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Pianist Marc Cary surveys a winding path on 'Life Lessons'

Jati Lindsay

Marc Cary is a conduit between the past and present. He has become a griot of sorts, one who regularly pays homage to those who helped shape him — including legends he has worked with, like Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Sekou Sundiata and Roy Hargrove.

The Pulse featuring Marc Cary

Cary’s new album, Life Lessons, chronicles the peaks, valleys and plateaus he has traversed over the course of his life, and the connections made along the way. Although the album was recorded pre-pandemic, the timing of its release couldn’t be more auspicious. It has an assuaging quality, an element he cites as essential to his sound. His mission has been to use his music to heal the community, just as it healed him.

During his teens, Cary was always an entrepreneur. Being one of five children, he was always on a quest for financial independence. He mowed lawns, had a paper route, and led an award-winning go-go band called High Integrity Band and Show. His quest also took him down a dark path. It was at age 14, while in an addiction recovery program, that he auditioned for Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. His sponsor, an herbalist and acupuncturist whom he lived with during his late teens, took him to school as a condition of his acceptance to the prestigious school for the first six months.

Jati Lindsay

But Cary was determined to take control of his life and his destiny. It is this mode of operation that has guided his career ever since. Now, he preaches the necessity of studying chord changes just as intensely as the business of music changes. When he isn’t performing, he is passing on his knowledge on to students at both the Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard. He encourages them to not just be jazz historians mimicking the greats, but to make their own history by infusing their sound into their music.

In addition to being an educator and entrepreneur, Cary has always been focused on being in service to the community. His weekly Harlem Sessions is a community jam inspired by Sundiata’s “Community Sing” project, which he once served as his music director. Cary’s trio on Life Lessons, with Dan Chmielinski on bass and Diego Joaquin Ramirez on drums, was birthed out of these Harlem meetups. Cary and Ramirez played together there for three consecutive years, and Chmielinski was one of his students.

Marc Cary - It's Not A Good Day to Die

While Life Lessons is a reflection on Cary’s personal story, it also recounts events that were turning points in society. When asked about one of the tracks on the album titled, “It’s Not a Good Day to Die,” he was overcome with emotion as he recalled how singer Gina Breedlove gave him the inspiration for the lyrics dedicated to Amadou Diallo, who was killed by New York City police offers in 1999. They first performed the song along with Sundiata on the first anniversary of 9/11.

For more about Marc Cary, visit his website.

Keanna Faircloth is a Washington, DC native and comes to WBGO getting her start on-air at WPFW 89.3 FM in 2003, most recently as the host of Late Night Jazz: The Continuum Experience. She is a graduate of Howard University having majored in Music History with a minor in Classical Piano. Keanna has written for NPR Music, and worked for Radio One as an on-air personality, producer and voice-over talent. She is also the creator and host of Artimacy Podcast, where she has interviewed artists like Wynton Marsalis, Matthew Whitaker, Jonathan Butler, and Dionne Warwick. As a result, she was recognized by Radio Ink Magazine as a 2019 African American leader in radio.