A (Very) Young Jazz Pianist Takes Giant Steps Towards Musical Mastery

Feb 12, 2016
Originally published on August 2, 2015 8:28 am

The Newport Jazz Festival is under way this weekend in Newport, Rhode Island. Among the featured performers is a young pianist — a very young pianist — named Joey Alexander. He is 12 years old, completely self-taught and one of the youngest musicians ever to play the storied festival.

Alexander has been wowing critics, fellow musicians and just about everyone who's heard him — but Jason Olaine, who has heard a few musicians in his time, thinks people should forget about the pianist's age. Olaine is director of programming for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, and he produced Alexander's debut album, My Favorite Things.

"Just close your eyes, and listen to Joey," Olaine says.

Josiah Alexander Sila grew up in Indonesia, where his parents ran a travel business.

"Well, my dad played a little bit of piano and guitar, but not that professionally," Alexander says. "I saw him play and [felt] like, 'I want to play. I want to try this instrument.'"

He also fell in love with his Dad's record collection, which included Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans. He was especially captivated by one of Thelonious Monk's recordings, "Well You Needn't." Alexander figured out how to play it, by ear, when he was 6. "I love Monk. He's such fun, so much joy — and also very deep when you listen to him," he says.

Alexander's family moved from Bali, where was born, to Jakarta so he could play with some of Indonesia's best jazz musicians. That's where fellow pianist Herbie Hancock first heard him. Word started getting around, and soon he was invited to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Alexander was 10 at the time, and Olaine says a Monk tune he played on that visit impressed the musicians gathered for a rehearsal.

"Joey plays a version of 'Round Midnight,' and everybody's jaws dropped — like, looking at Joey and looking at each other," Olaine remembers. "And they're laughing, like this can't possibly be what we're hearing. He took another take afterwards, it was a completely different arrangement. You kind of shrug your shoulders, look at each other, scratch your head and just go okay, alright — I've never seen this before."

One of the musicians who plays on My Favorite Things is drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. He's 32, and says that when he closed his eyes in the studio, he didn't hear a kid on the other side of the headphones. When they rehearsed and recorded "Giant Steps," Owens says, Alexander would play himself into a trance during the intros.

"I watched him close his eyes, and I watched his head kind of just bobbing to the side. He has this thing that he does when he's really going somewhere, and I was like, this is freakin' amazing," Owens says, laughing. "Watching this little kid, he's going on all these harmonic adventures and melodic adventures, and doing some really hip stuff. He's just gone, he's just completely in this next stratosphere. I'm like, that is a gift, man. This kid is literally from another planet."

Owens says it's not just Alexander's musicality that sets him apart, it's his spirit. Even with over 8 million views on one of his YouTube videos, Owens says, the young artist remains humble.

"I actually think that's what's going to separate Joey, is really his humanity," Owens says. "Because for a child this age, getting the kind of coverage and exposure he's getting, they easily lose it. But I think Joey has a core inside of him, a spiritual core that is transcending through his music. That's what I think is going to set him apart."

Alexander's parents gave up their travel business and eventually moved the family to New Jersey so Joey could pursue music. When he's not performing, the young pianist is home-schooled. He also likes pop music — Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin and The Beatles.

"I'm still me," he says. "I play sports — like, I play a little bit of tennis, swimming, like a normal kid. I watch movies."

Alexander says he's grateful for all of the support and encouragement he's received from so many of his fellow musicians. He's also thrilled to be a part of the New York City jazz scene, where so many of his idols first made those recordings he grew up hearing.

"I'll always be a student. I learn by doing," he says. When Olaine points out that he studies the other musicians during rehearsals, Alexander reminds him: "That's what you have to do. That's how you have inspirations to become better."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This next phenomenon will probably blow your brain. One of the featured performers at this weekend's Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island is a young pianist named Joey Alexander - a very young pianist. Joey Alexander is just 12 years old, completely self-taught and one of the youngest musicians ever to play the storied festival. Heidi Chang reports that he's been wowing critics, fellow musicians and just about everyone who's heard him.

