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Cyrus Chesnut: Expounding on Elvis

By Published: February 11, 2008

Chestnut took on some other memorable music a few years back when he cut A Charlie Brown Christmas (2000, Atlantic), the well-loved music from A Charlie Brown Christmas, the CBS special that aired in 1965 and is repeated annually. That show, and the ensuing record of original piano trio music by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Boy Named Charlie Brown (Fantasy, 1969), brought jazz to people who otherwise might not hear or buy it. That project, Chestnut admits, was not his idea. It came from Atlantic. But it struck a chord with Chestnut, because it was among the first sounds of jazz that he had heard as a young boy.

"I love Charlie Brown. That was really my first introduction to jazz. Because at the age of six or seven, watching the Charlie Brown cartoon, I was listening to the music of Vince Guaraldi. And I always enjoyed the music. I really did."

The piano trio, a format in which he frequently works, is also appealing to Chestnut. "For myself, I love it. It puts me up on the front seat and it challenges me. A lot of times people, I think, will think that the piano trio is just a little country club thing for background music. The Oscar Peterson trio wasn't a trio in the background. Ahmad Jamal's trio is not a trio in the background. Definitely McCoy Tyner's trio and Herbie Hancock's trio, the Bill Evans trio — they were not trios to be in the background. If you were to run with a quartet, quintet, sextet, octet, or whatever, a lot of times the pianist goes into the role of accompaniment until it's his time to solo. But in a trio, you have the opportunity to design everything."

It's a job he handles extremely well. He captures styles and moods and expresses things with a rich sound. "When I sit down to play, it's my effort just to share myself," he says. "So all influences, I want them to work together at any time."

He started tinkering around at the age of three and, as he says, started digging Guaraldi a few years later. At six, he was playing piano at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Baltimore and at nine, was studying classical music at the Peabody Institute. But jazz was there, as well as other music of the day. So was the church, as it has always been with Cyrus. "Growing up playing in church and being a part of churches is part of who I am."

Listening to the radio was one of his pastimes. "I remember flipping through the radio stations. I was adventurous. I always wanted to know. You could listen to just one station, but I would say, â"ËœWhat else is there on this radio?' I started hearing music that I really liked ... As I got older, I listened to stuff like the Jackson 5, Parliament, The Spinners, The Four Tops. Then I started listening to Thelonious Monk at nine. On and on it goes. I was very fortunate to be exposed to many different types of music."

The nature of inventing things on the piano also was coming to him as a youngster. It came naturally he says. "After I played my Beethoven and Chopin and Mozart, I'd just sit down and play some music. Being in church, there was times when you would just have to play. Sometimes you had to play stuff out of a book. Then you had to turn around and play things, just make stuff up."

His first gig was an eighth grade dance. He didn't play any formal gigs until after high school. "Once I got to high school, I was getting ready to go out for the football team. The band director came up to me and said he wanted me to play in the jazz band. I didn't think twice about it."

Cyrus Chestnut

Like most larger cities, Baltimore had its pool of talent, and it wasn't lost on young Cyrus. "I remember spending time at the Sportsman's Lounge with people like Andy Ennis, Mickey Field, Sir Thomas Hurley, Charles Covington, Ruby Glover. They were great educators. I had two types of education. The education that comes from the Peabody Preparatory and going to Berklee College of Music," he says, adding with a knowing smile, "And I'm still enrolled in the university of the streets."

His influences "go all the way back to Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, coming through Bud Powell, moving up into Wynton Kelly, Red Garland. Of course Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, a lot of different people. Ray Bryant, Junior Mance. And that's just the pianists." That lists includes others too numerous to mention, he notes.

Chestnut went to Boston and to Berklee right after high school graduation. "It was a great experience. I was a little boy out of a small town, so I had to grow up not only musically, but as a human being. There were a lot of opportunities in Boston. I got a chance to learn a lot about music. I got the chance to play. Because of that, by the time I graduated, I was ready to go on to New York and see what I could do. I graduated in '85, and in January of '86, I was working with Jon Hendricks."

Among his classmates at Berklee were drummers Terri Lynne Carrington, Will Calhoun and Billy Kilson, as well as horn players Greg Osby and Delfeayo Marsalis.

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