National Artist Spotlight: Cyrus Chestnut Jazz Pianist

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“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,”-Cyrus Chestnut

Born on January 17, 1963, in Baltimore, MD; son of McDonald (a retired post office employee and church organist) and Flossie (a city social services worker and church choir director) Soulful jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut might just be proof positive of the impact that music has on babies in the womb. Either that, or a life in music was simply in his blood. Chestnut’s father, a postal employee and the son of a church minister, was the official organist for the local church in Baltimore, Maryland, where Chestnut grew up. Young Cyrus’s home was filled with the sounds of the gospel music that his church-going parents played in their home, along with jazz records by artists such as Thelonius Monk and Jimmy Smith. Chestnut has said that the roots of his love of music began there, and to this day, Chestnut’s ties to the gospel church remain constant. “Growing up, gospel music was what I heard in the house,” Chestnut told Down Beat magazine.

As a boy Chestnut reached for the piano keys before he could walk, so his father began teaching the earnest three-year-old to play the piano. One of the first songs young Cyrus learned was “Jesus Loves Me.” Before long, seven-year-old Cyrus was playing piano in the family church, and by age nine he was promoted to church pianist at Mt. Calvary Star Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland.
Chestnut, who became known for his improvisational skills and unique jazz-gospel and bop style, has credited his abilities to those formative years when he played at church. And while Chestnut’s roots in gospel stemmed from his life at home and in the church, his passion for jazz was born not long thereafter. With his two-dollar allowance, young Chestnut purchased his first album, Thelonious Monk’s Greatest Hits, simply because he liked the album cover, and thus the young pianist’s love of jazz began.Cyrus Chestnut 1

At age nine Chestnut was enrolled in the prep program at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. He later headed to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he earned a degree in jazz composition and arranging. Before graduating from Berklee in 1985, Chestnut had received the Eubie Blake fellowship in 1982, the Oscar Peterson scholarship in 1983, and the Quincy Jones scholarship in 1984. In his free time Chestnut studied the history of music and the work of such masters as pianists Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly, and Hank Jones, and the work of gospel artists Clara Ward, Charles Taylor, and Shirley Caesar. In school he studied classical music, writing and performing. A Warner Jazz website article on Chestnut quoted the New York Times, which described Chestnut as a “highly intelligent improviser with one of the surest senses of swing in jazz.”

After graduating from Berklee, Chestnut went on to work with jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks from 1986-88, and trumpeter Terrence Blanchard and saxophonist Donald Harrison from 1988-90, before joining jazz legend Wynton Marsalis in 1991. But Chestnut really cut his teeth in the business when, one day at Berklee, jazz vocalist Betty Carter arrived to perform. When the famous singer found herself without a piano player, the entire auditorium erupted with suggestions for Chestnut to fill in, and he was ushered to the stage. Terrified and nervous, Chestnut took the stage, but when Carter asked him to play Body and Soul in the key of G, Chestnut mistakenly played it in C. “I told myself that someday I would make it up to her,” Chestnut told Berklee Today. After a short stint playing aboard a Caribbean cruise ship in 1985 with a band that included Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, and Tommy Flanagan, Chestnut graduated from Berklee. In 1991 Cyrus got his chance to repay Carter when he went on the road for two years as the pianist for the Betty Carter Trio. “She wanted you to create a mode of creating, not re-creating,” Chestnut told the Santa Fe New Mexican. He has often said that playing with Carter was a form of graduate school.Cyrus Chestnut 2

For Chestnut, there has always been a deep connection between jazz and God. He believes jazz to be a religious musical genre. “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 Down Beat magazine. Fitting this connection, the title of Chestnut’s major label debut album was Revelations, which he released in 1994 at the age of 30. The album was voted Best Jazz Album by the Village Voice and soared on the charts, outselling expectations for piano trio recordings. Prior to that, Chestnut had broken out of his role as an accompanist and band member by forming and leading his own trio. Chestnut’s trio recorded two albums on the Japanese label Alfa Jazz, The Nutman Speaks and The Nutman Speaks Again, in 1992. He also recorded Nut in 1992 and Another Direction in 1993, both on Evidence.

In 1994 Chestnut released Dark Before the Dawn for Atlantic Records. “It’s a musical story about me. It’s about my life experiences, how I felt at the time, my reactions. Life is not one-sided. A lot of different things happen in life,” Chestnut told the Philadelphia Inquirer. The album debuted in the sixth spot on the Billboard Jazz Charts. The very next year, Chestnut released the critically acclaimed Earth Stories, for which he composed nine of the CD’s eleven tracks.

