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Cass Interview with Cyrus Chestnut

Cass' interview with
Warner Bros. Jazz Artist,
CYRUS CHESTNUT

Copyright Cassandra Henry, 2004

I'm not about to call this an interview because Warner Bros.' jazz pianist, Cyrus Chestnut, and I had way too much fun laughing and talking. The next time you look up the definitions good-natured and kind, Cyrus' picture should appear next to them. I pray that our paths will cross again. Here's just a snippet of our conversation:

Cass:
Good evening Cyrus. I'm delighted that we finally hooked up.

Cyrus:
It's my pleasure, and I apologize for the delay.

Cass:
Why don't we get the basics out of the way first, like where you grew up, who was your best friend in school, your favorite food?

Cyrus:
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and my relationship with the piano has been going on for about 38 years.

Cass:
On your CD cover, you have the aura and presence of an old soul, but your look 25-years-old. I can't believe that you're 40 years old!

Cyrus:
41

Cass:
You certainly don't look a day over 38.

Cyrus:
[Laughter]. Everybody's a comedian.

Cass:
You know they say, "Black don't crack."

Cyrus:
I've been scuffed up a little, but I just hope and pray that I keep my youthful looks for as long as possible. I grew up in a musical family -- my mom sings and my father plays the piano. They were both very active in the church.

Cass:
So you had no other choice because the sound of music was filtered through the umbilical chord?

Cyrus:
My mom tells this story that even when I was in the womb, my father played the piano and she sang. So, before I officially got here, I was already surrounded by music. I also like the way my father explains it. When I was about 3-years old, in order to keep me quiet, my father would put me in the bassinet and either put on some music or play the piano. When he started playing, I got quiet and eventually went to sleep. He said by the time I turned 3, I just climbed up on the piano and started playing it with the attitude of I'm gonna play dis here piano.

Cass:
That's incredible. I can certainly relate to that because of similar circumstances with my son. But that's another story.

Cyrus:
He started me with the basics, and I think I was around 5 or 6, when I received professional instruction. Around 8 or 9, I went to the Peabody Preparatory in Baltimore. But what's more interesting is that I was already playing at church at the age of 6. My wife still jokes with me about seeing me playing the piano in church when my feet couldn't even touch the pedals.

Cass:
[Chuckle]. I bet you were so cute too. So you and your wife grew up together?

Cyrus:
Yes. She says that I would be playing the piano and my feet would just be swinging from the piano stool.

Cass:
Your daughter's name is Jazzmin. Whose idea was that?

Cyrus:
That was my wife's idea. I wanted to name her Jewel, like jewel from the Nile, but my wife said, "No. The perfect name for the daughter of a jazz musician is Jazzmin." I guess you see who won that argument.

Cass:
How long have you been married?

Cyrus:
Coming up on 10 years.

Cass:
Has being married centered you, helped your creativity, and given you a safe place for you to continue your spiritual musical journey?

Cyrus:
Being married has been extremely GOOD FOR ME! In order to keep developing your song or story, you need things in your life to help build that.

Cass:
When I first listened to your CD, You Are My Sunshine, the first track immediately put a smile on my face. I turned the CD over to see the title, and my smile got broader because it was titled, "God Has Smiled On Me." Talk about God working in mysterious ways.

Cyrus:
No doubt. Now, you're making me smile.

Cass:
What's your process when you're composing? What comes first, the melody or what?

Cyrus:
A lot of times, the composition happens best when I'm away from the piano. It just comes out of the blue? I could be sitting on the subway and compose music. It could be a melody, or a core progression. If a melody comes across strong enough, I have to write it down. I could be looking at a scene in life, a picture, a certain feeling and a melody or a rhythm will pop into my head.

Cass:
I noticed the intro sounds a bit like Vince Guaraldi or George Winston's interpretation of Professor Longhair playing "Linus & Lucy". How did you come up with that intro, because it has a lot of things going on?

Cyrus:
I always operate under a lot of different things, and everyone you mentioned has influenced me. Rather than employ an influence separately, I tried to put them all into a collective sound so that at anytime, anyone of these influences can pop up in any one of my pieces.

Cass:
That's exactly what I hear, a different style, but with a spiritual and jazzy edge to it. So has God smiled down on you, and how important is it that your spirituality shine through in your music?

Cyrus:
It's extremely important for me to be who I am. I believe that God has given me this wonderful gift of music, and that I am in charge with the task of sharing this gift with as many people as possible. So, from the church-house to the bar-house, from the symphony hall to Sonny's Showcase Lounge down in the hood, this task was given to me and hopefully people will be inspired and influenced in a very unique way.

Cass:
It's evident because the light simply shines through your music. While your CD is very laid back, it is also inspirational.

