Live from Bedford-Stuyvesant, is Boston’s own Corey Bernhard: a pianist and keyboardist working to make music as meaningful as it is beautiful. Unimpressed with the labels many purists abide by to reiterate their musical loyalties, Corey is concerned with reaching the roots of American musical heritage in order to refine his tastes and talents as one of the forces driving a major movement of cultural reclamation in both jazz and live musicianship. Rocking stages around Harvard and Berklee, and touring with Bilal would be enough for most people. Somehow they seem like the tip of the iceberg for a musician as dedicated, passionate, and inquisitive as Corey Bernhard.
Please tell me a bit about yourself. Where you’re from? Where you’re currently stationed. Is there anything you really love about your home?
I’m originally from Massachusetts, outside of Worcester. I’ve been in Brooklyn since 2008 and I love it. Prior to that I was in Boston. I really like that Brooklyn is the kind of place where a musician can flourish.
You’re working professionally as a pianist. Was the piano your first instrument? How did you get started playing?
I play piano and keyboards. Piano was my first instrument. I started out playing at home on an upright piano. I began in the first grade. At first I was playing around a lot, using a hammer to play the keys. My mom was really upset about this and decided to get me lessons. My first teacher was Sue Liu-Wen. I consider her my Jedi master. (laughs)
How instrumental was your family in the early stages of your evolution as a musician?
Were there any other major influences early in your career?
My family really encouraged and supported me as much as possible. I never felt pressured to achieve a certain level of success or to fulfill any particular expectations. I just wanted to do it. Music was really a presence in my home. My dad has a really big record collection. Classical music was on at home everyday. There was also a lot of Motown, Rock, and Folk music. My musical influences growing up didn’t have an immediate effect on me as a pianist. In middle school I had The Low End Theory on tape. I listened to the album so much I broke two copies. At that time, the music I was listening to was more of an escape than a direct influence. Then I discovered jazz in high school. I saw the Roy Hargrove Quintet play and found myself immediately blown away. I was hooked. Each week performing professionally brings the same kind of eye opening experience.
Reading up on you, I noticed you were an Economics major at Harvard. Did you envision yourself graduating and becoming a professional musician from the beginning or did you have completely different plans for yourself?
I didn’t really have different plans; I just didn’t have plans. I went to Harvard because I had the opportunity to do so. While I was in school I was interested in my studies, but I was much more musically driven. I spent time playing with a few friends on campus at Harvard, but the majority of my free time was spent at Berklee College of Music and at Wally’s Jazz Cafe, listening to the major players on the Boston scene.
Do you consider yourself a jazz musician by training/trade? If so, how does that kind of background figure into your vision for yourself as a musician? Do you ever feel pigeonholed as a musician by the expectations of jazz purists?
A lot of people within the jazz establishment or academia wouldn’t even consider me a jazz musician, so it isn’t something I have to contend with. I couldn’t tell you what jazz is but I don’t think most of them can either.
Where does the genre stand today and where do you see it going?
I see it going in a lot of different directions. I see it growing and evolving. So many people are doing ridiculous things. It is really awe-inspiring to see how much is going on. I don’t see this generation being different than any other. There are hundreds of cats making music; it’s just that the whole scene is not as visible to the general public as it is to the musicians themselves.
Who are some of your favorite musicians?
How do you think those influences are manifest in your own music?
Wow. Robert Glasper, Chris Dave, Herbie Hancock, D’Angelo. I love the Soulquarians’ sound. Dave Chappelle, Billy Preston, Tony Williams. Some of my other influences are Yuki Harano, Wynton Kelly and Jeff Lockhart. Jeff is a guitarist from Boston who pretty much influenced every young musician who spent time at Wally’s. I love people who can impress you and draw you into their sound, but in doing so, really show you that you don’t want to sound like anybody else. Individuality stands out. All of these influences originate with the Blues. I feel we’re at a point in music where people are afraid to be original. I want to be a part of the effort to change that. It comes down to this; when you sit down to write a song are you really saying something or are you selling a product?
You have been touring most recently with Bilal in support of Airtight’s Revenge. How has the experience of playing with that band been in comparison to other gigs you have had?
Touring with Bilal has been a dope experience. It has been very, very sweet. Beginning with the fact that Bilal is a perfect example of the individuality I discussed earlier. Everyone in the band is on the same sort of wavelength. The process of finding your own voice as an artist is tied directly to your ability to be who you really are as an individual. If you listen to Bird (Charlie Parker) you can her his personality and his experience coming out of his horn. I definitely see the same things in Bilal.
How does working with such an experimentally driven artist, like Bilal, translate to stage? Do you ever find yourself surprised at the impromptu things the band can come up with?
Sometimes playing with the band can be a surprising experience, but there’s always a balance between playing a piece of music someone composed and going so far out creatively that you’re no longer playing the person’s music as it was meant to be played. Sometimes we will deviate a little, but it’s never without respect for the music we are playing.
Aside from playing regularly in performance, have you had very much time to work as a producer? If so, which do you prefer?
I am really just starting to get into production. It’s a beast. It definitely is not something for the faint of heart. I’m looking forward to doing more writing and production, but so far I’m mostly playing. It is hard to play on a really high level and it’s hard to produce on a really high level. I’m not there yet. I can’t snap my fingers and become a great producer. (laughs) Working with Steve McKie (drummer and producer for Bilal) has inspired me to work on developing my own skills as a producer.
Are there any projects you’ve worked on that you hold in higher esteem than others?
Has any working experience impacted you more than others you can recall off-hand?
There are 2 to 3 experiences I can recall. In Boston I would play at Wally’s with my best friend, Andrew Marsh, in a band called The Usual Suspecks. That was my first experience going from a practicing to a performing musician. I also play in a band called 6Figures with very good friends of mine. The band members have major influences from Jelly Roll Morton to Outkast and you can hear those influences in our music. I also used to play with a group at a church in Boston with Dr. Charles Haynes. That was an experience where all of the musicians were there for each other personally and professionally, which really fostered my growth.
Who is Corey Bernhard today? Who is Corey Bernhard in five years?
Today I’m just a cat in New York trying to make music – trying to grow. Trying to learn. My favorite period in history is right now. Tomorrow. The future. I need to get a 5-year plan. I don’t know what the future holds, but I feel blessed so far. I hope God continues to bless me.
Where can fans and curious listeners catch up with you in concert?
Any releases available for immediate consumption?
My band, 6Figures, is going into the studio to record. That’s going to be earth shattering. (laughs) At home I’m spending time working on my production skills. I am also playing at a church in Bed-Stuy every week and I plan to continue doing that. I am learning more as far as playing church music is concerned, so that’s important. I didn’t grow up playing in church or going to church at all. Being thrown into the black church experience, which is the foundation of so much American music – I am just trying to soak it all up. There are two upcoming dates with Bilal, in D.C. and Atlanta respectively, on February 11th and the 14th. 6Figures will be performing at 92Y Tribeca on Friday, February 18th. Like hip-hop cats say, I’m out here, get at me!
Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with Revivalist.
Do you have any closing thoughts you’d like to share?
Thank you. Yeah. I feel that with the decline of the educational system and takeover of corporate interests in our country, there is a lack of social consciousness in today’s music. I believe that music is a gift that’s supposed to be used to liberate the oppressed peoples of the world. It is a gift to be used to create social change, and a lot of people are abusing that gift right now. We definitely need to change that.
Words by Karas Lamb