Chestnut has earned a reputation for his skillful versatility, his ability for blending sounds and for unabashedly bringing gospel into the club performances he gives. And despite his sense of playful showmanship, he takes jazz very seriously and believes that jazz has great staying power. “Just as Bruce Springsteen has that ability to appeal to a mass audience, I have a vision that jazz can do the same. You can’t underestimate the power of this music,” Chestnut told the St. Petersburg Times.
Throughout his career, Chestnut has worked with an array of artists, including saxophonists James Carter, Donald Harrison and Joe Lovano; trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Freddie Hubbard; jazzman Chick Corea, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, and opera singer Kathleen Battle, with whom he tours occasionally since 1995. More recently Chestnut has collaborated with vocalists Vanessa Williams, Anita Baker, Bette Midler, Isaac Hayes, and Brian McKnight. In 2000 he collaborated with Williams, McKnight and the Boys Choir of Harlem on an updated version of Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas.Cyrus-Chestnut-Panorama

Chestnut’s 2001 release, Soul Food, provided a showcase for his versatility. The album is a blend of jazz, classical, gospel, and R&B. In 2003 Chestnut released You Are My Sunshine on Warner Brothers Records. Prior to that, Chestnut released a solo piano album, Blessed Quietness: Collection of Hymns, Spirituals, and Carols in 1996, and followed with Cyrus Chestnut in 1998.

The New York Daily News once heralded Chestnut as the rightful heir to Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Erroll Garner. In an interview on National Public Radio (NPR) for All Things Considered, Chestnut remarked, “If I can send one person home after a performance feeling better than when they arrived, then I’ve done my job, and I sleep good at night.” To this day, Chestnut attends church every Sunday, and whenever he can he plays in the local church in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives with his family. He told CBS News, “If I’m not working, you’ll find me in somebody’s church.” Chestnut continually tours with his trio, playing live at jazz festivals around the world as well as clubs and concert halls. His leadership and prowess as a soloist has also led him to be a first call for the piano chair in many big bands including the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band.

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Au Revoir, Annie: The Annie Ellicott Farewell Concert at The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame

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Annie Ellicott Says Farewell to Tulsa with Saturday Jazz Depot Show

      If all goes according to plan, five days after playing her goodbye concert at the Jazz Depot on Saturday, April 19, top Tulsa vocalist Annie Ellicott will be on the road – heading 1700 miles westward to continue her music career in the San Francisco Bay area.

But first, she wants to leave the hometown fans with a show that offers, she says, “a little bit of something for everyone.” And, indeed, that’s exactly what Au Revoir, Annie: The Annie Ellicott Farewell Concert is going to present.

“I’ll have a jazz combo with [guitarist] Frank Brown, and Ed Garcia on the bass,” she says. “I’ll do a little bit with [guitarist] Mark Bruner and [fiddler] Shelby EicherDenny Morouse is going to sit in on the saxophone. I’ll also be playing a recording from an album of originals I’m doing, and it’ll be played to a series of images on video.

“I’ll do a couple of songs solo – one with me and a ukulele and, I think, one with me and a piano. I’m going to do a couple of songs with [pianist] Amy Cottingham, and then, we’ll do Little Ruby Moon – which is Amy Cottingham, [drummer] Andrew Burns, Matt Hayes on the bass, and me. It’s my original music. And I’m going to do a French song, with Amy on accordion.”

The variety of both material and guest artists indicates the breadth of Ellicott’s career in Tulsa, beginning when she was still a high schooler.

“The first gig I ever actually had was with [bassist] Jack Hannah,” sheremembers. “It was just bass, drums, and vocals, and we did it at Borders. I think I was 16. We got paid with Borders gift cards, but it was a sizable amount of money – like 30 bucks. That was a lot of money for me.

gayle williamson 2       “Soon after that, I did some gigs with [pianist] Pat Murray and Jack Hannah. I was still in high school at that point. Then, when I was about 19, I started working with [pianist] Gayle Williamson.”

It was with the late Williamson’s band that Ellicott really began attracting attention; soon, she had begun her ascent to the upper echelon of Tulsa singers.

Although she’s held that position for a decade or so, Ellicott admits that she really didn’t give a lot of thought to music as a career until a couple of years ago.

“It was just happening,” she explains. “I really wasn’t doing much but saying ‘yes’ to people, and I had a belief for a long time that in order to do music full-time I would have to compromise. I would have to start thinking about what would make money. I guess I’ve just lived long enough now to see that things kind of work out, and they work out in a way that you never planned for, so you might as well just do what you want.”

She laughs. “I was letting these grand sweeping projections of what a future as a professional artist would be like, and I think I’ve just let go of a lot of attachment to outcome. That’s all that’s really changed.”

