A “child prodigy” is a young person endowed with extraordinary talent. When a well-respected music critic makes the pronouncement that a 6-year-old classical violinist is a child prodigy, he is opining that the young musician possesses the skills to produce a musical output comparable to what a very skilled adult violinist can produce. The critic is not saying that the prodigy is the best player the critic has ever heard (which would be a foolish statement about any musician, but it is regularly made), the critic is saying this kid is so good, he/she can enter the realm of adults who play classical music.
It should not be forgotten that possessing prodigious talent doesn’t necessarily lead to fame and fortune. The pressure placed on a youngster branded as a prodigy is enormous. The world of music (and other disciplines) is littered with kid virtuosos, who for various reasons didn’t make it in their chosen fields, or for that matter, didn’t live productive and balanced lives.
So, what if you are a true musical child prodigy, what does that lead to? It certainly puts you in the game at a very early age and many doors will be opened for you. Assuming you can successfully navigate puberty, stay focused, handle the media circus that swirls around you, deal with the expectations of family, friends, managers and agents, mature and develop as a person and definitively determine over time that you really enjoy making music, you then enter the challenging world of adulthood, where you are no longer a child, prodigy or otherwise. Hopefully the skills that you possessed when you were 6 have been honed and enhanced and you have “raised your game,” because the marketing edge of a being a wunderkind is gone.
Josiah “Joey” Alexander is a 13-year-old jazz piano player from Indonesia. Proclaimed by many to be a child prodigy, his meteoric rise to international fame is a compelling story. Born in Bali, not exactly the hotbed of jazz, he learned about jazz by listening to his father’s records. By the time he was 6, Joey had taught himself how to play piano on an electronic keyboard that his parents had purchased for him because he was hyperactive and they hoped that the keyboard would allow him to focus his outsized energy. Learning by ear the music of the giants of jazz, he also taught himself how to improvise.
He began playing in clubs in Bali while still 6 and shortly thereafter his family moved to the capital city of Jakarta, where he had greater opportunities to jam and begin formal jazz music studies. Home-schooled by his parents, his piano studies and the small world of jazz in Jakarta were the center of his universe. By the time he was 8, Herbie Hancock had heard him play and inspired him to continue. At 9, Joey competed against 43 musicians from 17 countries and won the Grand Prix at the 2013 Master-Jam Fest in the Ukraine. By 10, his fame had spread to the U.S. and in May 2014 he was invited to perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC. “Down Beat” critic Allen Morrison wrote after his performance: “If the word ‘genius’ still means anything, it applies to this prodigy.” Thereafter, he began touring throughout Asia, Europe and the U.S., performing at some of the most prestigious venues in the world of jazz, including the Newport Jazz Festival, where last summer he was the youngest performer in the history of the event.
In 2015 when Joey was 11, he released, to great critical acclaim, his debut album, My Favorite Things. The album contains jazz standards that are some of the most complicated and nuanced music in the jazz canon, all of which he arranged. Also included was Joey’s own composition “Ma Blues,” establishing his standing as a composer. The album and his performances to follow have demonstrated that Joey is no longer a child prodigy, but that he is evolving into a great jazz musician without regard to age. For you see, to truly be a jazz musician is not about technical virtuosity, but it is the ability to bring to the music a creativity that is beyond, and frankly unrelated to, technique. It requires a creativity that is based upon a form of self-expression that is separate and apart from any endowed gift and requires the musician to have the ability to communicate with the listener. This musicality generally comes from a love and understanding of the music built over years of study and performance and a maturation generally shaped by the vicissitudes of life.
How did Joey go from being a precious child with prodigious talent to an accomplished jazz musician by the time he was 13? I wish I knew and I doubt that anybody does, including Joey. But I do know what Joey wants: “I know many people call me a prodigy; I mean, OK, I thank you, but I still want to be called a jazz musician.”
Vail Jazz will present Joey Alexander in concert on Aug. 4 as part of the 22nd Annual Vail Jazz Festival.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 22nd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.