Sullivan Fortner plays the piano as a member of the jazz ensemble watches in the background.
Sullivan Fortner plays for the Davidson Jazz Ensemble. Photo courtesy Eric Keith.

Bryan Tran ’23 (he/him)

As we file into the Duke Family Performance Hall, the musicians eagerly take their seats and wait for the rehearsal to begin. As Fortner plays his first few notes, the musicians are shocked and in awe as he plays a breathtaking improvised solo of St. Thomas. Impressed to be in the presence of a Grammy award winning pianist, Sullivan Fortner, the Davidson College Jazz Ensemble listen attentively as they are serenaded by him. 

Fortner’s childhood was spent in New Orleans, where he began playing piano at the young age of seven. One can immediately see that Fortner hails from New Orleans by the way he moves and improvises. Fortner seeks to not only maintain traditional styles (such as blues), but he also aims to reinvent and explore different musical styles to create a symphony of sound. When Fortner plays, it seems as if he’s having a conversation with the band. He would move to the beat but also look at the band to really connect to their individual sounds. Pianist Ian Macel ‘24 comments, “it was incredible how relaxed he was […] his use of melody while soloing is something I really noticed and was impressed by and plan on incorporating more in my playing.”

Coming to Davidson, I knew that I wanted to continue my love and passion for jazz. I’ve had many opportunities to collaborate with other students; however, even with the chaos of the pandemic, my peers and I have had the opportunity to work hands-on with guest artists in their masterclasses. Currently at Davidson there are three jazz combo groups, and my combo had the privilege to work on the chart “Let’s Cool One” by Thelonious Monk. 

After playing for Fortner, he stopped us to ask “What is jazz to y’all?” We all looked around at each other, confused why he would ask a question like that. To be honest, he stumped us all. No one was able to clearly articulate what jazz meant to them. Fortner let us think in silence for a few minutes, and then he emphasized that at its core, jazz is dance music. He said, “Back then jazz was just like Cardi B!” Fortner wanted us to feel the music, not just read notes on a piece of paper. Drummer Ethan George ‘23 states, “Fortner brought and encouraged an energy, a pizzazz, to our band that I think we were lacking for the most part. Some of his most impactful advice was simple: just move to the beat. Many of us, including myself, had not allowed ourselves to be taken by the groove of the songs we were playing.”

Even during the short time Fortner spent with my combo, every member emerged from the experience feeling like they were a better version of themselves. He taught me how to relax while playing, and to treat every song like a conversation with the other musicians. Most importantly, he brought us all closer together as musicians. Pianist Preston Ito ‘23 commented “[Fortner] did not hold back, which was really cool because he respected us as musicians.” As a pianist, Ito knew of Fortner prior to coming to Davidson: “It was cool to hear what goes on in his mind when he plays, especially after looking up to him from YouTube videos.” Fortner’s residency gave us as a jazz ensemble hope and inspiration, especially in a time of struggle of a pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the livelihoods of musicians. Even with social distancing and mask-wearing, you can feel the energy radiating off of Fortner. Even in unprecedented times of hardship, music can bring people together. Sullivan Fortner urged students to be the best musicians that we can be. He also brought the Davidson jazz community together by making the ensemble focus on eye contact, listening and grooving together. This concert will forever be a fond memory from my time at Davidson.

Bryan Tran ‘23 (he/him) is an economics and environmental studies double major from Kennesaw, GA. He can be reached for comment at brtran@davidson.edu .