Ellicott says she plans to spend her first days in the Bay Area “seeking out local talent, going and hearing as much as I can, and meeting the people I resonate with.”annie e  full moon

“I know many musicians there from Tulsa who are familiar with me, and I’m familiar with them,” she adds. “I’ve worked with maybe three of them in the past, and I’d love to get together with them, but I haven’t made any solid plans.

“I’ve saved a little bit of money. It’s not going to take me too far, but my wonderful boyfriend is willing to support me for a bit of time while I get my feet on the ground. He has a realistic understanding of what that’s going to be like, and how long that might take.”

She does plan to return to Tulsa from time to time and reunite musically with some of the Tulsa players who have worked with her over the past dozen years. There have been plenty of them, and she appears to appreciate them all just about equally, declining to single out any groups or individuals for special praise.

“As I delve more and more into each memory of each band, they all become more significant,” she notes. “They’ve all contributed to the product I am now. So it’s kind of impossible to single anybody, or anything, out.”

“Annie’s unique style allows her to truly make any song her own,” adds Jason McIntosh, Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame CEO. “And her talent will shine in San Francisco, representing Oklahoma’s musical heritage so well.”

Au Revoir, Annie: The Annie Ellicott Farewell Concert is set to begin at 8:00 p.m. Saturday, April 19, at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street. General Admission tickets are only $10, or $20 for Reserved Table Seating.

For more information, call Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609, or order tickets online.


The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fameis a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through the preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.


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“Midnight Social Club” Farewell Performance at The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame

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Midnight Social Club Brings Musical Farewell to Jazz Depot Friday

The SummerStage theater festival, that Tulsa audiences first met the four fictional ladies who provided the entertainment at a not-quite-first class 1930s bistro called the Midnight Social Club. Played by top Tulsa vocalists Cindy Cain (as club owner Violett Redd), Rebecca Ungerman (Garnett McGee), Pam Van Dyke Crosby (Stella Moon), and Annie Ellicott (Little Ruby) in a production calledBackstage at the Midnight Social Club, the characters proved to be so popular that they appeared in a second production, Onstage at the Midnight Social Club, and have performed occasionally in various configurations at Tulsa venues ever since.

Now, however, the Midnight Social Club appears to be shutting its doors for good. As Crosby notes, “Violett’s selling the club, Garnett’s going back on the road, Little Ruby’s moving to the big city, and Stella’s marrying her longtime boyfriend, Doghouse Bill.”

It is, at least partially, a case of art imitating life. Stella’s betrothed, who’s also the bassist in the Midnight Social Club band, is in real life Bill Crosby, Pam’s husband. And Ellicott really is moving away from Tulsa, something that comes as a blow to area jazz fans.

“Annie’s moving to San Francisco,” says Pam. “And even though she may be coming back from time to time, we probably won’t get a chance to do this again. So this will be the last time to see the four of us together doing the material from both of those shows, Backstage and Onstage.

Hence the name of Friday’s production, The Midnight Social Club – Last Chance. Pam stresses, however, that the Jazz Depot production is less a play than a show and dance.

“We’re going to act like our characters, but we’re just going to have a few lines,” she explains. “It’s going to be a show, but it’s also for dancing. We’ll be doing swing and Latin andfoxtrots. Since the club setting is in the 1930s, the songs we’re doing are from that era, except that there are a couple of originals.”

Chances are good that one of those originals will be the Cain-penned number that brought all the ladies of the Midnight Social Club together in the first place.

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“P. Casey Morgan wrote the original script for The Midnight Social Club,” she says, “Cindy Cain had wanted all of us to work together, and she wrote an opening song and had the idea for us all to be in a club. Then, we all kind of wrote our own characters and came up with the names and the name of the club.

“Violett Redd was the owner of the club, and when she took it over, she called my character, Stella Moon. I was a singer doing things in another town. Then, a friend of hers just kind of showed up one day and asked for a job. That was Garnett, played by Rebecca. So the three of us were singing together in the Midnight Social Club – which was, well, a little less than an A-1 nightclub.”

She laughs.

Then, unexpectedly, Little Ruby showed up. Violett Redd was her aunt, and she’d run away from home because her parents wanted her to marry a local pig farmer. She came to town and sang `Real Cowboy Girl’ and then got changed and became more sophisticated.”

In addition to the four vocalists playing those parts, all of the musicians involved in Friday’s production of The Midnight Social Club – Last Chance were on board for the first show back in 2008. They include Jeff Newsome on piano, Wade Robertson on drums, and “Doghouse Bill” Crosby on bass.

Those players also appeared on the original-cast CD, Backstage at the Midnight Social Club,which will be available for purchase at Friday’s show.

