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Emmet Cohen has one foot in the tradition, and another in the future

Gabriela Gabrielaa

Within about a week of home quarantine in March 2020, pianist Emmet Cohen started live-streaming shows every Monday night from his apartment in Harlem.

At first it was just Cohen and his bandmates, drummer Kyle Poole and bassist Russell Hall, set up in Cohen’s living room. Eventually they started inviting guests, and Emmet’s Place became one of the spots for live jazz in pandemic New York. Six months in, it had really caught on: the Emmet’s Place performance of “La Vie en Rose” featuring singer Cyrille Aimée has over 4 million views on YouTube.

Emmet Cohen, Melissa Aldana, Russell Hall and Gary Walker
Melissa Aldana, Emmet Cohen, Gary Walker and Russell Hall, during a kickoff for WBGO's March 2021 fund drive.

Since then, Emmet’s Place has become a kind of jazz incubator in New York; featured guests have included legends like Houston Person, Victor Lewis, Joe Lovano, Sheila Jordan, Randy Brecker, Regina Carter, Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton, and dozens more.

Cohen has one foot planted in the future and the other in the past. Maybe that’s why he chose to call his most recent record Future Stride: as a nod to the stride piano that he loves and the modern world in which he lives.

That tension between these two impulses, the old school and the new, is at the heart of the Emmet Cohen phenomenon. He’s deeply rooted in the jazz tradition, and believes in the importance of oral history and intergenerational connection. When he was in his 20s (not so long ago!) he made a series of albums, live interviews, and performances featuring jazz masters Jimmy Cobb, Ron Carter, Benny Golson, Albert “Tootie” Heath, and George Coleman. He called it the Master Legacy Series.

Meanwhile, he’s an active digital citizen. He was quick to embrace streaming, NFTs, and direct-to-fan connection. (He offers a subscription service to his fans to support his work directly.) He’s a product of the 21st century and he understands how to thrive in both physical and virtual space.

We got together recently to talk about how he straddles the line between tradition and modernity, starting out as a prodigy in Miami, being a “repertory player,” his community in Harlem, “blues therapy” and the common lesson he learned from all his mentors.

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Leo Sidran is a Latin Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger and composer. Since 2014 he has hosted an influential podcast called The Third Story, featuring interviews with musicians, producers, songwriters and creators of all kinds.