CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Sullivan Fortner: Before & After

The pianist finds meaning and solace in the “isms” of jazz past and present as the world convulses

Sullivan Fortner
Sullivan Fortner

The weeks that preceded this online Before & After were sheer worldwide overload—murders and marches, more deaths and outrage, widening protests, all during a continuing pandemic. Finally, as people kept speaking out, there was a degree of hope; the shared sense of history in the making was everywhere. In the music community, against this backdrop, there arose questions of increasing complexity: What should music be doing in this moment? What activities should musicians be focusing on? When the economic future of the music scene—jazz especially—is so precarious, already limited to online interaction and transaction, how much business should be business as usual? A day-long blackout initiated by the recording industry, intending to draw attention to social rather than commercial priorities, generated as much controversy as support. Many jazz musicians and enterprises strenuously resisted any degree of silencing, calling it an affront to the message of the moment.

The decision, less than a week after that early-June blackout, to hold a public, Zoom-delivered Before & After with New Orleans-born pianist Sullivan Fortner (his first) was motivated by the desire to keep the jazz wheels turning, with a greater awareness of the current social and political climate. Jazz has always been reflective and porous, absorbing and mirroring what happens in the present tense; so was this interactive event, with more than 50 fans logging on. A few posed questions, including one asking who defines the time in a band. Fortner—just back in New York after two-and-a-half months quarantined in Miami—noted how it was everyone’s responsibility to “guard” the time, and that this had a deeper spiritual significance as well.

“In Roy [Hargrove]’s band,” he said, “if something happened in the rhythm section Roy would get mad at me, and I never understood why, because I always thought that it falls to the bass player [to maintain the time]—he’s the only one playing quarter notes and roots the whole time. But he got mad at me, and I think that was his way of saying, ‘You’re not protecting it, you’re riding on top of the time too much.’ It’s about protecting. When I’m playing with people, I protect them, I protect the tune that they’re playing, the time, the melody, the changes. I try to protect them as much as I can.”

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After listening session:

1. Barry Harris
“Indiana” (Chasin’ the Bird, Riverside). Harris, piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Clifford Jarvis, drums. Recorded in 1962.

BEFORE: That’s Barry. [Music fades] Let me hear how he ends it. [Listens] Who was the rhythm section? It’s really amazing to me how he takes Bud’s language and doesn’t recite it verbatim. He puts a different view on it. Bud was more dirty. Barry is prettier to me. Bud is like Monk in that regard—very hoomph when he plays. Barry took that hoomph and presented it in such a beautiful, poetic way. There’s something about Detroit piano players, the way the rhythm feels, a little more flowing, like water, whereas Bud is solid, you know what I mean?

Another thing about Detroit piano players: They never get my name right [laughs]. I’ve called Barry a few times and said, “Hey Barry, it’s Sullivan!” He’s like, “Who?” “Sullivan.” “I don’t know no Sullivan.” Then I say, “Solomon.” “Oh, Solomon!” Johnny O’Neal calls me Solomon Fortune [laughs]. But it’s all endearment. It’s all love.

Barry has such a fluidity. Nobody has that type of time, and I feel like now it’s even more flowing than before. He talks about these [older] recordings and he’ll say, “I’m playing too fingery” or “I should be playing more with the hand,” but I could tell it’s Barry by the way the time feels. There’s certain “isms” that Barry has. Every great piano player has isms—Kenny Barron has isms, Cedar Walton has isms. While Barry isn’t one of those guys, there’s something about his sound and the way he phrases and certain cadences that he uses that I could tell it’s him. He’s definitely not a copycat. I’ve been going to Barry’s [weekly improvisation] class [in New York] off and on for the last seven, eight years. 

Barry had a health challenge recently when he was in Italy and some crowdfunding helped him return home. Have you talked to him since?

Oh yeah, he’s fine. He’s doing his classes on Zoom now from his house every Saturday at 1:30. I spoke with him on the phone once or twice and he thought I was a bill collector. Then I said it was Solomon and he said, “Oh, hey!”

2. Samora Pinderhughes
“Momentum, Pt. 2” (The Transformations Suite, Gray Area). Pinderhughes, piano; Riley Mulherkar, trumpet; Lucas Pino, tenor saxophone; Tony Lustig, baritone saxophone; Alex Jenkins, bass; Jimmy MacBride, drums; Dima Dimitrova, Kellen McDaniel, Charles Yang, Stephanie Yu, violins; Matthew Lipman, Charlotte Steiner, violas; Genevieve Guimond, Annie Hart, Mitch Lyon, cellos; Jehbreal Muhammad Jackson, vocals; Jeremie Harris, spoken word; Saul Williams, Tupac Shakur, lyrics. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: Was that Samora? Who’s singing with him? All right. Jehbreal went to Juilliard and when I met him he was doing dance, but he would also show up and sing. Who else?

AFTER: Samora is very proactive. A lot of his music in the last few years has been centered on equality and race—classism, sexism, all those things. He’s a really good dude and good piano player and I like his writing. We’re in such a strange time right now, man, but I think that it’s a beautiful time too, because the blindfolds are being taken off and people are actually starting to see and be aware of the life of the African American. How important we are to this country, how important we are in the music, in the arts, and in the way the world works. People are starting to see us as people, and to be respected as people.