 The Midnight Social Club – Last Chancepresented by Sweet and Hot Productions, is set to begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 4, at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’sJazz Depot, 111 E. First Street. The show is presented in conjunction with the Brady Arts District’s First Friday Art Crawl. Admission is $10 at the door, with advance tickets available from Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609.

The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame

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Tulsa Jam’Bassadors Chosen as Finalist for Mingus Foundation Competition

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Tulsa Jam’Bassadors Chosen as Finalist for Mingus Foundation Competition

Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame’s All-City Band to Host Benefit February 2nd to Send Students to NYC

            In its very first year to enter the national Charles Mingus High School Competition, the Tulsa Jam’bassadors All-City Band has rocketed into the finals. The 18 young musicians, chosen from several Tulsa public schools as well as from the charter Tulsa School of Arts & Sciences, are set to travel to New York City on the weekend of February 15th. There, they’ll play against two other finalists, the SFJazz High School All-Stars Orchestra from San Francisco, California and the Manhattan School of Music Precollege Big Band from New York, New York.

It’s the fifth year of the Mingus event, named for the trailblazing jazz composer, bandleader, and bassist.

“This is an amazing band,” says Jazz Hall of Fame CEO Jason McIntosh of the Jam’bassadors. “We assembled some of the best high school musicians from throughout the Tulsa Public School system and the Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences. Working with music directors Doug Styers and TimShadley, we started in August and rehearsed throughout December, before turning in our recorded submission of three Mingus songs to the contest. There was incredible competition, but we were chosen as one of the three finalists in our big-band category.”

A total of 12 combos and big bands were selected from across the United States and Canada. The Jam’bassadors will compete as one of three finalists in the “Big Band — Specialized Schools and Programs” category.

“Out of all twelve, we’re the only school from the Midwest,” says co-director Shadley. “The closest to us is a conservatory in Milwaukee. Most of the bands are from the East and West Coasts.”

The Jam’bassadors, along with special guests, will perform the Saturday night fundraising show at the Jazz Depot. They will perform several Mingus compositions.

“The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is the key to all of this,” Shadley says. “There are only a few other places like it in the whole country, places that specialize in jazz education and outreach.Oklahomans are fortunate to have such resources and this musical treasure. The Mingus project is a great example of the leading role the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame plays in music education.”jazz hall

CEO McIntosh has long been an advocate for strong music and arts programs in the school system. So, when McIntosh commenced this project to establish an all-city band he reached out to dedicated and like-minded educators, Styers and Shadley, and they were immediately on board.

“We decided to focus on Tulsa Public Schools, and we wanted to reach out to TSAS as well,” he says. “We started going to different schools and recruiting the students.”

Styers, the jazz chair for Tulsa Public Schools, joined Shadley as a director early in the fall semester, and before long they had the newly minted Jam’bassadors focused and rehearsing. And while some may be surprised at the band’s success in the competition its first time out, the founders are not.

“We have good young musicians to draw on in Tulsa, as well as outstanding band directors at Tulsa Public and TSAS,” McIntosh says. “Doug Styers and Tim Shadley have really been excellent in working with the band members, picking out the dedicated musicians.”

“The students are great. They’re listening to the music on their iPods, on their own, they’re putting in an amazing amount of rehearsal time. They’re committed. They have come together to make this happen,” Styers says.

“For most of the students, it was their first time to hear and play Mingus’ compositions,” adds McIntosh, “so it was all new and dynamic. We have some other dedicated musicians involved with our efforts. In addition to Doug and Jeff, Dr. Tommy Poole came in to instruct with the saxes, Nick Foster with the percussion, Jordan Hehl with the bass. There were a lot of the “older” musicians working with the kids – although ‘older,’ in this case, means musicians in their early to mid 20s.”

In addition to competing in New York, McIntosh adds, the members of the Jam’bassadors will be involved in several jazz workshops with other outstanding student musicians from across North America.

“Right out of the gate, we make the finals,” Shadley says. “I already feel like a winner. And one of the things I hope is that this will help us keep building a culture of jazz together in the schools.”

“I was talking to some of the kids a couple of days ago, and I said, `What if, in ten years, we’ve had bands going to the Mingus Competition, to New York, every year? How would it make you feel to know that you’d started the whole thing?’”

The Tulsa Jam’bassadors’ show is set to begin Saturday, 7:30 p.m. at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street. Tickets for the event can be purchased at the Depot or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5.  Refreshments will be available for purchase.

McIntosh says that 100 percent of the money from admissions will go toward financing the band’s trip to the Mingus Competition finals. Donations above the ticket price will also be welcome.

The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomansthrough preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.

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