Live music transports the travelers at Atlanta Airport

Cellist Jenn Cornell performs in the Atrium of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (BOB ANDRES)
Cellist Jenn Cornell performs in the Atrium of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (BOB ANDRES)

“Concourse B is where the magic is,” says cellist Jenn Cornell. “Each concourse has a different energy, and they’re always changing, day by day.”

Even when encumbered by her cello and amplifier, the musician moves efficiently through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on a Wednesday morning. On arriving at Concourse B, she finds one of her favorite spots at the top of a set of escalators, near several food franchises. She performs at multiple places in the airport during a given week, including the domestic terminal atrium and the other concourses, but particularly likes Concourse B’s balance of available seating, foot traffic and overall energy.

Cornell sets up her instrument next to an easel for the airport’s ATL/music program, plugs the amplifier into a column and is ready for take-off. When she launches into “Wild Horses,” a Latin-inflected original composition, the atmosphere instantly changes.

By design, you seldom notice music in public places. Whether pre-recorded Muzak or mellow live performances, such tunes are meant to pacify the passersby as unobtrusively as possible.

Cornell’s contribution is emphatically not background music, but immediately arresting. Barely keeping seated atop her amplifier, she vigorously works the bow, rocking back and forth in time. She freely uses her cello as a percussion instrument, rhythmically tapping with her hand or creating a castanet-like sound with her bow. She operates a looper with her foot, giving her the freedom to record a dramatic chord and repeat it, so she can accompany herself by plucking the strings.

“Jenn amazes people. She does all that looping, so it’s like there’s three cellos at one time, and a drum,” says Chester Cook, the Atlanta Airport charity liaison manager and manager of the ATL/music program.

Cornell is one of the airport’s retinue of 20 musicians, including saxophonists, guitarists, violinists, pianists and steel drummers. In their separate shifts, they collectively perform 30 times a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends.

According to Cook, the airport began the music program in 2015 as a way to enhance the passenger experience. “Music is universal,” Cook says. “It draws attention and affects everybody. Passengers, employees at retail stores — it puts them all in a positive state of mind.”

Following an initial slate of auditions, Cook says that the musicians were narrowed down by the specific requirements for performing at the world’s busiest airport: “Can you work all day during the day, at our schedule? Are you mobile? It’s hard to move a 5-foot harp, for example, without damaging it. Can you do a performance of 1-2 hours without needing sheet music or props?”

The program began during the busy Thanksgiving weekend of 2015, and Cornell started the following January while in a creative transition. Originally from Hackettstown, N.J., the UGA graduate and longtime Atlanta resident had previously performed with the now defunct duo Montana Skies. (Look up their nearly 10-minute jam of “House of the Rising Sun” if you want to be impressed.)

“I didn’t know when I started that I would love it so much, connecting with new people and transforming their time here for the moments that I’m playing,” Cornell says.

Some musicians might view the airport as a distracting venue, filled with business travelers and families too intent on getting from one place to another to pay attention to the music. Cornell finds that all the bustle and activity enhances her performance. “It’s something I’ve gotten accustomed to and feed off,” she says. “I enjoy the space and the travelers, and people who just pass and say ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that! That’s great.’”

Watching her, Cornell seems capable of running a gamut from virtuoso Bach to arena rock, but describes her musical style as progressive, groove-oriented, crossover jazz that differs from most cello players. “It has a structure, but I improvise,” she says. And it seems the surroundings add to her melodies. “I pick the music based on what I’m reading around me, even the pace of their steps. I’ve been doing that in my shows, too. I’ll know the first two or three songs of my set, and the last one, and in between play whatever feels right.”

She draws most of her current repertoire from her original compositions, but plays occasional covers, including a compelling arrangement of the theme from the Atlanta-filmed Netflix series “Stranger Things.”

Chatting between sets, Cornell admits she has to rein in her instinct to pump up the volume. “I’m predisposed to really like loud music, feeling it in my chest …”

Abruptly, a new fan leans in to blurt, “You’re fabulous! I hope you’re here when I come back!”

Cornell graciously thanks her, accustomed to such moments, and smoothly resumes “… so I have to be aware of the loudness when I’m here. I ask them at the Delta information desk to let me know if I’m too loud.”

The Atlanta airport accommodates an estimated 250,000 travelers a day, so if even a 10th of that sees Cornell, that gives her a daily audience of 25,000 people, with turnover every few minutes. Cornell has met such celebrities as Sinbad, encountered childhood friends and jammed with musicians in transit. “This is another benefit they have: They pick up gigs,” Cook says. “A violin player might pick up a wedding or two.”

When she’s not entertaining passengers during her shifts at the airport, Cornell serves as a faculty member of the Community Music Centers of Atlanta, has performed for such TV shows as “The Vampire Diaries” and is writing material for an album. While she thinks of herself as a soloist, she occasionally plays with other musicians such as guitarist Christie Lenée and percussionist Emrah Kotan.

The airport tends to be busier on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, so Wednesday morning is light by comparison, but there’s still a constant stream of people. Some pass by dragging luggage and/or children without stopping. Some slow down long enough to watch Cornell over their shoulders. Many linger in a circle, with plenty holding up their phones to capture some video. Google “Airport cellist” and you’re likely to see clips of Cornell.

Then they go on their way to the next phase of their journey, whether toward the departure gates or ground transportation. But thanks to Cornell’s music, they’ve already been transported.

Insider tips

If you’ve seen musicians at the airport and want to know more about them, the new website provides bios and clips.

Non-travellers can Cornell perform at a more traditional venue, The Velvet Note in Alpharetta, with two shows on Oct. 5.. She also plays at such MARTA stations as Five Points several times a month.

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