Born on January 17, 1963, in Baltimore, MD; son of McDonald (a retired post office employee and church organist) and Flossie (a city social services worker and church choir director) Soulful jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut might just be proof positive of the impact that music has on babies in the womb. Either that, or a life in music was simply in his blood. Chestnut’s father, a postal employee and the son of a church minister, was the official organist for the local church in Baltimore, Maryland, where Chestnut grew up. Young Cyrus’s home was filled with the sounds of the gospel music that his church-going parents played in their home, along with jazz records by artists such as Thelonius Monk and Jimmy Smith. Chestnut has said that the roots of his love of music began there, and to this day, Chestnut’s ties to the gospel church remain constant.
After graduating from Berklee College of Music in Boston, Chestnut went on to work with jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks from 1986-88, and trumpeter Terrence Blanchard and saxophonist Donald Harrison from 1988-90, before joining jazz legend Wynton Marsalis in 1991.
In 1994 Chestnut released Dark Before the Dawn for Atlantic Records. “It’s a musical story about me. It’s about my life experiences, how I felt at the time, my reactions. Life is not one-sided. A lot of different things happen in life,” Chestnut told the Philadelphia Inquirer. The album debuted in the sixth spot on the Billboard Jazz Charts. The very next year, Chestnut released the critically acclaimed Earth Stories, for which he composed nine of the CD’s eleven tracks.
Chestnut’s 2001 release, Soul Food, provided a showcase for his versatility. The album is a blend of jazz, classical, gospel, and R&B. In 2003 Chestnut released You Are My Sunshine on Warner Brothers Records. Prior to that, Chestnut released a solo piano album, Blessed Quietness: Collection of Hymns, Spirituals, and Carols in 1996, and followed with Cyrus Chestnut in 1998.
The New York Daily News once heralded Chestnut as the rightful heir to Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Erroll Garner. In an interview on National Public Radio (NPR) for All Things Considered, Chestnut remarked, “If I can send one person home after a performance feeling better than when they arrived, then I’ve done my job, and I sleep good at night.” To this day, Chestnut attends church every Sunday, and whenever he can he plays in the local church in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives with his family. He told CBS News, “If I’m not working, you’ll find me in somebody’s church.” Chestnut continually tours with his trio, playing live at jazz festivals around the world as well as clubs and concert halls. His leadership and prowess as a soloist has also led him to be a first call for the piano chair in many big bands including the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band.