Six Questions With Jazz Musician Willerm Delisfort Ahead of His Juneteenth Summer Concert

06/17/2024 in
Six Questions With Jazz Musician Willerm Delisfort Ahead of His Juneteenth Summer Concert

Wednesday, June 19 is Juneteenth, a day to commemorate the effective end of slavery in the United States. To mark this important day, the Downtown Alliance is hosting a free lunchtime concert featuring the Willerm Delisfort Project at the North Oculus Plaza. Pianist and composer Willerm Delisfort’s career and music extends the continuum of musical styles that ranges from jazz, gospel, R&B and more; his performance, which starts at 12 p.m., is part of our ongoing summer lunchtime concert series

We caught up with Delisfort, who lives in Harlem, ahead of his Juneteenth concert to find out more about the performance, his work and influences, and even his favorite piano in New York City. Read on, and be sure to stop by the North Oculus Plaza at lunch on June 19 to catch him and his band.

Can you tell us a little bit about what we can expect at the performance on the 19th? How does it connect with Juneteenth?

We’ll be performing some music from our latest album, “Black Elements,” some original compositions we got on tap. We have Savion Glover joining us. The premise of the album “Black Elements” is a father and son talking about all the different beautiful traits that make us who we are. So it’s a celebration of everything that is considered Black and beautiful. We just felt that Juneteenth will be a perfect day to perform this album, “Black Elements.”

What are the influences behind “Black Elements”?

The stories, as I like to call them, are all the different chapters in our lives and elements that make the life of the average Black person, Black love, Black pride. There are certain songs that we play that represent what is considered Black love, some that represent Black pride, all of these elements are basically our stories. When these elements are put together, they make your lifeline, your storyline.

Can you talk a little bit about your first album, “Freedom Riders”?

It was really inspired by my big brother who was going through, I guess, a spiritual awakeness. I think that’s what it was. He put me onto other things: the Tuskegee experiment, Freedom Riders, all these different stories about what we, as a people, have gone through and not to forget. “Freedom Riders” was my chance to go ahead and tell my story my way and pay homage to all those before us.

How did you get into music?

I know it’s not going to sound as glamorous as everyone else who had a calling. I was simply bored. I needed to kill an hour of my day until my brother got home and I accidentally stumbled upon [music]. I saw a flier for piano lessons. I took the flier home, asked my dad, “Can I take this?” I thought he was going to say no. He was like, “Yeah, sure.” From day one of that [first piano] lesson, I’ve been hooked, and here I am now, 30 years later.

Who are your musical heroes?

My GOAT, greatest of all time, would have to be Oscar Peterson. He was a Canadian jazz pianist. Melton Mustafa, John McMinn, these were my mentors growing up.

So much music has been derived from Black musical expression, like jazz, pop, country and R&B. Are you able to talk a little bit about the importance of Black music and its influence on the modern musical landscape?

The influence of Black music is in everything that we hear now. My family’s from Haiti. In our music, our traditional jazz is called Kompa. So at home, when I was a kid, my father would always be playing Kompa. On Sundays, I was always listening to gospel music, church. On the radio is the R&B music of the ’90s. I’m born in the ’80s, bred in the ’90s. In school I was listening to jazz and practicing jazz.

I remember just at one point I’m sitting here and I’m thinking, okay, if you draw a big circle and you put a dot right in the middle of it, that’s where I like my music to be. In any direction you go is an influence in Black music. Go up, rock and roll, you go down, jazz, you go right, R&B. Then the more I started learning the history of [Black music], there’s Chuck Berry, sister Rosetta Thorpe, all the people that influenced Elvis and everything. This is the importance of Black contribution that has made every music that we hear today.

What about New York City inspires you musically?

In Harlem, a lot of it is just being able to be in the same spot that Duke Ellington, and Oscar Peterson, and Count Basie and Cab Calloway, the spaces that they performed in. We were playing at Minton’s not too long ago, and Thelonious Monk had a jam session there. It was closest to the legends that I could get. In New York City in general, you’re around some of the most talented and best musicians to play with, to create with, to be inspired by.

Where do you perform in New York? Do you have any favorite places to either perform or hear live music in the city?

We used to have a residence, but Covid displaced everyone. At the moment we’re pretty much everywhere, whether it’s Smalls, Mezzrow, ZINC, we just finished playing Minton’s. The last two Sundays of this month, we’ll be back at Minton’s. Dizzy’s, [and we played] Carnegie Hall last week. 

I don’t think I have a favorite spot. I can tell you my favorite piano in the city is definitely Mezzrow.  The piano, it sings. It just feels like it’s an extension of your body. Spike, the owner, he knows that’s my favorite piano. I’m always bragging, if there’s any piano that I need to play, it’s that one. That one makes me happy.

How do you want people to listen to your concert on Juneteenth? What do you want them to keep in mind, or what lens should they listen through?

Just come with an open mind and heart and I can handle the rest.

photo: courtesy Willerm Delisfort Project

Tags: art is all around

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