Emmet Cohen Wins American Pianists Association Competition

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Emmet Cohen holds his first-place trophy at the American Pianists Association finals at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in Indianapolis on April 6.

(Photo: ©Mark Sheldon)

“I’ve connected deeply with the music of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith,” Cohen said. “All of them brought something different to the foundation of jazz. I love connecting with the ancestors through music. That’s why I choose to play early music.”

The other finalists were Kenny Banks Jr., Keelan Dimick, Dave Meder and Billy Test. Each of them won $20,000 in cash. Of the four, Banks was Cohen’s stiffest competition during the semifinals and finals. The 30-year-old, Atlanta-based Banks infused his playing with gospel and blues elements gained from formative years in Columbus, Ohio, at his father’s church. (His father is also a noted jazz pianist and organist.) At the Jazz Kitchen, Banks delivered a thrilling, modern arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” (from 1965’s Maiden Voyage), a suspenseful original, “Dream Waltz,” and surprising jazz renditions of “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” and “America, the Beautiful.”

At the finals, Banks and Elling delivered a soulful version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind” and a capricious version of Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy” with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra. “I love people,” Banks said. “I’m always trying to share my love of the music with them. I want people to feel something when I play.”

The last two days of the APA competition were the culmination of a process that spanned 13 months. It included preliminary rounds with about 40 pianists. After the five finalists were announced in May 2018, they attended a high-profile media event at Dizzy’s Club in New York and a community-wide Jazz Pizzazz event in Indianapolis. Between September 2018 and February of this year, they performed at the Jazz Kitchen in trio and solo settings, offered solo recitals at the Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital and conducted three-day residencies at five local high schools.

Harrison explained that having the finalists perform at the Jazz Kitchen is essential to preparing them for a successful career in jazz. “If we are grooming them to be major artists, we need to put them in places that seem right for the genre,” Harrison said. “A jazz club is the right spot, even with the dining tables, candles, people drinking and eating—that’s part of the setting. A jazz musician needs to be able to function in that setting.”

The APA awards began in 1981 and are held every two years. Since 1992, the event has alternated between being a classical competition and a jazz competition. Other jazz winners include Sullivan Fortner (2015), Aaron Diehl (2011) and Dan Tepfer (2007).

“I’m really grateful and surprised by winning this year,” Cohen said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity. I just have to take it and do the best I can with it. But I have to remember that music is a marathon. How I use that music in the world is the most important thing. I always have to keep that in mind.”

For more information on the American Pianists Association, visit its website. Information on Cohen, including his tour schedule, is posted at his website. DB

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