On the Record with Sullivan Fortner


Photo Courtesy of Sullivan Fortner

Sullivan Fortner Jr., pianist, returned to Oberlin in the midst of a successful career to teach a master class Tuesday.

Eilish Spear

Jazz pianist Sullivan Fortner Jr., OC ’08, returned to Oberlin this week to perform a concert with his trio Monday night and give a master class to conservatory students Tuesday afternoon. Fortner began studying music at the age of 4 and started performing in churches across his hometown of New Orleans. By age 11, he had won the Cox Cable “Amazing Kids Award.” He attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and graduated valedictorian of his high school class. After completing his undergraduate education at Oberlin, Fortner went on to study at the Manhattan School of Music and has since performed and collaborated with musicians such as Stefon Harris & Blackout, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Roy Hargrove, Cecile McLorin Salvant and Dianne Reeves.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get started in music?

Well, I started in music when I was about 4 years old. My mom was watching a Jeopardy! show, and when I was about three years old, I was climbing on top of the television banging out rhythms of the songs I heard, and she was tired of me doing that, so she bought me a Fisher-Price piano for that Christmas. And at 4, the Jeopardy! theme song came on, and I picked the song up by ear after like one or two hearings, and she thought something was wrong with me, not because I was able to play the melody back, not just that, but because there [were] some half steps, … and I knew where the half steps were and I left them blank — that scared the living daylights out of her. So she called my cousin, who’s a music teacher, who said, “He’s a musician! Bring him down to the house,” and started from there. … I started playing churches and stuff in New Orleans. Started in jazz when I was about 13. There was a guy who came to the church and was just playing really crazy chords and improvising and playing Bach, and all kinds of stuff on the organ, and I was like, “This guy is a genius!” so he’s like, “You need to go to New Orleans Center for Creative Arts,” so I audition[ed] for New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and I got started playing jazz.

How did you find your way to Oberlin after that?

First of all, I didn’t know anything about this school. I was gonna go to school for pre-med in New Orleans. I had a full ride to go to school for pre-med, cause I was valedictorian of my high school, but at the last minute I decided to go to school for music, cause I was like, “Ah, I don’t wanna do this, I’m just doing this cause my dad wants me to do it.” So, Oberlin had a late audition application deadline, so I turned in the application, paid the fee and sent a video tape of my playing, on a keyboard, little keyboard. … It was the only music school I had applied to, and I got in. They gave me a scholarship, and I said, “All right. I’m going to Oberlin.”

As an Oberlin grad, what has been special for you about coming back here to perform this week?

It’s always nerve-wracking to come back home. I consider Oberlin to be a home away from home, … so it’s always fun and kind of nerve-wracking at the same time because … all these memories start coming back. It’s kind of emotional and it’s kind of like, “Oh, my teachers are listening to me and the classical teachers are here,” — even worse [when you think they’re asking themselves], “Has he gotten better? Has he gotten worse? What’s he been doing with his life? … Does he suck? What happened?” You know, all these different thoughts come to your mind.

How has the Conservatory changed since you were here?

Well, the jazz building is one thing! We used to deal with lots of rats, and you know, like, funny stuff. But the building’s nice. They redid the Conservatory, by the looks of it, and that looks really nice. Wow, state of the art! Different faculty in the Conservatory. … People have taken on different roles.

Do you think the way the Conservatory is educating its students now is evolving as the music world evolves?

I think that one of the cool things about Oberlin is that it was very liberal in this approach. It never told you what you should or shouldn’t be playing. It was always important for people to write and compose their own music. Oberlin [was] really instrumental in getting me to actually start writing, while learning the fabric. So I think it was a good balance, and I think that tradition continues.

How do you think an Oberlin Conservatory education has influenced your life since you left?

It taught me to learn how to study the music. Because you never stop practicing, you never stop studying, but Oberlin kind of gave me a direction, like “OK, this is how you learn tunes. This is how you learn a piece. This is how you work on ear training. This is how you work on your sight reading. This is how you build.” You know? It gave me the tools, and it gave me some blocks to build. But it didn’t give me all of it. It gave me the foundation of things. A lot of foundational things.

What keeps you playing now?

I was telling the guys in the master class today … [music is] like a drug. You’re chasing that first high. You’re chasing the high you got the first time — the first time I played music and really enjoyed it. Since then, I’ve been trying to chase that feeling. That’s what keeps me playing music.

Have you ever gotten close?

I’ve gotten close. A few times. Maybe I felt that way a few times.

What do you really love about performing? What are you trying to convey to your audience?

Oh, that’s a hard question. I’m still on the fence about performing sometimes, because it’s so exposed.

Do you get really bad nerves?

Yeah, but the more and more you do it, the easier it gets. You forget, and a lot of my gigs are side gigs, so I’m not the leader. … I perform to help other people, so that makes me feel better than doing leader gigs.

But I would probably say the best thing about doing leader gigs is actually seeing the reaction of people, especially when you play your music, you’re like, “Wow they actually like my song!” I’ll go on YouTube and listen to other people play my songs, it’s like, “Wow that’s really cool!” So that’s a cool thing, when you’re able to pass information to other people, especially other musicians. You know, to inspire other people, which is really what it’s about. It’s just about sharing.

What advice do you have for current Oberlin jazz students, as they’re thinking about what they’re going out to do?

You know, you talk about somebody like Gary Bartz who learned jazz on the bandstand. Experience taught him the music and hanging out with other musicians. Just doing it. So, the advice I would give jazz musicians, especially at Oberlin, is any type of opportunity that you get to play, seize it, because the music is not in the classroom, music is in life, in experiences. … Don’t just get caught in the technicalities of music, but spend time with people who don’t do what you do. Learn about the world. Learn about life, because this is one of the great institutions, because it’s a part of a liberal college also, and everybody has their own set views. … Take all that in as information, not a Bible, but as information. And then you decide your path, and once you decide what your path is, stick to that. Don’t be swayed by society and what other people are telling you.

Interview by Eilish Spear