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Notations From ... Sullivan Fortner

Twenty-nine-year-old composer and pianist Sullivan Fortner, winner of the prestigious American Pianists Association 2015 Cole Porter Fellowship - awarded only every four years - has a Masters from the Manhattan School of Music and has toured extensively with a host of jazz musicians including the Marsalis family, Nicholas Payton, Gary Bartz and the Roy Hargrove Quintet.  

You speak jazz, so how does jazz speak to you? 

Let’s talk about how it evolved. At first, it sounded like gibberish to me. I did not really understand the language of jazz at all. But like any language, you become more and more accustomed to it, as there’s a syntax, a formula and the way people structure their phrases. It’s just a vocabulary. To me, the language of jazz is still based on community, the sound of all music coming together. There’s no real language of jazz; it’s the language of music. Even Jelly Roll Morton said jazz is all the best music combined into one. I’m paraphrasing what he said, but, that’s what I believe jazz to be: the best quality in music. There’s a little bit of funk in jazz, there’s a little bit of soul in jazz, there’s classical music in jazz, there’s the swing beat, the blues in jazz, and all of it is one big gumbo. 

 Gospel was your first step into music, right? 

Yes, gospel was my beginning. I was raised with not a very strict background, but my parents weren’t jazz lovers. They didn’t really like jazz. My family is a family of singers, The Hollis Family Singers, my mom’s side of the family. In their prime, they were the group that sang around in different churches around Mississippi and Louisiana. So my beginning of jazz was actually through my cousin, who’s a music teacher and saxophone player named Stephen Foster, who actually played in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He asked my mom about my applying for the Duke Ellington competition, then he asked me to be his pianist. My introduction to jazz was I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart and Take the A Train in his high school orchestra. I was in the 7th or 8th grade at the time. So most of my background was strictly gospel and nothing else. 

Recently I heard you encouraging music students at Portland State University via a story about auditioning for Ellis Marsalis. 

I was in the 6th grade going into the 7th grade and I auditioned for the Gifted and Talented in Music for Middle School Students. Ellis was in the audition. For lack of a better way of putting it, he was a real jerk, at least it seemed like it at the time. He made me cry. It was funny, we had an argument over a key. Somebody played a note somewhere, and he said, “What note is that?” I said, “That’s an F-sharp.” He said, “No, it’s not.” I’m like, “Yes, it is. I know it’s an F-sharp.” He said, “No, it’s not an F-sharp. It’s a G-flat.” So I played the note on the piano. He came over to the piano and saw I pressed the note. Then he looked at me and said, “O.K.” and walked away. That was a horrible audition and the longest 15 minutes of my life. When I heard who he was, I didn’t care who he was. He was mean! [Laughs] I didn’t know this until last summer that he actually called [his son] Wynton after the audition and told him about me. I learned this when I talked to Wynton and he wanted me to play and record with him. When I told him I thought then his dad was a jerk, he just laughed! 

 If you could go back in time and play in any era, what era would that be? 

I’d pick two eras. First, I’d love to play with Charlie Parker, just for the experience. I got a chance to talk and hang out with a few of the older musicians. They all told me about the feeling they got when they played or heard Charlie Parker and that it was beyond anything they’d ever experienced. Then, I’d love to be around in the ‘70s; I always loved the music of the ’70s and ‘80s. I’d love to be around and play with people like Chaka Kahn, Earth Wind & Fire with synthesizers. That was actually my dream, to play that kind of music. I never thought I’d be playing jazz at all. Those are the two eras I’d see myself playing. All the other eras, I’d just want to hang out and be a fly on the wall and listen to, to be a witness and hear Art Tatum play, listen to the Count Basie Orchestra in its prime and see Duke Ellington play at the Cotton Club. 

If you didn’t play piano, what instrument would you play? 

 From my personal experience, the piano started off with a crush with a woman and it later turned into the rest of my life! If I had another instrument I’d play, it’d probably be the bass. It’s the most powerful instrument on the bandstand. In my opinion the bass is the nucleus of the whole band. You got a good bass player and a bad drummer, you got a great band. You got a bad bass player and everybody else is good, you got a bad band. It’s everybody’s responsibility to keep the rhythm and time in the band. But I look at it that between the drummer and the pianist there has to be something that grounds and holds the band all together. 

Do you savor being from the birthplace of jazz, or do you shrug and say, “Oh, it’s just my hometown?” 

 I’ve more appreciation for New Orleans, and New Orleans culture and music, over the years, especially once I left home. While I was home, it was “What’s the big deal?” It’s home, whatever. Once I left Oberlin [Conservatory of Music], I started missing home. But when I moved to New York, I really became appreciative of the fact. Yeah, I’m from New Orleans and we have a different way of doing things, a different way of looking at music, a different way of playing music - New Orleans musicians are fearless - and a different way in how we cook! When I tell people I’m from New Orleans, their faces light up and they have a whole lot of questions, like, is it like any other city? And I say, ”No, it’s not!”

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