While Jon Cowherd has a background in horns and keys, the Paducah expat’s life doesn’t have anything to do with cars. He’s a jazz musician.
Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and raised in western Kentucky by parents Ron and Janice Cowherd, Jon latched onto music early. He took up piano, as well as French horn, violin and singing.
“I had always had a passion for music, but I wasn’t really sure of what I wanted to do with it,” he told The Sun. “I was a big brass player. French horn became my main instrument in high school and that’s what took me to New Orleans.”
Loyola University offered him a scholarship to come play French horn in 1988, and he took it. He had personal ties to the university — a friend’s father taught French horn there — and a bit of personal curiosity: Ellis Marsalis, the father of legendary Jazz trumpeter Wynton, taught piano at the school.
“Growing up in Paducah, we were into other things like rock music and maybe marching band music, but not jazz,” the Paducah Tilghman High School graduate said. “New Orleans in itself was just life changing that way, just the exposure to music with all of these people really excelling in it at that age.”
He would study under Marsalis and join local jazz groups along with performing as part of the New Orleans Ballet and the New Orleans Symphony and Opera.
There, in The Big Easy, Cowherd got “bit by the jazz bug” and started taking piano seriously, making it his primary instrument.
He was inspired by the city around him, as well as his illustrious classmates.
“One of the things that really got me into jazz was seeing some of the people my age who were so amazing at it already,” he recalled. “I got there as a 17, going on 18-year-old and in my classes was Harry Connick Jr., who was from New Orleans and his dad made him stay and go to Loyola for a year before he moved to New York.
“I went to these parties where Harry was playing piano and singing and entertaining and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ I had never seen anybody, especially my age, do it like that.”
It was there, at Loyola, that Cowherd met Brian Blade, a drummer/bandleader that he still collaborates with today as part of the Brian Blade Fellowship.
After graduating from Loyola, Cowherd moved to New York City, where he is still based, in 1993 to get his master’s degree in jazz studies from the Manhattan School of Music.
The Brian Blade Fellowship recorded their first album, a self-titled effort, for storied jazz label Blue Note in 1998 with Daniel Lanois — who has helmed records by Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Neil Young — in the producer’s chair.
“I was just playing gigs around town and meeting people and when Brian started this band it kind of changed everything,” Cowherd said. “I became more of a traveling, touring musician with the Fellowship Band.”
Now, decades later, Cowherd continues to work with Blade — the Fellowship has recorded six albums now — in addition to touring and recording with artists like Joni Mitchell, Roseanne Cash, Norah Jones, Iggy Pop, Jeff Parker and many others. The pianist has also recorded two albums as a bandleader in the last decade, 2012’s “Mercy” and 2019’s “Gateway,” which is only available on vinyl though he hopes to release it digitally later in 2021. Musically, Cowherd looks up to the likes of genius jazz composer Chick Corea and New Orleans’ eyepatch-wearing icon James Booker.
Playing with Mitchell was a huge deal to Cowherd. The legendary singer/songwriter contributed vocals to a song on the Fellowship’s “Perceptual” album from 2000. Years later, Cowherd would play in multiple tributes to the Canadian performer, one of which was particularly memorable. On the night of Mitchell’s 70th birthday one of the vocalists in the show came down sick.
“Joni was there and she was like, ‘Okay, I’ll stand in for her,’ ” Cowherd said with a laugh. “The audience didn’t know about it. No one even knew for sure that she was going to show up. It was a great. It was one of the biggest moments for me. Everyone was pretty ecstatic.”
Live music has all but dried up since COVID-19 hit, wiping out touring schedules for artists far and wide. Like most musicians, Cowherd found his calendar suddenly empty.
“Everything that I had booked for 2020, starting March 13, from then on was cancelled. I had a lot of exciting things — like a tour with John Scofield, some stuff with my band and the Fellowship Band — that all got cancelled,” he said. “You start to scramble a little bit to figure out how you’re going to make money and stay creative and keep playing.”
He’s been filling his time writing, practicing and playing livestreams since the pandemic hit, but the best thing he’s done is spend more time with his family — his partner Katrina Rinne and 15-month-old daughter Sofiane.
“One silver lining to this whole thing is that I’ve been able to stay home with her during this formative year,” the musician said. “That’s really been a blessing, but I miss playing. I’ve had to try to figure out other ways to make money.”
He’s used grants and stimulus money, written songs for commissions, done home recording sessions and played more than a handful of live concerts over the internet to generate income in the months since March.
His next livestream will be tomorrow (2/24) with the Zach Brock duo. Brock is a jazz violinist with roots in Lexington, Kentucky, and a Grammy Award-winning member of Snarky Puppy. The stream can be viewed via www.soapboxgallery.org starting at 7 p.m. Digital tickets to take in the tunes are “pay what you can” with a $10 minimum.
More information about Cowherd, as well as links to his albums, videos and upcoming performances, can be found on www.joncowherd.com.