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."
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.
In New York City with Hendricks, Chestnut enjoyed and learned from not only the gig, but also the music scene.
"I loved it at the time. I was able to hang out with some of the greats, able to go to a club and see Cedar Walton hanging out. George Coleman. All the cats, they used to just come and hang out. It was great just to go to a club, go and hear the music. Hear them play. Oh man, that was great! I miss those cats."
He did stints with Donald Harrison, Terrence Blanchard and Wynton Marsalis. In 1991, he started a job at the school of the great Betty Carter, long known for being a great placeeven if a bit scaryfor young musicians to learn. Like so many before and after, he too realized the benefits.
"That was like finishing school for me. In retrospect, it was very important for my development," he says. "She always challenged you. She always wanted me to think. Win people over with skill, not with gimmicks and tricks. She'd always say jazz is about finding out who you are. That takes work. I learned a lot from Betty. Not necessarily from what she saidshe didn't say much to me. I learned most from just watching her. I was there night after night where she would sit in front of some audiences that she was well known to. Also with audiences who didn't have a clue who she was. And in less than five minutes, she would have them in the palm of her hand. It was amazing."
He adds, "Everybody that I come in contact with, you learn either what to do or what not to do."
In 1993, he signed with Atlantic Records, releasing the critically-acclaimed Revelation. His recording career has been steady, both as a sideman and on his own works like The Dark Before The Dawn, Earth Stories, and Genuine Chestnut.
Chestnut's career has put him in with some of the finest players of the day. His trio is a major focus, but he can be found in various other settings. Last year alone, he did gigs with a Kansas City Blues revue headed by singer Kevin Mahogany and at times sat in the piano chair of the Dizzy Gillespie all-star tribute band, as he did at the JVC Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. To each of those setting, he brings an uplifting sound and feel. His music, no matter how intense, seems to have an underlying simple soul. And his ballads are thoughtful and reach out to the listener.
"Billy Higgins sat me down one time and said, â"ËœYou've always got to be able to see the dancer.' Whatever music you play, I believe it's got to dance. Whether it's a waltz, swing, groove or whatever; 5/4, 8/4, 12/10, whatever meter, I believe the music must dance. I believe it must dance."
So Chestnut pushes on. He'll be playing Elvis music in 2008, but also other projects. "I just finished honing in this one show. It's called Sanctified Swing. I just recently presented it at the Kennedy Center. What it is, is jazz goes to church.
"It's been an interesting time. The legends who we've loved over the years are slipping away. It's hard to touch hands on them now. It's very sobering. The guard is changing so rapidly. I fight to keep a good outlook for the music, because I believe as long as the voice of freedom lives in the world, there will be jazz. You try to give honest performances and just keep working, keep working, keep working," he says, reflecting on today's music scene, not long after the death of Oscar Peterson.
"At this point in time, I just look forward to moving onward and upward. The legends I see, I can only imagine how they felt when they found out Bird had passed away. But they still had to keep going on. The torch keeps getting passed. The music must move forward. What direction it's moving, I can't tell you. But I know that it's moving."
He adds, "The horizon is very positive and I'm grateful for it. I'm just looking forward to more and more possibilities."
Cyrus Chestnut, Cyrus Plays Elvis (Koch, 2007)
Cyrus Chestnut, Genuine Chestnut (TelArc, 2006)
Elvis Costello, The Juliet Letters (Rhino, 2006)
James Carter/Cyrus Chestnut/Reginald Veal/Ali Jackson, Gold Sounds (Brown Borthers, 2005)
Cyrus Chestnut, You Are My Sunshine (Warner, 2003)
Carla Cook, Simply Natural (MaxJazz, 2002)
Cyrus Chestnut, Soul Food (Atlantic, 2001)
Cyrus Chestnut, A Charlie Brown Christmas (Atlantic, 2000)