Viewers of 60 Minutes this past Sunday were treated to “Little Jazz Man,” a segment devoted to 12-year-old jazz pianist Joey Alexander, whose career is being closely followed by devotees of the music. The two-time Grammy nominee (including Best Jazz Album for his 2015 debut, My Favorite Things) has already performed on the main stages of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Newport Jazz Festival, and has been described by Wynton Marsalis as “my hero.”
Is he the best pianist in the world? Not a chance. Not now. But with the appropriate guidance and hard work, he may someday become that.
There is always controversy about how to bring along a prodigy like Alexander. On May 12, 2015, New York Times jazz writer Nate Chinen wrote that “it is natural to harbor mixed feelings about this phenomenon, and for a critic it’s all but imperative. The acclamation given to musical prodigies usually involves some mix of circus-act astonishment and commodity futures trading. All the attention lavished on them can distort the ecology of an art form, even while bringing encouraging news about its survival. And, as with any celebrated young talent, there is a question of intention: Who benefits most from the renown these performers receive? Is there a way to marvel at mind-blowing precocity without stunting an artist’s development?”
The exposure of Alexander to an audience the size of 60 Minutes invites the discussion of how to appropriately present Alexander to the world. Is he and audiences of the music best served by encouraging this quick entry into the spotlight, with the potential end result having developed that always elusive “larger audience for the music,” or are we all better served by just playing under the radar, without the hype associated with someone capable of creating, as Chinen wrote, a “circus-act astonishment?” The answer may come from the critics responsible for choosing arbitrary awards like “Best Jazz Album of 2015.” If Alexander’s My Favorite Things wins, you can bet the marketing of his talent will be irresistible. Who is to say that’s a bad thing? Time will tell…
The 60 Minutes piece is worth viewing, and here is a link to it. Chinen’s piece is also excellent, and it can be read by clicking here.