Cyrus:
If someone has to do extensive research or get a PhD to understand what I'm doing, then I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do. I like my music to be understood and enjoyed. This music is supposed to reach and inspire the youngest to the oldest listener. It's not to say that I'm going to water down anything or change my style of music to appeal to a certain crowd, it's just I have to be who I am. The music that I play represents what I've seen and what I've heard over the year, like the musicians you previously mentioned -- George Winston, Vince Guaraldi, Professor Longhair, or even Fats Waller, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Parker, David Sandborn, Kirk Wallum, Johnny Guitar Watson, and countless others.

Cass:
That all comes into play when you sit down to the piano?

Cyrus:
It really does.

Cass:
The title of this CD, You Are My Sunshine. What or who is your sunshine?

Cyrus:
It's so many different things. Seeing a picture of my daughter, and myself she is definitely the SUNSHINE in my life.

Cass:
On your CD cover, your daughter is giving this big-o kiss on your cheek, and you're just grinning from ear-to-ear. Whose idea was it to have you and your daughter on the cover?

Cyrus:
It was just an idea of taking a few pictures of us together, because we weren't sure what a 5-year-old was going to do. The interesting thing was when we went to do the photo session, I was getting dressed, and she was already dressed. As you can see, she just has a certain presence, and well, she took charge of the whole photo shoot. She posed like she was meant to be there.

Cass:
I love your cover because the colors are vibrant - you're dressed in an orange shirt and yellow tie, and your daughter is so cute wearing beautiful ribbons in her hair. I'm not sure why I noticed that though, but your CD cover certainly caught my eye.

Cyrus:
I think the cover is representative of what's on the CD -- great warmth and hopefully people will feel the Spirit.

Cass:
Anyone listening to your CD will definitely feel that. With all of these wonderful things happening in your life, what best describes your CD?

Cyrus:
It's a CD that attempts to go down to the pure essence of the power of music. It's a CD that tries its best to address the spiritual elements of music. Even though a lot of the particular pieces are gospel based, there is a very different kaleidoscope of music on this CD.

Cass:
Like "Precious Lord"?

Cyrus:
My task was to make sure that every note that was played wasn't just a note just for the heck of it. Every note had to touch and inspire a soul. It was kinda like playing songs that went across the waters and all the way back to our ancestors. I tried to spiritually reach out to our ancestors. For example, "For the Saints," was for those souls, the ones that we know and the ones that we don't know.

Cass:
When you say for the souls and saints, did you visualize people when you put these songs together?

Cyrus:
Since we're talking about "For the Saints," I could be thinking about my grandmom. Just recently, I went to Savannah, Georgia and I had the opportunity to walk on a plantation. While I was walking on the property, I was looking at the trees and I could feel the spirits of my ancestors crying out to me. It was as if the trees were saying, "Yeah boy, we're here. Yeah boy, I could tell you a story." Then when I looked over into the fields, I got filled with the spirit of those people who attempted to run, those people who attempted to stand but were beaten, but yet they had faith and hope and they still stood.

Cass:
That explains why I said earlier that you have this old soul presence within you. Perhaps, those ancestors were reaching back to your soul, giving you this new inspirational spirit to create this new type of melody.

Cyrus:
It is as much in yesterday as it is in today.

Cass:
With that overwhelming power, did that leave you with another musical rendition?

Cyrus:
Everything that I see, feel, hear and experience goes into what I do. Therefore, there can never be a repetitive performance.

Cass:
I totally agree with you because there is nothing repetitive on this CD. Do you prefer to play with a trio as opposed to a band?

Cyrus:
I have done that for a while. Right now, I really just enjoying the music and performing. If time permits, I see myself going into larger configurations. But it's never been my preference to do what anyone else has done, or be pigeonholed. When people say, "Oh, you just like the trio thing," but if you really listen to my CD, it's not your typical trio.

Cass:
Actually, you almost have a big band style also. How does a trio sound like a big band?

Cyrus:
The sound is within me. Therefore, whatever I visualize and conceive, the challenge for me is to bring it out on the piano.

Cass:
Well, you've certainly done that. I hear in the background a big band sound and then I go from that particular setting to a smaller venue, where I also hear Cassandra Wilson or Nancy Wilson singing over the tracks in a real intimate setting. Do you like working with vocalists as well?

Cyrus:
I have done that for a great deal of my life. People know me best my work with the late, great vocalist Betty Carter. But I have also done some work with opera soprano, Kathleen Battle, Isaac Hayes and Anita Baker.

Cass:
Actually, this is the first time I've heard your music, but this will definitely not be the last. I went online to listen to a sample of some of your other work, and I absolutely love your work.

