The Meeting of Generations: An Interview with Emmet Cohen

From September 11-15, several generations of jazz musicians, from those in their twenties to their nineties, will offer rhythms and beats from all corners of the globe. JazzFest White Plains will present 20+ jazz-infused performances at more than a dozen locations during this celebration of the musical genre, including influences from Chile, Colombia, Africa, Cuba and more. On Sept. 14, preeminent artist Emmet Cohen will perform with jazz legends Jimmy Cobb and George Coleman during a meeting-of-the-generations concert at White Plains Performing Arts Center.

In anticipation of the show, JazzFest White Plains Artistic Director Aaron Paige interviewed Cohen about his influences and intergenerational collaborations.

Aaron Paige: One of the most striking things about your career is your ongoing collaborative work with legacy artists of the older generation. How and why did you end up establishing and engaging in these kinds of intergenerational projects?

Emmet Cohen: I had gotten a gig with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All Star Band at the Kennedy Center for New Year’s Eve 2013. During the five-hour-or-so bus ride there, I sat across from Jimmy Heath, who played tenor in the original Dizzy Band…an incredible connection. The whole way down, he was telling stories – about Charlie Parker coming over to his parents’ house for dinner and how he would lend him his horn; about Coltrane playing alto in his big band; about growing up around Benny Golson; about playing with Philly Joe Jones and his brother in the Modern Jazz Quartet; he spoke about all of his favorite musicians.

At the time, I had just graduated from the University of Miami. I learned a lot there, but sitting there on the bus, I was learning the kinds of things you won’t ever learn at a jazz school. What I was hearing about was the legacy – the most important information, in my opinion. It was then that I realized there was a great disparity between the elder generation of jazz masters and the young generation of serious jazz musicians.

In order to help continue the legacy in the most authentic way, I decided to create a project called the Masters Legacy Series, a series of recordings, live performances and interviews with jazz masters. I reached out to Jimmy Cobb and asked him if he’d like to make the first record. He became a mentor right off the bat. I learned so much putting that recording together. It gave me a chance to be around someone who played with Charlie Parker, Billy Holiday, [John] Coltrane and Miles [Davis]. I got to hear stories behind the music. Not only stories…but also the feeling behind the music: the playing, the rhythm, the aura.

The next project was with Ron Carter, and that was a whole different thing. I’ve also played with Benny Golson, Tootie Heath, George Coleman, Houston Person… I’ve been taught so many lessons by all of them. They are all so different in their own particular way and they all have their own life lessons to impart…their own unique outlook on what is important in life.  Ron Carter is the most serious, focused and thoughtful musician that I know; the most prepared musician that I have ever worked with. Jimmy Cobb is a lesson in straight ahead – all forward motion – and you can hear it in the ride cymbal beat. Players like Albert Tootie Heath and his brother Jimmy, they infuse humor into the music. They realize how to connect with people on a deeper level.

AP: How did these relationships impact your musical practice…your performance practice?

EC: For me, music and life are so interconnected. The realizations and lessons you gain about humor, and life, and preparedness… it all goes into your music and improvisation. You put these into your composition. They are things you learn to incorporate while putting together a set. Of course repertoire is a big thing. These guys know so many songs; they know so many different styles going back to the old stuff – swing dances, humorous songs by Fats Waller, standards that Nat King Cole would sing… Musically, there is so much to connect with. Every time I am with them, I learn something. The swing feel is another thing that really enters the music. I don’t know if there is a way to quantify that…but to play with a ride cymbal that played with Myles Davis and John Coltrane… There is so much to take in through osmosis. You learn the feeling of the music – that which is unspoken and unsaid and impossible to teach.


AP: Can you tell me about one of your first interactions with an older jazz musician, and how that relationship shaped your understanding of what oral transmission and mentorship mean to you?


EC: If I go way back, I think about how my father would take me to hear a lot of live music. It was then that I got a chance to see artists like Ray Charles and the great organ player Jimmy Smith. I don’t know if I knew what I was seeing at the time, but I absorbed it. And when those people pass away, you realize that people aren’t here forever. It made me realize the value of being around those who are here and the time you have with them.

