Early in the pandemic, jazz pianist Emmet Cohen started a weekly gig in his apartment. Now, it only has eight attendees but online fans all over the world
By Allen Morrison for The Guardian
It’s the most exclusive jazz concert in New York. Only about eight guests can attend the weekly shows, by invitation only, squeezing into the 32-year-old jazz pianist Emmet Cohen’s fifth-floor walk-up in Harlem. Meanwhile, thousands more around the world tune into live streams of the event on Facebook and YouTube.
Live From Emmet’s Place started as a near-desperate response to the disappearance of gigs for musicians when the Covid-19 pandemic began. Ninety-four shows later, the weekly concert featuring Cohen, his trio with bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole, and a roster of guest musicians who represent some of the jazz world’s leading lights, has evolved into the most highly watched regular online jazz show in the world.
Talking on a recent Monday afternoon four hours before showtime, Cohen, a one-time child prodigy who has become one of his generation’s most highly regarded jazz pianists, was chilling in a T-shirt and shorts. At this hour, his one-bedroom apartment seems relatively spacious by New York standards. But that’s only until the technicians – a piano tuner, a sound engineer, a videographer – start arriving and setting up equipment for what has, after two and a half years, been transformed from a ragtag live shoot using only an iPhone into a hi-tech, multi-camera production with pristine sound.
The superior production values would count for little if they were not in the service of a charismatic, often dazzling, trio of performers. Partly it’s Cohen’s energy, exceptional musicianship, and likable personality. Partly it’s the appeal of his inclusive brand of jazz, incorporating the entire tradition of the genre from the 1920s to the present day. And partly it’s the joy and esprit de corps with which the trio perform, evident in Cohen’s frequent ear-to-ear grin and the trio’s telepathy.
At first, the current music scene in Harlem was the central focus of the show. “There’s such a high concentration of great musicians living here, right down the block,” he said, citing regular guests like saxophonists Patrick Bartley and Tivon Pennicott and trumpeter Bruce Harris, all rising jazz stars on the New York scene.
“There’s a rich history of great jazz musicians living in this area: Billie Holiday lived on the corner, Mary Lou Williams up the street, Thelonious Monk would hang out here … all the stride piano greats would play Harlem rent parties. Duke Ellington and his whole band lived here, Sonny Rollins … So, it just felt very natural to host a Harlem rent party, but an updated, digital, virtual version, where we could invite people in to try to make the rent and get the musicians paid at a time when people were really struggling.”
These days, Live From Emmet’s Place has an audience that averages about 1,000 fans each Monday night on Facebook and YouTube, but videos of most of the shows, as well as dozens of individual songs, have logged tens of thousands more views on YouTube. One video, featuring the sparkling French-born jazz singer Cyrille Aimee, has racked up 4.6m views.
In its pre-pandemic infancy, the webcast’s unlikely success could scarcely have been imagined. In February 2020, Cohen and the trio were flying high. “I had a full year of important gigs booked, including a show at Jazz at Lincoln Center booked with Freddy Cole [he died shortly thereafter],” Cohen said. “Suddenly we had no gigs and no idea when we would play again.”
“I wanted to figure out how to create an online community where we could play and make money. When you play at [the New York City jazz club] Smalls there are 80 people, if you sell out; at Birdland, 250. When we did the first concert from the apartment on March 22, 2020, after one week the livestream had 40,000 views. For a jazz group to reach that many people requires months, if not years, of touring.”
Cohen’s quick action to provide live jazz during the pandemic – he was one of the first jazz musicians to enter the Internet performance space – resulted in an immediate outpouring of love, not to mention generous tips, from enthusiastic fans all over the world, according to bassist Hall. “They provided the support that we needed from the earliest stages” of the webcast, he said, reporting that, in the early weeks, each member’s weekly payday was in four figures – not bad for a two-hour show.
It quickly became an international “communal gathering”, Cohen said. “And community, in a time of hardship, turned out to be the most important thing.” The show has also invigorated demand for Cohen and the trio. Before the show, their European tours were a somewhat risky proposition. “Now when we go to Europe, for example on our recent trip to Budapest, we sold 400 tickets, and it sold out two weeks in advance. It has exponentially increased our fan base.”
“When I’m on the road,” Poole said, “people say to me, ‘I’m part of the Emmet’s Place community.’ They keep in touch, they meet each other for dinner!”
“The pandemic caused incredible destruction and dismay, but there was a silver lining,” Cohen reflected. “It made everyone stop running around on the hamster wheel for awhile. In my artistic community, we were able to reflect on all the hard work, the gigging, the practicing. I had been in New York for eight years and never took a week off. My self-worth was based on how many gigs I had. Now I have a stack of fan mail a foot high, people thanking us for helping get them through the pandemic. I try to answer every email. It’s a full-time job. Lots of folks were really lonely and depressed during this time. The fact that we’re a family, Kyle, Russell and me, showed the brotherhood and what it means to be a band in a time of crisis. I think it really touched and changed people’s lives.”