IThis is New York’s most exclusive jazz concert. Only about eight guests can attend the weekly, invite-only shows by sneaking into 32-year-old jazz pianist Emmet Cohen’s fifth-floor walk-up in Harlem. Meanwhile, thousands more around the world are watching live streams of the event on Facebook and YouTube.
Live From Emmet’s Place began as an almost desperate response to the disappearance of concerts for musicians when the Covid-19 pandemic began. Ninety-four shows later, the weekly gig 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 become the most-watched regular online jazz show. in the world.
Speaking on a recent Monday afternoon four hours before showtime, Cohen, a former child prodigy who became one of the most acclaimed jazz pianists of his generation, relaxed in a T-shirt and shorts. At this hour, his one-bedroom apartment seems relatively spacious by New York standards. But that wasn’t until the technicians – a piano tuner, a sound engineer, a videographer – started arriving and setting up the equipment for what, after two and a half years, has passed from a live shoot using only an iPhone to a hi-tech, multi-camera production with pristine sound.
Superior production values would count for little were it not for a trio of charismatic, often dazzling performers. Part of it is Cohen’s energy, exceptional musicianship and likeable personality. That’s part of the appeal of its inclusive brand of jazz, incorporating the genre’s entire tradition from the 1920s to the present day. And in part, 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 Harlem music scene was the focus of the show. “There’s such a concentration of great musicians living here, just around the corner,” he said, citing regular guests like saxophonists Patrick Bartley and Tivon Pennicott and trumpeter Bruce Harris, all stars rising stars of jazz on the New York scene.
“There is a rich history of great jazz musicians living in this neighborhood: Billie Holiday lived around the corner, Mary Lou Williams down the street, Thelonious Monk hung out here… all the great stride pianos played rental parties in Harlem . Duke Ellington and his whole band used to live here, Sonny Rollins… So it was only natural to have a rental party in Harlem, but a virtual, digital, updated version, where we could invite people to try to do 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 of around 1,000 fans on average every Monday night on Facebook and YouTube, but most shows’ videos, along with dozens of individual songs, have garnered dozens of thousands more views on YouTube. A video, featuring the sparkling French-born jazz singer Cyrille Aimée, has racked up 4.6 million views.
In its pre-pandemic early days, the unlikely success of webcasting could hardly have been imagined. In February 2020, Cohen and the trio were flying high. “I had a full year of major gigs booked, including a show at Jazz at Lincoln Center booked with Freddy Cole [he died shortly thereafter]”, Cohen said. “Suddenly we had no more 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 earn money. When you play [the New York City jazz club] Smalls there are 80 people, if you sell; at Birdland, 250. When we did the first live from the apartment on March 22, 2020, after a week the livestream had 40,000 views. For a jazz group to reach so many people, it takes months, even 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 the generous tips, from enthusiastic fans around the world, according to bassist Hall. “They provided the support we needed from the early stages” of the webcast, he said, reporting that in the first few weeks each member’s weekly salary was in the four figures – not bad for a show. two hours.
It quickly became an international “community gathering,” Cohen said. “And community, in times of hardship, has proven to be the most important thing.” The show also reinvigorated demand for Cohen and the trio. Prior to the show, their European tours were a somewhat dicey 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 exponentially increased our fan base.
“When I’m on the road,” Poole said, “people tell me, ‘I’m part of the Emmet’s Place community. They keep in touch, they meet for dinner!
“The pandemic caused incredible destruction and consternation, but there was a silver lining,” Cohen explained. “It made everyone stop running on the hamster wheel for a while. In my artistic community, we got to reflect on all the hard work, the gigs, the workouts. I had been in New York for eight years and had never taken a week off. My self-esteem was based on how many gigs I had. Now I have a foot-tall stack of fan mail, people thanking us for getting them through the pandemic. I try to answer every email. It’s a full time job. A lot of people were really lonely and depressed during that time. The fact that we are a family, Kyle, Russell and I showed brotherhood and what it means to be a group in times of crisis. I think it really touched and changed people’s lives.