Lovers of music owe a special debt to the Baltimore postal worker who introduced Cyrus Chestnut to the piano. That single act — a father bestowing the gift of music on his son in the 1960s — resulted in the creation of some of the best improvisational jazz and spiritual renderings of the last 30 years.
McDonald Chestnut, a self-taught pianist and organist who played in Baptist churches in Baltimore and Bel Air, died last week of pneumonia at 85. He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Flossie Chestnut, and his son, one of the top jazz pianists in the world.
“My father, the one who taught me piano, transitioned today,” Cyrus Chestnut wrote on his Facebook page on May 20. After I expressed condolences on the phone Monday night, he recalled something his father had told him: “You know, son, I could have left you an inheritance in money, but I exposed you to music, and that will take you for the rest of your life and sustain you.”
Indeed, Cyrus Chestnut has had a richly rewarding career at the keyboard.
Born and raised in Baltimore, he has traveled widely to perform as a soloist or with jazz combos in clubs and concert halls, and on local and national radio and television. Critics have heaped lavish praise on his ability to improvise. His discography encompasses 34 recordings on multiple labels.
By the time I first heard Chestnut play, in 1995, Atlantic had released three of his albums in three years. One of them, “Revelation,” was a collection of mostly up-tempo tracks with Christopher Thomas on bass and Clarence Penn on drums. But there was one solo recording that left me awed: “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”
Chestnut had taken a Civil War-era hymn, slowed it way, way down and shaped it into a deeply emotional meditation. I saw him play this song on stage once. His moving performance lasted three glorious minutes, and I have never seen an audience of 300 more rapt.
With the placement of “Sweet Hour” on a jazz album, Chestnut paid homage to his roots and showed respect for his parents — his mother, the choir director, and his dad, who played piano and organ at Mount Calvary Star Baptist Church and Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore.
McDonald Chestnut was born in 1935 in Clarendon County, South Carolina, the youngest of nine children of a sharecropper who also served as a minister. After graduating from high school and serving in the Army, McDonald Chestnut landed in Baltimore and worked in steel mills before taking a job as a mail sorter with the U.S. Postal Service. He and his wife lived in the Govans area. Cyrus was their only child.
When he was as young as 3, he climbed up on the family’s 64-key Melodigrand.
“I wanted to do what my father did,” Chestnut says. “The reason I play the piano is because of my father. He’s the one who introduced me to music.”
McDonald Chestnut purchased a copy of “The Leila Fletcher Piano Course” to start lessons for his son at home. “There was a chart that he put right behind the keys to show me the notes, and he taught me,” Chestnut says. “I did that from about 3 to 5.”
His parents then took him, after school on Wednesdays, to Pimlico for lessons with a woman named Adah Jenkins. More than a music teacher, Jenkins was among the Baltimore civil rights activists who picketed and eventually integrated the city’s theaters. She was also the first Black supervisor of music for city schools.
When Jenkins took little Cyrus as a student, she discovered that he had been playing on the Melodigrand and insisted that he learn on a full-size piano. “Within a week, my father went to the Hecht Co. and bought an 88-key piano,” Chestnut says, laughing at the memory.
He studied at Peabody Preparatory and, after high school, at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He then embarked on a career in jazz that took him across the country and Europe and landed him a teaching job at Howard University.
Among his many recordings is one from 2008, “Spirit,” that struck me as the culmination of Chestnut’s efforts to establish his free and lively style while remaining grounded in the music of his faith. In fact, he says that his instincts for improvisation were encouraged in church.
“There were a lot of [spirituals] where the meter would change, and they honestly would have more of that bluesy, swinging feel,” Chestnut says. “There were times when we had to read music out of the hymn book, but sometimes the pastor would look at me and say, ‘Just play something.’ And so at a young age, as far as improvisation, just creating things, it was just a part of me.”
There were times when Chestnut, father and son, played together in church, at Mount Calvary Star and Friendship Baptist and, after the Chestnuts moved to Harford County, at New Hope Baptist Church in Bel Air.
Cyrus Chestnut will be at the keyboard during his father’s funeral service on June 11 at Friendship Baptist on Loch Raven Boulevard. He’s not sure what he’ll play — he’s an improviser, after all — but it will be a tribute to the man who brought him to music and bought him an 88-key piano. We should all be grateful for that.