What Does It Mean To Be A Child Prodigy In Jazz?

Jul 31, 2015
Originally published on July 31, 2015 7:53 pm

What do Mozart, Herbie Hancock and Michael Jackson have in common? For one, their musical talent was discovered early — they were all considered child prodigies.

It's one thing to be a gifted musician, but for children, that title can come with baggage. For jazz musicians, the notion takes on deeper overtones.

To help make sense of all that, All Things Considered host Audie Cornish spoke with Jazz Night In America host Christian McBride — a bassist who could have been seen as a prodigy himself, in retrospect.

"Revisionist history would say yes, but I grew up with a real child prodigy by the name of Joey DeFrancesco," McBride says. "Joey was doing professional gigs by age 9. ... I was always the Robin to Joey's Batman.

Himself the son of a jazz organist, Joey DeFrancesco was McBride's friend and classmate growing up. As teenagers, they played a local television program where Miles Davis was brought in as a special guest. Several months later, Davis hired DeFrancesco to tour with him.

DeFrancesco missed two months out of his senior year of high school to do the tour. He also signed a contract with Columbia Records, which all seemed natural at the time, as McBride recalls.

"So by the time he was 17 and playing with Miles Davis, we were going, 'Of course he would be on the road with Miles Davis!'" McBride says. "'Of course he would have a major-label record contract. What took him so long?'"

Decades later, there's another young keyboard player named Joey making waves in the jazz community. Joey Alexander, a 12-year-old originally from Indonesia, has just put out an album called My Favorite Things. He was discovered by Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock, and impressed a Jazz At Lincoln Center audience in 2014 with his version of "Round Midnight."

"Do 10-year-olds even see midnight?" McBride says. "But that's a pretty impressive sense of narrative, shall I say, to have when you're 10 years old."

It's a bit of a different ask to be considered prodigal in the jazz world, McBride says. Expert technique aside, the jazz musician has to address the additional question: "What are you feeling at that moment?"

"That self-expression that is the basis of jazz? When you find someone very young — 16 and younger — who seems to have a good grasp on that? That's extremely special."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

What do Mozart, Herbie Hancock and Michael Jackson have in common? Well, all of them were considered child prodigies. Now, it's one thing to be a gifted musician, but for kids, that title can come with a whole lot of baggage. And to help us understand what that looks like growing up is Christian McBride, host of NPR's Jazz Night in America. And Christian, when did you start playing an instrument?

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: I started playing the electric bass when I was 9 years old, and then I started playing the acoustic bass when I was 11 years old.

CORNISH: And that child prodigy label - did that come your way?

MCBRIDE: Sort of.

CORNISH: Don't be modest.

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: Well, revisionist history would say yes. But the thing is, I grew up with a real child prodigy by the name of Joey DeFrancesco.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY DEFRANCESCO SONG, "FUNK PIE")

MCBRIDE: And Joey was doing professional gigs by age 9 (laughter).

CORNISH: Professional gigs?

MCBRIDE: Yes. You know, people were paying to see him play in clubs at age 9. So, I mean, I didn't start working professionally until I was 13. So how that related to me was that I was always the Robin to Joey's Batman, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: We actually have a clip of you two playing together. This is on a Philadelphia TV show called "Timeout." The show is hosted by Bill Boggs, and the guest, crazy enough, is Miles Davis. Now, you two are part of the program's band, and here's a clip of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TIMEOUT")

CORNISH: Is that you pumping away back there, Christian?

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: Great bass sound - boing, boing, boing, boing.

CORNISH: (Laughter). All right, well here's what happens after...

MCBRIDE: It's like a big rubber band.

CORNISH: ...The show because Miles Davis actually takes a moment to comment on the performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TIMEOUT")

MILES DAVIS: What's your organ player's name?

CORNISH: What's your organ player's name?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TIMEOUT")

BILL BOGGS: The organ player here? Let's actually take a minute and meet the band. I thank you very much. We got Joey DeFrancesco on keyboard. Hey, Joey.

(APPLAUSE)

MCBRIDE: Little mispronunciation there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TIMEOUT")

BOGGS: And on drums we got Stacy Dozier in the back.

