with Neon Jazz, Chestnut tells a compelling story of how he internalized this lesson. He and Carter's accompanying trio were warming up the audience for her concert by playing a scripted trio version of Miles Davis's arrangement of If I Were a Bell.

They played the classic arrangement "right down to the letter." Carter glared at Chestnut as she entered the stage to sing.

After they finished their set, Carter asked him to come to her dressing room where she tore into him.

"I didn't hire you to play something that I already know," she told him. "Find a different way to play it - don't just regurgitate the same thing."

Chestnut reflected: "After that conversation I was forever changed. Even to this day, a mechanism goes off if I feel like I'm playing the same thing over and over again - it's the voice of Betty yelling at me: 'You need to think, don't just play something that I've heard before.' Jazz is a thinking person's music. I'm now on a mission to find something different."

* * *

Since his tenure with Betty Carter, Chestnut has worked with an array of leading musicians, including saxophonists Vincent Herring, Steve Wilson, James Carter, Donald Harrison and Joe Lovano; trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Freddie Hubbard, as well as Chick Corea, Kevin Mahogany, Dee Dee Bridgewater, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, and opera singer Kathleen Battle.

In 1996, he appeared on the soundtrack to director Robert Altman's feature film Kansas City (which also found Cyrus portraying a Count Basie–inspired pianist).

Chestnut's music is a combination of several styles and influences, fused together through the filter of his intellect and heart.

In the interview with Neon Jazz, Cyrus digs into that idea. "It's so easy to be typecast as 'the soulful guy.' I appreciate that you know, I appreciate the consistency.

"But we grow. A baby doesn't stay 6 months old for the rest of its life. They grow up! After a while we evolve. So, as I evolve, for sure the music is going to evolve."

Listeners will identify pianists that have influenced Chestnut's sound: Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Billy Taylor, Kenny Barron, Bobby Timmons, and Bud Powell, for example.

But he is himself.

"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."

It is also very clear that Chestnut is open-minded in choosing his material. For example, he is a lover of the classical repertoire, and sometimes performs jazz versions of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1 and Debussy's Golliwogg's Cakewalk. He makes these his own, too.

In an online interview for the Pace Report, Chestnut reflected, "I can study and play the baroque, but no, that's not me, I want to be inspired by the baroque.[ ....] I grew up with Parliament, Little Richard (my momma had the CDs), King Curtis, Thelonious Monk - it's all these influences. All I'm trying to do is operate from what's been given to me and then present it."

* * *

Chestnut, now in his early 60s, is a mature, developed master at the top of his game. His sound is most clearly defined by his use of the language of gospel piano, its nuances, harmonizations, the building of solos to a thrilling peak. He has the gospel pianist's ability to get funky at the spur of the moment, with blues embellishments, tremolo chords and call and response phrases.

He summed this up in an interview with iRockJazz.

"If I'm going to be honest about who I am, there's the element from the church that has to be present not in a separate way but in a collective way. Anything that I play could have elements of a hymn or some type of gospel tinge[....]"

Chestnut perhaps best sums up his vision in an interview with Neon Jazz:

"A person who loves music [....]. A servant for humankind, doing what I can to make the world a better place. Doing everything I can. I strive to change the world into a better place using one rhythm, one melody, and one harmony at a time."

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Admission to this in-person event is offered for a sliding fee ($25 to $45). All seats are general admission and available at and by email at [email protected]. For accessibility needs, email [email protected]. The streaming of this concert at and at will be offered free, but donations will be welcomed.

Eugene Uman is director of the Vermont Jazz Center. The Commons ' Deeper Dive column gives artists, arts organizations, and other nonprofits elbow room to write in first person and/or be unabashedly opinionated, passionate, and analytical about their own creative work and events.

This The Arts column was submitted to The Commons.

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