Winner 2019 American Pianists Award Emmet Cohen: “I was choking back tears.”

(The following appeared in the IndyStar in April 2019 shortly after Emmet Cohen won the 2019 American Pianists Award. The story is authored by Domenica Bongiovanni and the featured photos are by Mark Sheldon.)

Emmet Cohen has won the 2019 American Pianists Awards, one of the world’s major jazz piano competitions. And that means a serious, up-and-coming musician who has already seen success is about to have his career move up a level internationally.  

The winner was announced after the five finalists performed Saturday at Hilbert Circle Theatre in a concert emceed by Dee Dee Bridgewater. The Indianapolis-based competition, run by the American Pianists Association, is known for its massive prize. It includes $50,000 in cash, two years of career management, a recording contract with esteemed label Mack Avenue Records and the title of artist-in-residence at the University of Indianapolis for two years.

On Saturday night, Cohen delivered deeply soulful renditions of “I Keep Goin’ Back to Joe’s” (Marvin Fisher and Jack Segal) with singer Kurt Elling and a Fats Waller Medley with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra. Cohen expertly locked into Elling’s scat singing and the orchestra’s rhythm section, and he pulled an uncommon depth and sensitivity from the piano’s middle range during his solos. 

“I’ve been really trying to connect with my breath, really just trying to be as natural and as flowing as possible,” Cohen told IndyStar after he was announced as the winner Saturday.

“I think a way to connect with the other musicians around you, which is what the ultimate goal of jazz is, one of the ways to do that is to invite everyone into what it is you’re playing, really listen to what they’re doing and to try to fit in with it.”

Emmet Cohen has won the 2019 American Pianists Awards. The American Pianists Association announced the winner Saturday at Hilbert Circle Theatre.
Emmet Cohen has won the 2019 American Pianists Awards. The American Pianists Association announced the winner Saturday at Hilbert Circle Theatre. (Photo: Photo provided/American Pianists Awards)

The pianist had previously been a finalist in Indianapolis in 2011 and 2015. Cohen said he considered not coming back for a third time but friends and family encouraged him to give it one more shot. 

“I’ve been in that situation back there when they name the winner and the build-up and the wait, and it’s one of the most nerve-wracking things, one of the things that will keep you up at night. It’s one of the things that I was thinking about when I wasn’t able to sleep last night,” he said.

“When they called my name, I was choking back tears.”

Cohen, 28, has already performed with many of the jazz musicians who have fashioned the genre as we know it. He created his “Masters Legacy Series” recordings through such collaborations. The series pairs young jazz musicians with greats, including Jimmy Cobb, the drummer on Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” and Ron Carter, who holds the Guinness World Record as the “most recorded jazz bassist in history.”

“It was like, ‘OK, that’s how he hears music. That’s how he shapes the music. This is how his swing feel pulsates within the room,” Cohen told IndyStar in February about working with Cobb.

Cohen — who grew up in Miami and Montclair, New Jersey, and now lives in Harlem — earned a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music. He has played at the Newport and Monterey jazz festivals, met President Barack Obama in the White House and plays the Hammond B-3 organ in New York’s Smoke Jazz & Supper Club whenever he’s at home.

The Emmet Cohen Trio will appear with rising star jazz vocalist Veronica Swift on Friday, June 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Nichols Flickinger Performing Arts Center. Tickets are available at the following link or directly below via the embedded ticket ordering:

Tickets for Veronica Swift and Emmet Cohen Trio

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