Emmet Cohen (left) and Houston Person (right) at Dizzy's Club. Photo by Gabriela Gabrielaa.

Pianist Emmet Cohen hosts a Harlem rent party for the modern day

By Sarah Geledi for NPR


“You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.” That adage by poet and writer Maya Angelou speaks to the experience of Emmet Cohen, a pianist in the process of finding his sound.

He’s 32 right now, but Cohen has been a practicing jazz musician since his teens, and it took him a while to come around to this conviction. He recalls sharing a four-hour bus ride with Jimmy Heath, where the late saxophonist didn’t talk about the notes, or the meaning of them, but about the context and backdrops in and against which the notes were laid and the creations were made.

Based on this interaction, Cohen decided to launch the Masters Legacy Series, his musical meetings with living legends of the music: Ron Carter, George Coleman, Benny Golson, Albert “Tootie” Heath and the late Jimmy Cobb.

“The series is designed to show the two-way relationship between the master and the student,” says Cohen.

His career path was there in front of him; his professional network was growing. Then, of course, came the coronavirus pandemic, which brought everything screeching to a halt. Out of that stillness, Cohen decided to revive a Jazz Age tradition: the rent party. As early as March 2020 he launched a series of live-streamed concerts, Live from Emmet’s Place, in his Harlem apartment. What started as an experiment turned to gold, attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers weekly.

When it became safe to invite new guests to be part of the series, he made sure to employ his intergenerational approach, as you’ll hear in a performance with tenor saxophonist Houston Person.

Left to right: Houston Person, Emmet Cohen, Kyle Poole, Russell Hall backstage at Dizzy’s Club. Photo by Gabriela Gabrielaa.

This episode of Jazz Night in America brings you that soulful set, recorded at Dizzy’s Club with a step backstage for a cross-generational conversation between the pianist and the saxophonist. “There’s a fine line,” Cohen says. “One of always respect and reverence, but also of being peers.”


Emmet Cohen, piano; Houston Person, tenor saxophone; Russell Hall, bass; Kyle Poole, drums.

Set List:

• “Billy Boy” (traditional)
• “Lester Leaps In” (Lester Young)
• “Maybe You’ll Be There” (Rube Bloom )
• “Why Not” (Houston Person)
• “Venus de Milo” (Gerry Mulligan)
• “Sunny” (Bobby Hebb)


Writer and producer: Sarah Geledi, with Alex Ariff; Host: Christian McBride; Assistant producer: Scout Opatut; Concert engineer: Chris Gold; Episode mix: Ron Scalzo; Project manager: Suraya Mohamed; Vice President of Visuals and Strategy at NPR Music: Keith Jenkins; Executive producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand.