It’s a good thing that when Sullivan was three years old his Mom was watching the game show Jeopardy!, because at that time he climbed atop the TV and banged out the rhythms of the show’s theme song, prompting his Mom to buy him a Fisher-Price piano. A year later, at the ripe old age of four, the song came on again and Sullivan picked up the tune by ear, knew where the half-steps were, and left them blank. Sullivan’s Mom called his music teacher cousin, who pronounced “He’s a musician! Bring him down to the house.” Before long, Sullivan was playing churches and other gigs in his native New Orleans, where he attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Today he lives in NY and is a Grammy-winning artist, having collaborated with vocalist Cecile McLorin-Salvant on The Window (Mack Avenue, 2018), which won for Best Jazz Vocal Album. He has also been awarded the prestigious Leonore Annenberg Arts Fellowship, the 2015 Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz of the American Pianist Association, and the 2016 Lincoln Center Award for Emerging Artists. After obtaining a Bachelor’s in Jazz Performance from Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Sullivan completed his Master’s at the Manhattan School of Music, simultaneously touring with Stefon Harris & Blackout, the Christian Scott Quintet, and beginning a seven-year engagement in Roy Hargrove’s band. He has performed with such other jazz notables as Dianne Reeves, Wynton Marsalis, John Scofield, Gary Bartz, Sean Jones, and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Sullivan has released two albums as a bandleader and most recently teamed with 2005 Vail Jazz Workshop alumnus trumpeter Kyle Athayde on Tea for Two (Sullivan Fortner and Kyle Athayde, 2020).
Sullivan touted two uniquely “Vail” experiences as a class of 2002 Workshop student: one was seeing a bear outside the window of his host’s home, trying to open the door; the other was that the program “puts young musicians around people their age that play at an extremely high level, which is stimulating and inspiring.” He found Workshop piano mentor Bill Cunliffe just the right person to delve into what’s most important in playing music: “If you want someone who is going to cover the terrain and make sure all the t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted, you go to Bill Cunliffe. He’s astute and knowledgeable about the fabric that makes up a tune.” Sullivan remembers one particular piece of Bill’s advice: “He said, ‘Man, if you’re going to play a melody, you’ve got to make sure you know that melody. You’ve got to know the lyrics of the melody to be able to capture the meaning and the essence behind it.’”