Joey Alexander is an unlikely jazz piano star. First, he's from Indonesia, not exactly the capital of the jazz universe (or even on the map). Second, he's entirely self-taught (unless YouTube counts as a teacher). And third, he won't be 15 until June 2018.
Alexander's full name is Josiah Alexander Sila and he grew up in Bali, where his only exposure to jazz was a handful of CDs that his dad brought home from his time as a college student in the United States. Alexander got his first keyboard when he was 6 and started picking out a Thelonious Monk tune by ear. His dad taught him some fundamentals, but the passion and dedication to jazz piano has been all Joey.
His family moved to Jakarta when Alexander was 8, by which time he was a big enough deal in Indonesian jazz circles to play for a visiting Herbie Hancock. At 9, he entered the Master-Jam Fest, an all-ages jazz competition in Ukraine, and took home the grand prize [source: Chinen].
But Alexander's big break came when famed jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who's also the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, caught some of Alexander's YouTube videos and invited the then 8-year-old ingenue to play at the 2014 Jazz at Lincoln Center Gala. When Alexander took the piano bench (feet dangling half a foot off the stage) few in the audience expected what came next, a masterful and soulful solo rendition of Monk's "Around Midnight." He got a standing ovation.
Alexander now lives in New York and released his first album, "My Favorite Things," in 2015 at the age of 12.
Author's Note: 10 Child Prodigies
Like many other parents, I worry about child prodigies. I worry that the fire that drives them to achieve so much so young will one day burn them. That they will peak early, fail to distinguish themselves as adult artists and be left with nothing to show for a childhood lost to practicing, painting and playing chess. I was touched by the story of Saul Chandler, a hard-drinking and solitary boat captain from New York who used to be Saul Lipshutz, a violin prodigy who played Carnegie Hall before he was 11, but had a nervous breakdown in his teens. But I was heartened to read about startling talents like Emily Bear, now 17, whose parents told NPR in 2012 that they were sticking to a "60-year plan" for Emily's happiness, not a two-year plan.
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