Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Pianist Cyrus Chestnut’s approach to the piano is at once stirring and contemplative, a cross between the expansiveness of Herbie Hancock and the intensity of Oscar Peterson. He’s one of a few mainstream jazz pianists also known for his interpretations of gospel music.
Born January 17, 1963 in Baltimore, Maryland, Chestnut began his music instruction at age five. When most kids are learning to lay Legos, Chestnut was learning his way around a Steinway. His first music teachers were his father, McDonald Chestnut, a retired post office employee and church organist, and his mother, a social worker and a church choir director.
By age six, young Cyrus was a frequent pianist at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in his native Baltimore. At age nine, he was awarded a spot in the prep program at Baltimore’s world-renowned Peabody Institute, studying Bach, Brahms and Mozart, yet saved his allowance to buy Thelonious Monk albums. Another early musical influence on Chestnut was pianist and composer Vince Guaraldi. Like so many others, the boy came to know his work through the Peanuts television specials of the mid-60s.
Chestnut began composing early too. Like the quiet introvert Schroeder of the Peanuts series, there were many times as a boy when Chestnut would sit down at the keys and create.
After graduating from high school, Chestnut chose to study in Boston at the Berklee College of Music. While at Berklee, Chestnut was awarded the Eubie Blake Fellowship (1982), the Quincy Jones Scholarship (1983), and the Oscar Peterson Scholarship (1984). He graduated from Berklee in 1985 with a degree in jazz composition and arranging.
While at Berklee, he developed the contacts he needed to start his career as a sideman for musicians like vocalist Jon Hendricks, whom he toured with for two years, from 1986 to1988. He was the pianist for Terence Blanchard’s group from 1988 to 1990, appearing on the trumpeter's popular album Crystal Stair. In 1991, Chestnut joined vocalist Betty Carter's trio and he has credited Carter with teaching him how to take chances musically.
Taking what he’d learned as a sideman, in 1993 Chestnut recorded his first solo album, The Nutman Speaks for the Japanese label Alfa (later reissued on Evidence.) Later that year, he signed with Atlantic, and his first release for the label, Revelation, was well received by critics and fans. His second album, The Dark Before the Dawn in 1994, debuted at number 6 on the Billboard Jazz charts, and he achieved similar success with Earth Stories in 1995 and Cyrus Chestnut in1998.
In 1996, the pianist began collaborating with opera star Kathleen Battle. The pair recorded a song together, “So Many Stars,” and Chestnut joined Battle as her pianist for a tour in the fall of that year. Their shared love of the church made for inspired material and a good working relationship.
That same year, Chestnut’s gospel roots became more apparent in his own solo recordings. Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns, Spirituals and Carols, was the first of his many successful jazz-influenced gospel albums. Chestnut also made his debut on film in 1996, playing a Big Joe Turner-like character in Robert Altman’s Kansas City, which painstakingly recreated the jazz-soaked ambience of the film director's youth in that city.
Over time, Chestnut seems to be returning to the things of his youth. In 2000 he provided arrangements and accompanied Brian McKnight, Vanessa L. Williams, the Boys Choir of Harlem and the Manhattan Transfer for A Charlie Brown Christmas. He followed with an album of originals compositions, Soul Food, in 2001, set very much in the straight-ahead, post hard-bop mold, and his last release for Atlantic.
2003’s You are my Sunshine, his first and only release for Warner, offers a mixture of originals and covers of traditional gospel songs like “Pass Me Not O Precious Savior” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer”. Chestnut views his penchant for covering spirituals, while unusual in the jazz world, as a way to shatter stereotypes. “Jazz has been labeled secular, but it is both religious and secular," he has said. "The spirituals on my CDs are as standard as any Cole Porter tune.”
Chestnut recorded his first album for Telarc, Genuine Chestnut, in 2006, accompanied by his regular trio --- Michael Hawkins, bass and Neal Smith, drums. In 2007, he signed with Koch Records, releasing an album of Elvis Presley covers called Cyrus plays Elvis.
Contributor: Makkada B. Selah