Cyrus:
Thanks. The challenge is just continuing to grow and inspire others in conventional and perhaps, less conventional ways.

Cass:
Do you think that the vocalist has his or her own interpretation of a particular song that conveys a different story than yours?

Cyrus:
Everyone has their own point of view they wish to deliver or convey in a song. In certain cases, if a variety of viewpoints merge together and form one large collective, then you have a beautiful song.

Cass:
What are some of the pitfalls that you've come across?

Cyrus:
There will always be trials and tribulations. The scriptures say that the "race isn't given to the swift, but to the one that can endure to the end." [Ecclesiastes 9:11]. It's a challenge to endure, because people always hang around when things are good, but your real friends are around when everything is falling apart.

Cass:
Amen!

Cyrus:
It's a challenge to play this type of music because in earlier days, jazz music was referred to as Jackass music. A lot of times when you talk to certain classical musicians about jazz, they can't give it any credence because they don't feel it's really serious. Jazz musicians are just as serious because we are doing the same things the classical musicians are doing but adding improvisation to the composition at a higher rate of speed. You know there are people in this industry who are just starting to embrace jazz music a little bit more now, but there are still some who say jazz is not interesting. Jazz musicians are constantly fighting to be recognized and taken seriously.

Cass:
Whose 'They', because I have more issues with hip-hop and rock?

Cyrus:
If that weren't the case, then there would be more jazz shows in primetime on television.

Cass:
I guess you're right about that because there would be more jazz radio stations as opposed to R&B and rock. When we were kids, my father would pull out the record player and play all kinds of music like BosaNova, Nina Simone, Henry Mancini, etc. I preferred Mel Torme over James Brown.

Cyrus:
People should have the opportunity to be influenced by musicians. I'm not saying that everyone in the world needs to be a jazzhead, even though that would be great, but we have to keep this thing real. Even though we're all created wonderfully different, we are all created for something unique. Beethoven was Beethoven. Miles Davis was Miles Davis.

Cass:
There are countless musicians who play by ear. Do you believe aspiring musicians should receive professional training for the fundamentals, instead of playing by ear?

Cyrus:
I think it's important to have a combination of both. There's nothing wrong with having a great ear because it's actually very important. The drawback is, you can hear a lot of stuff, but you have to know how to translate it on paper.

Cass:
When I was younger, I loved watching my dad pull out the sheet music and play the piano. Initially, I played the piano by ear. [Now that I think about it, I'm not sure how I did that]. My dad was a stickler for the fundamentals so he taught me how to read music, and eventually convinced me to join the school band. I was in the third grade at the time. I can't play a lick now -- I can't seem to remember the notes for my left hand -- but I can still read music because I played in the band from elementary school to high school. So how much practicing did you do?

Cyrus:
You know there was never a time, even to this day, when I didn't want to play the piano. Back then, I kinda had a good routine in terms of practicing. The routine was -- when you got home after school, you did your homework, then practice your music lessons. If there was any light left outside, then you could go outside and play. That was great when the days got longer. But when the days were shorter, I must admit, I did breeze through my homework and piano practice so I could go outside to play. Those were the times when I had good ole fashion parental authority.

Cass:
Did you play in the band in high school, or did you always want to play solo?

Cyrus:
I had a full plate because I studied classical music, played in the concert and jazz band, and on the side, I played gospel music, like James Cleveland or Edwin Hawkins, in church.

Cass:
Your diverse style is very evident throughout your CD.

Cyrus:
My mom played records like King Curtis, and for a period of times, I wanted to play the saxophone.

Cass:
So do you play any other instruments?

Cyrus:
I'd like to say that I am an enthusiast of all instruments. My very first professional gig, I played the drums. I also played the alto-sax, trombone, a baritone horn, and I studied a little bit of guitar. But, it was almost as if these other instruments were more like mistresses, and the piano was saying to me, "You'll be back."

Cass:
Do you strongly believe that your musical ministry is your specific purpose in life?

Cyrus:
Without a doubt! I know I can do many other things, but this is what I'm really here to do. I've been put on this earth to be a musician, and playing the piano allows me to tell my story.

Cass:
I interviewed Nicholas Payton several weeks ago. I noticed that the both of you played in the movie, Kansas City, with Harry Belafonte. How was your experience?

Cyrus:
Oh man, that was great! That was so much fun. I had the best seat in the house because I got to sit by Ron Carter all week! It was really hip because we sat down and they basically told us to just play. That whole experience gave me a totally different respect for the art of movie making, cinematography, how a guy can manipulate light, and a lot of other stuff.

Cass:
What type of piano do you prefer to play on?

Cyrus:
An acoustic piano, but I certainly don't limit myself. I'm trying to find a certain model of Fender Rhodes or a suitcase piano.

