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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Jazz Prodigies

Jazz has never been big on child prodigies. Unlike classical music, there have been very few bona-fide child prodigies in the music, or at least ones who made a genuine impact. Classical music has had its fair share of them, and several have successfully made the transition into adult performers of note. Probably the most famous of these (in the modern era – there was also Mozart of course), was Yehudi Menuhin, but there have been others such as Midori and Evgeny Kissen. The phenomenon of the child prodigy seems to be particularly prevalent in classical music – go onto Youtube today and you will see any amount of startlingly young children playing at a suitably startling technical level.

Child prodigies have had much less success in jazz and improvised music, both in terms of numbers of prodigies who appeared in the music and in relation to the ultimate long term careers of these prodigies. The most successful one of course was Tony Williams, whose extraordinary playing at the age of 14 with Jackie Mclean startled the jazz world and prompted no less than Miles Davis to lure him away from McLean’s band in 1963. Williams, along with Elvin Jones, became the most influential modern jazz drummer since Max Roach and strong echoes of his playing can be heard in the playing of most jazz drummers today. He went on to be a dominant force on the jazz scene till his death at the tragically early age of 50. Williams aside, I can think of no other child prodigy in jazz who continued his career into adulthood with the same kind of effect that Williams had, or that Menuhin etc. had in the classical world. I do remember teaching at the Banff Centre in Canada in 2002 and coming across an extraordinarily gifted 14 year old pianist called Aaron Parks who has of course gone on to great things in adulthood. But again he’s an exception.

It’s interesting to consider why jazz doesn’t seem to attract, or nurture prodigies in the way that classical music does, and has for over a hundred years. After all, why shouldn’t kids be able to negotiate the changes of a blues or Rhythm Changes when they can negotiate the much stiffer technical challenges of Brahms and Beethoven? My own feeling is that the demands of good jazz improvisation require not only a good technique and knowledge of harmony, but also a broad range of other skills, many of which depend on the maturity and empathy of the player. And maturity and empathy are not usually associated with 10 year olds.

Playing classical music, one can be guided and directed by a good and sympathetic teacher. The goals are a lot clearer – play the score correctly and interpret the notes in order to play the music the way the composer wanted it played. Playing improvised music in a group setting, on the other hand, is not just about one’s own playing, but also demands an ability to hear where one is in relation to everyone else, to respond to everyone else, and to allow one’s own path to be influenced by everyone else in the band, in real time. It’s an extraordinarily difficult task to be able to juggle the subjective and objective like this. And no matter how gifted one may be musically, to have the maturity and empathy to be able to bring off this particular balancing act is usually beyond even the most gifted youngster.

This post was prompted by my seeing two very gifted young musicians recently – the Israeli pianist Gadi Lehavi (14) and the Slovakian guitarist, now living in Ireland, Andreas Verady (13). Both are extraordinarily talented and have a genuine feel for the music – their ability to be able to process information is beyond what one could expect at their age. Lehavi in particular is almost scary in this respect. I watched him play ‘All the Things’ at a jam session in Den Haag recently, and I couldn’t get over the note choices he made, the harmonic ingenuity of his lines and his ability to turn on a dime when an alternative idea was suggested to him by something played in the rhythm section. How can someone so young amass such information, both technically and aesthetically at such an age!? Andreas is also very gifted, if more conventional in terms of his lines and note choices. I played with him at a workshop last year and was struck by his ability to get into the music once he picks the instrument up.

Of course the problem that always surrounds child prodigies is how to nurture their gifts and prevent them from becoming part of a kind of freak show. Audiences love watching children perform beyond the norm for kids of their age, and getting people to come and pay money to gawp at their abilities is like shooting fish in a barrel for promoters. The danger for these kids is that they’re paraded around the circuit and used as a promotional tool by festivals and promoters, and sometimes by the musicians who are performing with them. What these kids need is a nurturing musical environment where they can be given the support required to develop their extraordinary gifts. What they DON’T need is to be sold as a kind of freak, paraded around the circuit endlessly until they become too old to be of any interest to the rubes, and instead of spending all the time they should have spent developing their musicality they’ve worn themselves out playing endless gigs. So they end up at 20 years of age, pretty much playing the way they were when they were 14, but now being just one of hundreds of competent 20 year old players. The danger is that instead of having a long-lasting career in which their gifts enrich the whole scene, they become washed up in their early 20s.