HEIDI CHANG, BYLINE: Jason Olaine has heard a few musicians. He's director of programming for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. He also produced Joey Alexander's debut album. Olaine says, forget about the pianist's age.

JASON OLAINE: Just close your eyes and listen to Joey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

CHANG: Josiah Alexander Sila grew up in Indonesia. His parents ran a travel business.

JOSIAH ALEXANDER SILA: My dad played a little bit of piano and guitar but not that professionally. But I saw him play. And then he make me, like, I want to try this instrument.

CHANG: He also fell in love with his dad's record collection.

JOSIAH: Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk, I hear all of this amazing musicians.

CHANG: Alexander was especially captivated by one of Monk's recordings, "Well You Needn't."

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK SONG, "WELL YOU NEEDN'T")

CHANG: Alexander figured out how to play it by ear. He was 6 years old.

JOSIAH: I love Monk. You know, he's such fun, so much joy and also very deep when you listen to him. What I love about Monk, that he's full of rhythms and harmonic structures that I love about Monk.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK SONG, "'ROUND MIDNIGHT" PERFORMED BY JOSIAH ALEXANDER)

CHANG: Alexander's family moved from Bali, where Joey was born, to Jakarta so he could play with some of Indonesia's best jazz musicians. That's where fellow pianist Herbie Hancock heard Alexander. Word started getting around. And soon, he was to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Joey was 10. And Jason Olaine says another Monk tune impressed the musicians gathered for rehearsal.

OLAINE: Joey plays a version of "'Round Midnight," and everybody's jaws dropped, looking at Joey like, this can't possibly be. You took another take afterwards, and it was a completely different arrangement. And again, everyone just starts just - you kind of shrug your shoulders, look at each other, scratch your head and just go, OK. All right, I've never seen this before.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK SONG, "'ROUND MIDNIGHT" PERFORMED BY JOSIAH ALEXANDER)

CHANG: One of the musicians who plays on Alexander's debut album is drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. He's 32 and says when he closed his eyes in the studio, he didn't hear a kid on the other side of the headphones.

ULYSSES OWENS JR.: And I watched him close his eyes. And I watched his head kind of just bobbing to the side. You know, he has this thing that he does, you know, when he's really going somewhere. And I was just like, this is freaking amazing. You know (laughter) like watching this little kid. He's going on all these harmonic adventures and melodic adventures and, you know, doing some really hip stuff. And he's just gone, you know. He's just completely in this next stratosphere. I'm like, that - that is a gift, man. You know, and when I open my eyes and I would look at him, that's what I saw. I was like, man, this kid is literally from another planet. And it's so beautiful to watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY ALEXANDER SONG, "GIANT STEPS")

CHANG: Owens says it's not just Alexander's musicality that sets him apart. It's his humanity.

OWENS: You know, this kid is - you know, the world is going crazy over him. I mean, the last time I looked at one of his videos, he has, like, 8 million views. And the fact that he's still humble and so beautiful - you know, I mean, his family, they're really a very spiritual family. And so I think Joey has a core inside of him, a spiritual core that is transcending through his music. And that's what I think is going to set him apart.

CHANG: Joey Alexander's parents gave up their travel business and eventually moved the family to New Jersey so Joey could pursue music. When he's not performing, the young pianist is home-schooled. He likes pop music, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin and The Beatles.

JOSIAH: You know, I'm still me as a kid, playing toys and I play sports. Like, I play a little bit of tennis, swimming - you know, like a normal kid. And then I watch movies; you know, I watch TV.

CHANG: Alexander is grateful for all the support and encouragement he's received from so many of his fellow musicians and from producer Jason Olaine. And he's thrilled to be a part of the New York City jazz scene, where so many of his idols first made those recordings he grew up hearing.

JOSIAH: I'll always be a student. And also, I learn by doing and listening, sometimes to myself and also two other musicians of course.

OLAINE: You're studying them. I've seen you, like, definitely checking them out.

JOSIAH: Well, that's what you have to do. I mean, you've got to - that's how you have inspirations to become better.

CHANG: And how much better Joey Alexander will become is kind of mind-boggling to consider. For NPR News, I'm Heidi Chang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.