Jazz is primarily an instrumental music, but when there’s a need for it to carry a message—like now, in a big way—many artists bring in singers and MCs. How about you? 

I’ve had a back-and-forth with that, because on one side I’m saying, “Yeah, our music should be about evoking change.” It shines a light on somebody like a Samora Pinderhughes, for him to find a way to say what he needs to say. The other side of me is saying that it’s not enough for you to just play. I feel like a lot of musicians—myself included—have kind of hidden behind our instruments and haven’t really voiced what we want to say, because the instrument is our only voice. But we have to speak for ourselves.

I was listening to an interview with Dick Gregory and he was saying an athlete isn’t doing anything unless he uses his platform to speak. He said, with this microphone, you can do more than just being an entertainer. Look at somebody like Muhammad Ali, who got on the microphone and got a whole culture of people to change their diet, you know what I mean? We can no longer afford as musicians to hide behind our music. We have to use our music to speak, and not just music but all art. We have to use it as a platform to be active in the community and actually be the change we want to see.

That’s the reason why I like working with singers, like Candice Hoyes. I’m giving her a shout-out because we’re getting ready to release an album that is all of her original music, but it’s based on poems by Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. Also Langston Hughes. He has one poem [“Tired”] that says, “I am so tired of waiting. Aren’t you, for the world to become good and beautiful and kind? Let us take a knife and cut the world in two—and see what worms are eating at the rind.” 

I think about that song with all the protests and everything that happened with George Floyd. I saw the funeral on YouTube. It was just heartbreaking. But it is also very, very hopeful because the knife is cutting and we’re actually beginning to see what’s in the center of it all. Once that’s exposed, then there can really be some changes made. It doesn’t stop with George Floyd, it goes through African-American health, education, and awareness—so many issues beyond just a black guy that got murdered by police officers. I really do believe that America is getting ready to experience a new birth, so to speak. 

3. Allen Toussaint
“Danza, Op. 33” (American Tunes, Nonesuch). Toussaint, piano; Cameron Stone, cello; Amy Shulman, harp; Van Dyke Parks, arrangement. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: There’s absolutely nothing like a New Orleans piano player to me. [Listens] Allen! [Listens more] That’s Allen. You know, New Orleans is at the top of the Caribbean. It’s definitely not America. You want America, you go next door to Metairie, and even that is still a little far removed. You really hear all the Caribbean and Spanish influence in this type of playing, man. I appreciate it. It definitely put a smile on my face. I don’t think it’s an original, though, is it?

AFTER: From Cuba. [Louis Moreau] Gottschalk. That’s why he played it in that way, I think. Allen Toussaint, one of our pianistic and musical kings. He really carried on the traditions of people like Professor Longhair. You can hear James Booker’s influence. You hear such a long lineage in his playing but there’s something about Allen, he made it real pretty for everybody. Something about his playing was very regal, as opposed to somebody like Dr. John, who was down and dirty with it. To me Allen was like [in elegant tone], “Yes, hello, young man. How are you?” It was very, very proper and it was in his personality, and his dressing style, and how he spoke to people. I never met him. I was supposed to do a double deal with him in London with Theo Croker but he died a few weeks before the show happened, so they decided to cancel the show. 

4. Alice Coltrane
“Walk with Me” (Translinear Light, Impulse!). Coltrane, piano; Charlie Haden, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums. Recorded in 2004.

BEFORE: “Walk with Me.” It’s a hymn. [Listens] That’s not Mary Lou [Williams] and that’s not something Mary Lou would do, the way the left hand moves. The way they’re using the whole instrument, it doesn’t sound like a … [Listens more] It’s very harp-like. A lot of rumbling and a lot of … interesting. It reminds me of Alice Coltrane or Mary Lou or somebody. I have a friend from New Orleans and this reminds me of her style—Courtney Bryan. She has this type of sound in the spirituals that she plays. 

It’s very chant-like, very reverent-sounding. It’s not power jazz—not burning and blazing like you would hear traditional jazz piano players play. It’s a certain sound that I really can’t describe, but I see it.

AFTER: I thought it was Alice. You could tell that she’s a harp player by how she’s approaching it.  One of the things that I like to do I got hip to from a friend of mine, I think it was Marcus Gilmore. He’ll listen to Alice Coltrane and watch [the BBC documentary series] Planet Earth and turn the sound off. I guarantee you, it flows absolutely seamlessly together!

You came up playing organ in the church and studying jazz piano, like Alice.

What can I say about the church upbringing? It’s so closely related to jazz. It’s sides of the same tree. How I learned jazz was similar to how I learned gospel. Just like we have the American songbook in jazz, in gospel we have the hymn book. There are certain aesthetics that are similar. The call-and-response, a certain signifying thing, how you train your ear, how you understand the lyric of the song and how you accompany the lyric and the soloist. How to hear harmony. In the church I grew up in, there was just piano and organ for a good portion of the time, so you had to learn how to be your own timekeeper. You learn all that.

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.