Piano Man

The sun is just going down in Riverside, but Jonah Pierre is rising, in every sense of the word. It’s been a steady upward trajectory for the 32-year-old musician since he first made an impact on our jazz scene a decade ago; 2020 has started out hotter for him than any year yet. He has at least two albums dropping this year, and he’s performing at venues almost every night of the week. On this particular night, he’s preparing to play with Al Reshard at The Island Bar. It’s a relatively new group in a venue new to him, but adaptability has always been Pierre’s stock-in-trade. It’s been an essential skill for jazz pianists, going back to the days of Jelly Roll Morton.

Jonah Miles Jones Pierre was born in Manchester, England, on October 18, 1988, the second of three boys. The Pierres moved to New York when young Jonah was five, but they soon landed in Jacksonville, where the family figured prominently in local culture for decades. “There are a lot of artistic people in my family,” Jonah told Folio Weekly, sitting on the porch of his family home, “but more towards visual art. My grandmother does clothing design; my mom is a painter. She listens to music a lot, but it wasn’t something that she ever studied or played.” His brothers, Troy and Joshua, are also active in the local art scene.

Jonah’s mother, the painter Christian Pierre, always saw something in him, even if she didn’t know exactly what that something was. “Jonah is the product of full art immersion since the womb,” she said. “He was infused with visual art and music through both parents and the brilliant art programs we have in Jacksonville. But it really started with my mother.”

Jazz was not Pierre’s first love; he leaned more toward punk and skate rock, in his youth. The jazz thing was more of a utilitarian pursuit. “For me, it really started in middle school,” he said. Pierre played percussion at LaVilla School of the Arts in eighth grade and then advanced to Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, class of 2007; it was there where he would shift to the instrument on which he would make his name. “It was probably junior year,” Pierre said. “I was a percussionist up to that point, and I was really concentrating on classical marimba. Tony Steve was my instructor, and we got really close. Every day after school, I would go over there and practice.”

“He is truly an amazing musician,” said Steve, who now teaches percussion at Jacksonville University. “His mom dropped by my place in Riverside, around the corner from his house. He walked in the house with Chrissy and played a Goldenberg etude perfectly. He was a ninth grader.” That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, as mentor and student matured into peers. “Up until this point, I had never listened to much jazz at all,” Pierre said. “Tony had some records around his house, so I would go over and just listen to random stuff. He actually gave me my first two jazz CDs: My Favorite Things by John Coltrane and Next Generation by Gary Burton.”

“I didn’t have any of those percussion instruments at home, but we did have a piano, so I’d work out all my marimba music on piano.” Pierre remains actively percussive, showing that side of him on the new LPT album, Sin Parar. But he is best known as a pianist, a vocation that began on his mom’s old Kimball upright, bought secondhand and pounded damn near to oblivion. “I slowly started to get a little bit of proficiency, and then at some point I got a gig playing piano. It was eye opening. Classical marimba doesn’t have a lot of opportunities like that, especially when you’re in high school.”

Jonah played piano in DASOTA’s jazz band, playing side gigs in his spare time, methodically building up his chops and his musical vocabulary with the help of Steve’s record collection. “Listening to McCoy [Tyner] with Trane was super influential, for sure,” Pierre said, “but then, there were some Monk albums I listened to that also captivated me. Those were the two earliest, but then I got really into Bill Evans, and then super into Herbie Hancock in college.” (There’s no such thing as a casual jazz fan; one is either ambivalent or obsessive.)

All the while, Pierre kept one foot in the classical world, listening to giants like Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Michael Angeli and (a particular favorite we both share) the quirky polymath Glenn Gould, who was actually friends with Bill Evans. After qualifying for the prestigious QuestBridge scholarship, Pierre was given his pick of several elite private universities, including Swarthmore and Brown. With eyes already looking toward his future, Pierre settled instead on Oberlin College, founded by Presbyterian ministers just outside of Cleveland back in 1833.

“It was kind of fortuitous,” he said. “That town was part of the Underground Railroad, so there was a lot of history and a big African-American community.” Oberlin boasts one of the world’s truly elite jazz education programs. This allowed Pierre to study under industry icons such as Marcus Belgrave, Billy Hart, Gary Bartz and Wendell Logan. “Most people who go there don’t have cars,” Pierre said, “so you’re kind of stuck in this insular little community where most of your friends are badass musicians.” Pierre graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2011, at which point he came back home to earn his master’s in gig economics.

Pierre’s prolific, punishing itinerary includes sideman work with the Chris Thomas Band, regular appearances with the JU Jazz Ensemble, and weekly sessions at The Casbah in Avondale, where he plays trio sets with bassist Lawrence Buckner and tenor saxophonist Eric Riehm. The latter two, both legends in the scene, began the Casbah residency under the leadership of drummer Von Barlow, who recruited the pianist five or six years ago. “I would sit in almost every week just trying to hang with them,” Pierre said. “I remember when I was in high school, going to that gig, and I was just totally lost.” Pierre is one among dozens of young musicians who gained valuable experience doing guest spots on those Sunday night sets, where no quarter is given, except maybe as a tip.

“They wouldn’t really hold back,” he said. “I feel like that’s the best kind of learning experience, even though it’s sometimes the most frustrating. It really gives you perspective on what you need to work on.” Pierre also works jam sessions at Blue Jay Listening Room and The Parlour at Grape and Grain Exchange. Nights like these have been crucial in helping develop a local jazz scene that is gaining traction on the national stage. “What we see here, locally, is just a fraction of the impact,” he said.

Pierre wrote two songs—“Space Force” and “Bow & Arrow”—for the upcoming debut album by Nightcrawler, a nine-piece Afrofunk ensemble. Pierre and fellow pianist Angel Garcia co-wrote “Guera Guera” on the debut album by LPT, which, remarkably, was recorded in just three days. This ten-piece salsa band, founded in 2013, has become one of the region’s most popular groups. It’s debut album, Sin Parar, was released last week by Bold City Music Productions. (Full disclosure: the author is a co-owner of the latter label but played no part in the production of the album.) The album release party was a sold-out affair at 1904 Music Hall on Friday, Jan. 31. Roughly half of the audience was comprised of fellow musicians, artists, DJs, writers and teachers; it was a celebration of the band and the individuals within it. When the show was over, members mustered up silver Sharpie markers to sign fresh vinyl for their people before slurping celebratory Mai Tais at Dos Gatos. Everyone then decamped to the Pierre family home, which Pierre now shares with bandmates Milan Algood (drums) and Juan Carlos Rollan. Libations were had, and we watched videos until 5 a.m.

“Jonah could go in any direction he wants to go in music,” Steve said. “He has tons of talent, he works hard and he is a creative soul.” The past decade has been one of transition for jazz music, and a genre once defined firmly in retro terms has seen a youth movement nationwide. For Pierre, who was the youngest guy in the room for years, the transition into veteran status has been almost seamless, and now a whole new generation of jazzmen (and women) is following his lead. The future is bright for Pierre—people have been saying that for years, and they will continue saying it for many years to come.