(APPLAUSE)

BOGGS: And Christian McBride on bass.

CORNISH: Christian McBride on bass. Christian, what happened after Miles Davis heard Joey play?

MCBRIDE: He hired him (laughter). He took him on the road with him about four or five months later. And we had just started our senior year in high school the fall of 1988, so he missed about two months of school. But I mean, you know, he got another sort of incredible school being on the road with Miles Davis. And he also signed a major label contract with Columbia Records. And he's 17 years old, and we haven't even graduated high school yet.

CORNISH: I can't imagine the pressure that comes with that.

MCBRIDE: I can't imagine either, and I was there. So, I mean, I was worried because I didn't know if Joey was going to be able to travel with a tutor or how they want to work that out. But, I mean, on graduation day, we both were there, so it worked out.

CORNISH: What happens at that age? Are you jealous, right? Are there other students who were like, hey, I'm pretty good. Or does everyone think, you know, that person's special; that person's a prodigy?

MCBRIDE: By the time we were seniors in high school, Joey, in many ways, was - I don't want to say he was old news, but I mean...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: ...He was - I mean, he was a star in Philadelphia when he was 9 years old. So by the time he was 17 and playing with Miles Davis, most of us were going, of course he would be on the road with Miles Davis. Of course he would have a major label record contract. What took him so long?

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: You know what I mean? I don't think there was any jealousy involved. I mean, we all expected that he would - something huge like that would happen to him.

CORNISH: Let's give one example, though, from today - an artist - Joey Alexander. He's 12 years old. He's from Indonesia. And he was discovered, I guess, by Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis. And here is a version of "Round Midnight," the Thelonious Monk and Cootie Williams ballad that Joey performed at just 10 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY ALEXANDER SONG, "ROUND MIDNIGHT")

MCBRIDE: Ten years old. Do 10-year-olds even see midnight?

CORNISH: (Laughter). They Google midnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY ALEXANDER SONG, "ROUND MIDNIGHT")

CORNISH: Christian, what are we hearing?

MCBRIDE: Very rhapsodic. I hear a little Chick Corea in there. But that is a pretty impressive sense of narrative, shall I say...

CORNISH: Ah, that's a word I hadn't thought of.

MCBRIDE: ...To have when you're 10 years old. Most young jazz prodigies are from major cities where they have jazz, but Joey's from Indonesia. That's not exactly a hotbed for jazz, so he got all of this information via YouTube and listening to records. So that's pretty remarkable.

CORNISH: Now, we actually have the first track from his album, "My Favorite Things." He's releasing a debut album. I want you to point what makes his work notable, I mean, what makes it really striking besides his age, right? Like, if you didn't know how old he was, what would be striking about this?

MCBRIDE: Well, you know, before you play it, that's the question that everyone has to ask themselves. Now, when you give people the heads up and say this kid's only 10, 11, 12 years old, right away, they're bracing themselves for something. But if you just put it on and people say, oh, what's that? I like that. Then you know he's doing something.

CORNISH: I see what you mean. So I just biased everyone...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...By telling them how old he is. Here's the song. It's called "Giant Steps."

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

CORNISH: One question I have, looking at jazz in particular - you know, classical music has its prodigies, it seems like, all the time. And that is a genre where preciseness and the technical ability is so important. How is this different from jazz, which I don't think of in the same way, frankly - right? - like, where being precise isn't necessarily what's rewarded.

MCBRIDE: Yeah. Well, I think the difference between studying that particular type of classical music, you almost train for that the same way you would train for athletics. There is a defined thing that you have to do, and most of your discipline does not come from self-expression as it does in jazz. In jazz, it's about what are you feeling at that moment. Nobody's giving you anything to play. You've got to come up with it on the spot. You know what I mean?

CORNISH: Right. So what does that mean for, like, finding prodigies?

MCBRIDE: Their self-expression - that is the basis of jazz. And when you find someone very young - 16 and younger - who seem to have a good grasp on that, that's extremely special.

CORNISH: That's Christian McBride, bassist and host of the program, Jazz Night in America. Christian, thanks for sharing your story with us.

MCBRIDE: Always my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.