Cass:
Suitcase piano?

Cyrus:
It's an electronic piano. If I were to do a record on an electronic piano, it would not be smooth jazz but a P h u n k record. It would be the type of phunk that when you listen to it, you'd be frowning.

Cass:
Oh my . . . stank music!

Cyrus:
[Laughter].

Cass:
Did you produce this CD?

Cyrus:
Yes I did. I had a lot to do with it.

Cass:
How did you go from self-releasing your own CD to now producing? Was that just a natural journey?

Cyrus:
A true jazz musician really doesn't need anyone else to deal with because they're just trying to get the sound out.

Cass:
How hard is it to be in the studio to do that?

Cyrus:
What I like to do is imagine I'm doing a concert so I place certain songs together, play them, and see how it feels to determine if it will fit in the final rotation. You just know what feels good. You're just searching for that special something in that particular take. Not necessarily the perfect take, because I believe sometimes dotting every 'i' or crossing every 't' isn't necessary. Even when Bird and Miles got in between some of those notes and it would raise the hair on your toes, there was magic in some of those cracked notes.

Cass:
Since you're in your 40's, what kind of advice would you give young cats today?

Cyrus:
The best advice I could give is, "To Be Yourself." Always try to find the song that's inside of you. You have to be true to your own self, and don't succumb to the pressure of simply being an artist "with stuff" just to sell records

Cass:
So that's how you went from selling your records out of the truck of your car to Warner Bros.

Cyrus:
What? [Laughing!!!] Well actually, the way I got to Atlantic was kinda like the old skool way. These days you're supposed to have a manager and producer who shop you around for a record deal. I was playing one night in New York with Betty Carter and someone from Atlantic Records was at the concert, and they heard something they thought was unique. They called Betty's manager, and then got in touch with me.

Cass:
How many CD's have you recorded?

Cyrus:
On the Atlantic label about 7 or 8, 3 on Alpha, a Japanese label, and 1 on Warner Bros.

Cass:
Now I'm gonna have to track all your CD's down.

Cyrus:
Just go on Amazon.

Cass:
Wow! This has really been a night of fun! What's on the horizon for you? What's coming up?

Cyrus:
I see myself stepping out of the trio thang for a minute and working with an orchestra. I enjoy playing by myself, but I never like to put any limits on myself.

Cass:
Do you prefer a particular venue, city, college scene, or playing anywhere?

Cyrus:
From the church-house to the stadium. When I sit down to the piano, I'm very thankful to God to have the opportunity to do this for a living. Wherever there is a piano and I get a chance to sit at it, I'm very grateful to God because I know I'm supposed to be there.

Cass:
I thoroughly love your interpretation of "Precious Lord." When I die, I want that playing in the background, because I don't want folks crying.

Cyrus:
I mean, if you think about the beginning groove, a lot of people think it's a New Orleans melody.

Cass:
How did you develop that intro?

Cyrus:
It was a matter of what I've seen, what I felt and what I've heard, and at that particular time, I said, yeah, that's it!

Cass:
What about the guys who are playing with you on this CD and have you played anymore with them?

Cyrus:
They were perfect for the task at hand. We travel around quite a bit.

Cass:
So, how has music change your life from when you were three?

Cyrus:
That's really a tough question because we've [me and the piano] have been together for so long. I don't know anything else.

Cass:
I have a bad habit of looking up the meanings of names. The Persian origin of Cyrus means, "Sun". It's almost as if on the journey you were destined for, the word sun would be a part of your fate. I thought that was really unique since the title of your CD is You Are My Sunshine. Did you know that?

Cyrus:
I think someone brought that to my attention some time ago, and I guess that's pretty cool when you put it together like that.

Cass:
Do you have any other hobbies?

Cyrus:
Fishing!

Cass:
Where do you fish in New York?

Cyrus:
I usually go down to the Jersey coast or the Chesapeake. As the temperature gets warmer, I look forward to fishing more and more.

Cass:
What's your favorite food?

Cyrus:
When I'm in New Orleans, I eat po'boys from Mothers, The Pearl, and this mom and pop joint off of Poydras where the waitresses walk up to you and ask, "Whatcha want babe?"

Cass:
Gregory's!

Cyrus:
I just love food with a lot of love in it.

Cass:
That perfectly describes your CD - MUSIC WITH A LOT OFLOVE IN IT! You Are My Sunshine has now been added to my Sunday CD rotation. I hope I haven't kept you up too long because I have had a wonderful time talking with you.

Cyrus:
Thank you. Actually, this was a lot of fun because this didn't feel like an interview at all.

Cass:
Continued Success and Stay Blessed!

 

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