I recall going to see Joe Morello with Dave Brubeck. Morello took that famous solo on [Brubeck’s classic jazz standard] Take 5 with one hand. It was an awesome thing to see. He was 80-something years old at the time. My cousin, Greg Kogan, was playing piano in the band. He was a great pianist who played with Buddy Rich and Lionel Hampton and many others. Going to see him play would give me a chance to sit in with Joe Morello. I can barely remember it now, but those experiences were transformative.

I had the chance to play with older musicians when I was very young. I also went to a great camp called Jazz Connections at Mount Claire State University. We would have guys like Billy Hart teaching at the camp. I was around some real wisdom at an early age. I recognized it and wanted to keep seeking it out.


AP: Will your performance at the White Plains Performing Arts Center on Sept. 14 be the first time you are working with both Jimmy Cobb and George Coleman?


EC: They’ve played together over the years, but this will be my first experience playing with both of them at the same time. You never know how exactly it’s going to go, but I do know that it’s going to be an amazing experience. The ultimate challenge will be to explore, and fit into both of their vibes, while also remaining true to myself.

It’s going to be an amazing and magical night. A once-in-a-very-blue-moon chance to see these musicians. Cobb is 90-years-old and Coleman is 84. They have a combined 174 years of experience between them, which is an unbelievable thing. Russell Hall and I will be joining them.  Russell is 25 and I’m 29. So we’ve got less than 50 years of combined experience between us. This is going to be a special once in a lifetime snapshot performance.

That’s what jazz is all about. It’s all about that moment. The present moment. It’s not like seeing a movie, where you see it, and then you see it again and it’s exactly the same. With jazz, every performance is a completely new experience. It’s fresh and it’s a snapshot…everyone improvising and expressing themselves in the moment within the context of a solo, a song, a set, a night. Each performance is different 100% of the time. The possibilities are limitless. It is this very thing that inspires musicians to play this music all the way up until they can’t play anymore.

That’s what’s incredible about the jazz masters…they don’t retire. They keep playing and expressing themselves. It goes against societal norms. Most people work in order to retire, and then they enjoy themselves after. But jazz musicians need to keep playing to feed their mind, their body, and their soul. When you hear a jazz master who is 90-years-old playing their instrument, all of that life – and all of that hunger and necessity – comes through. And all of the other stuff – the problems and everything – gets shaved away. It’s not like being a football player or a dancer. It’s not so much of a physical thing, but a mental and a spiritual thing.


AP: The relationships that you’ve cultivated are profoundly beautiful and can really serve as a model for younger musicians.


EC: These relationships are especially relevant now, in such a harsh political climate. People are often quick to disregard their past. Disregard the history of their origins and their people. You see it going on in Europe, in Germany, and you see it here. People seem to have forgotten what World War I and II were about, and what hate can do to a culture. I think a lot of that comes from not looking to the wisdom of our elders. I hope what I’m doing will set a societal example of how to respect those who came before so we can move things forward, and will not be inclined to make the same mistakes that were made in the past.


AP: What are you doing to pass on the wisdom and knowledge you are learning and cultivating to those who are younger than you?


EC: It’s one of the most important things that we do as jazz musicians and human beings. As I approach 30 [years of age], I realize how many students of jazz I’ve been in front of – whether it’s doing master classes, visiting a high school or middle school, or going to a college where some of the students may even be older than me – I feel so fortunate to have had so many encounters and incredible experiences with students of jazz.

The music has brought me all over the world. Everywhere from the Sochi Olympics to the Oval Office in DC, when Obama was there. I’ve had the chance to visit a lot of countries and experience a lot of cultures. I’ve gotten to work with a lot of students, and one of my greatest passions is to teach and pass it on. I love putting new concepts in front of them and working with them at their level. I always equate teaching to being a Doctor. A Doctor doesn’t know what he’s going to give the patient until the patient walks into the office, hears their symptoms, and takes a look. For me that’s a lot of what mentorship and education is about. Everyone needs something different.

For the full JazzFest White Plains schedule, visit artsw.org/jazzfest and follow #WPjazzfest. An excerpt of this interview appeared in the September issue of ArtsNews.

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