Q&A with Jazz Pianist Emmet Cohen

Emmet Cohen Web - Gabriela Gabrielaa

photo credit Gabriela Gabrielaa

Jazz Pianist Brings “Emmet’s Place” Live Stream to Strathmore Stage 
By PJ Feinstein 

Like many YouTube sensations, Emmet Cohen went viral without really trying. He launched his music live stream, “Live From Emmet’s Place,” during the pandemic—a sort of weekly Harlem rent party from his New York City apartment, reminiscent of gatherings from the Roaring ‘20s. With nearly 115 episodes and millions of views worldwide, the show has become a platform for Cohen to connect with audiences globally.

His performance on Friday, March 15 at the Music Center at Strathmore will maintain the same casual vibe as his live stream, with a living room-style setting and guest appearances by jazz and improvisational musicians Jazzmeia Horn, Bruce Harris, and Stacy Dillard. We spoke to the award-winning pianist (and self-proclaimed YouTube superfan) about his fast-paced journey to international acclaim. 

This exclusive interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity. 

Give us your elevator pitch. 

I am a jazz pianist who strives for unity, togetherness, and a sense of community. Through jazz and improvisational music, I believe there is an immense power to make the world a better place. 

Which styles of jazz do you enjoy? 

Over the years, I've developed an affinity for different eras of jazz. Jazz is just over 100 years old and started with Ragtime, with pianists like Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin, which led to the sounds of Louis Armstrong and others like Fats Waller. I love early jazz, but then I also fell in love with the sound of big band, swing, and bebop from the 1940s and people like Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. Also, post-bebop new music like John Coltrane and Miles Davis and more modern stuff. 

Your upcoming Strathmore show, "Live From Emmet's Place," is essentially an in-person version of the live stream. Can you share its backstory? 

During the pandemic, gigs were obviously canceled, so [musicians] were left to figure out what to do with our time and energy. Someone from a performing arts center in Kansas [called and] said, "I know our gig was canceled on March 20, but if you do something from the house and put it out in the world, I think people would really appreciate it. And we'll pay the full fee."  

I called my band who lived a couple of blocks away in Harlem and told them to come over for a paying gig. We brought the drums down the block and up five flights of stairs to my apartment. We played this first concert (in suits and ties!), and it became really popular on Facebook--over 40,000 views. How many months or years of touring would it take to reach 40,000 people?  

So, we decided to do it again the following week and worked on the technology, the recording, the video, and everything. We ended up doing it weekly, and it became this Harlem rent party that harkened back to the ones that went on in our exact neighborhood 100 years prior during the roaring '20s. 

[The live stream] has gotten over 30 million views on YouTube and probably many more on Facebook. It's been this way we've been able to connect with people all over the world. We started to invite different guests to join us on the show—hundreds of guests from all over the country, the world, and right here in Harlem.

Featuring Strathmore's "Live from Emmet's Place" guest artists Bruce Harris on trumpet and Stacy Dillard on saxophone 

How did the viral success of your pandemic live streams impact your career? 

Wow, well, we got a lot of exposure all over the world. I never truly realized the power of the internet before. We recently went to Singapore, Japan, and India, and the people in those places said they watched every episode; [the live stream] gave them a portrait of New York during that time and was really important to their survival. It gave them something to look forward to and a sense of unity and togetherness, which is what music has always provided. A place where people can come together and experience feelings together. 

What types of songs do you play? 

We play a lot of repertoire. Standard things [that are] recognizable by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and people like that, but also earlier stuff like Ragtime pieces. We perform original music as well.  

Millions of people discovered you online. How do you kill time on the internet and social media? 

I have a lot of interests outside of music. I love fitness and yoga, so I'll research that stuff on YouTube. I love YouTube. There's a guy named Andrew Huberman who's a scientist, and he does a lot of lectures on YouTube about [biohacking and] different ways you can help your body by using things like sunlight or diet or exercise. I am also a chess player, and I do a lot of research on chess and lessons on YouTube. That's definitely a guilty pleasure of mine.