Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Emmet Cohen takes his trio’s jazz performances online

By Heather Longley

When a pandemic quarantine slapped a hiatus on New York City’s nightlife, what was a professional jazz pianist to do? For Emmet Cohen, it was to transform his living room into a performance space for the free weekly Live From Emmet’s Place concerts.

The multiple award winner was accustomed to afterhours at Big Apple jazz clubs—such as Blue Note and Smoke—and with his trio performing at festivals and venues across the country. But beginning in March, the domesticated performance space of his Harlem apartment became the location from which his trio’s Monday night gigs are beamed to viewers across the country.

Almost from the beginning, the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State got in on the act by partnering with Cohen to cross-stream the at-home concerts live on the center’s Facebook page.

Unofficially, more than 73,000 people tuned in to the May 25 livestream, which coincided with Cohen’s thirtieth birthday, but the number has varied from week to week. The pianist uncovered the potential for livestreaming by inviting fans to virtually watch his trio cut a rug on his hardwood floor.

“I think it’s gotten less weird and less distant every single time,” he says.

As for the neighbors?

“The walls are thin, but they’ve been kind to let us play on Monday, as it’s all we’ve got.”

The trio, which features bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole, canceled the June 1 livestream to show solidarity with African Americans. Cohen says the trio plans to return to the living room stage at 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 8.

Before endearing himself to online audiences, Cohen was already a Center for the Performing Arts favorite. He has twice performed at Penn State—in 2018 accompanying vocalist Veronica Swift, and in 2019 with his trio and saxophonist Houston Person.

In a recent interview with the Center for the Performing Arts, Cohen discusses the future of his weekly livestream, connecting with fans online, and the effect of current events on his calling.

Q: You’ve said performing is about connections and communication. How are you acclimating yourself to a lack of a live audience?

A: Well, after ten quarantine concerts on Monday nights and other little things in between, I think it’s gotten less weird and less distant every single time.

You know, I’ve been on YouTube seeing a lot of my heroes play on TV-like specials. You go and watch Sonny Rollins playing in Paris or something with a lot of other musicians of his time. And it looks like maybe there’s no audience in there. I think that’s something that jazz musicians have had to do.

Q: Do you think you might continue your online performances and creation even after the quarantine and curfew are lifted?

A: I think I will continue to some extent to stream. I think it’s a medium that has been added. A lot of people figured out how to access concerts online, how to do Zoom, how to do all the stuff in this new time. And I think that it’s always something that will be in the repertoire of performances, especially for people who are in cities that we don’t visit and those who are too old to come out and attend.

Q: In addition to pay-per-view-style events, artists of all genres have found a way to monetize their talents online—you with the Emmet Cohen Exclusive membership tiers. Is that type of initiative new for artists and musicians?

A: This is an idea I have always had. It’s based on the 1,000-fan model that a lot of independent artists kind of talk about and a lot of people talk about in business school of music. If you have 1,000 true fans that spend X amount of dollars every single year, then you have a living and you don’t need to be famous.

So, you know, I found a lot of people on my journey that wanted to support in different ways. And I thought this would be a creative way that I could involve people, give them a little something extra, a little peek inside of my life, and inside of some of my musical journeys providing like private concerts and stuff like that.

And I happened to have started during the coronavirus, just because I had the time to and because people really needed the music and really needed to be part of a community. So it ended up just being serendipitous timing in a way.

Q: Between your weekly livestream, quarantine collaborations with other artists, and creating new music and content for your exclusive members, do you think you’re busier now or before the pandemic changed everything?

A: I'm busy, but I was definitely busier before the pandemic. But I’m the type of person who likes to fill my time with various projects. And I’ve been doing what I can and just been trying to stay creative. … So, I think busier is kind of just a mindset. But I’ve definitely been trying to do everything I can to stay present in the world and to keep doing what it is that I feel my calling is—just to make music and bring it to the people.

Heather Longley is a communication specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.