What Does It Mean To Be A Child Prodigy In Jazz? Christian McBride, host of Jazz Night In America, examines the piano phenomenon Joey Alexander, his classmate Joey DeFrancesco and his own experience as a hotly tipped young talent.
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What Does It Mean To Be A Child Prodigy In Jazz?

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

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

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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.


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.


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?


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.


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


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.


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

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


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.


MCBRIDE: Little mispronunciation there.


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


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?


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.


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

CORNISH: (Laughter). They Google 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...


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

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