So they need to be looked after very carefully, and it seems to me that Gadi is in good hands – he seems very unaffected by everything, has a real passion for the music and is not being paraded around endlessly by promoters and older musicians. On the other hand I’ve noticed that Andreas is being extensively touted around Ireland in the past 6 months as ‘Jazz Guitar Prodigy’ by festivals, promoters and older musicians. It has a bad feeling about it.

Lets hope that Gadi and Andreas make it beyond the realms of novelty, beyond the vested interests of those who love an opportunity to exploit novelty, and take their extraordinary gifts into their adulthood intact. In the meantime, let’s enjoy their brilliance

Here’s Andreas negotiating Giant Steps at speed

And here’s Gadi, showing extraordinary harmonic richness and improvisational ability on Corea’s ‘Spain’


  1. Hello Ronan .i read your blog ..what i dont really understan...and like. Andreas play maybe three festivals ..and some gigs these year...with musicians .who very care for him.and with hes DAD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!im plaz with him all gigs.Like father i know best ..what is good for my son ....and what is good for hes son have a chance play with lots of great musicians ..these year....thanks for david Lyttle .I think ROnan thats great!!!!!!nothing bad.lots of musician dont have that chance!!!!hes still12 ...year old and do thinks like other ,and etc.ONLY im and my wife is person ,,who knows what is best for my son! MY son Andreas love music..and hes happi on the stage...,play gigs ,and festivals,with great musicians .and just one more thing....about David Lyttle!HE all the time just do best things a music buisness for my son .i just THANKS for him everything.....He really take care for Andreas ,LIKE ME!!!!!!!!He s best musician ,real friend.TRU MAN!!!!!!!!!!i would like let for peoples about him just VERY VERY NICE THINGS!!!YOU are same i hope you understand my reaction.Thanks for nice blog! Bandi

  2. Dear Ronan

    Re: Andreas. Rest assured he is in very good hands. He is performing a few gigs a month at most under the wing of David Lyttle. One gig in each of Belfast Dublin and Derry so far and a weekend in Sligo hardly constitutes being "extensively touted" as a prodigy or some kind of freak. In fact the same mentors have also organised bursaries for him to attend two summer schools - Skidmore (USA) from which he has just returned, and Sligo Jazz Project which takes place this coming week.

    Furthermore his performances in Sligo this week are hand in hand with a bursary we offered him to the summer school here and
    certainly not remotely "meal ticket" type promotion. The Clarion Hotel in Sligo has in fact sponsored a suite for the Varady family for the week as part of their sponsorship of our summer school.

    In recognising Andreas' astonishing talent, and wishing to help develop it, David has simply been providing the chance for Andreas to perform with great musicians from Ireland and elsewhere. Already this year, under David's guidance, Andreas has performed with Terrell Stafford and Michael Janisch. On a more local developmental level he has performed with Joe O'Callaghan and many of Limerick and Sligo's finest jazz musicians. Last week, also thanks to David, he had his first encounter with other young (well perhaps a little older than himself) jazz talents at Skidmore and made many good friends there. This week in Sligo he will perform as guest with Martin Taylor, Soweto Kinch, Ciaran Wilde, Matthew Halpin, Louis Stewart and will study at the summer school with Mike Nielsen and Mark McKnight, Michael Manring and many more world class musicians.

    Ronan, with all due respect, as a very renowned educator and musician, you wield more than a little sway in the jazz world. I am surprised and concerned, therefore, that here you have made a bad call: your unsubstantiated and badly informed conclusions, based on very coloured impressions of the actual truth, are likely to offend many of your colleagues, especially those with Andreas' best interest in their hearts.

    Best regards,

    Eddie Lee
    Sligo Jazz Project

  3. Prodigy is a cruel burden to put on a kid anyway. The pressure is a bit much. And as is common with your astute analysis, the nature of an improvised idiom does want things beyond a capacity to handle a score, social things for ensemble interaction and such.

    Boston had a prodigy bout not long ago, a 14 year old from Brookline, one Grace Kelly, who was lionized by Phil Woods.

    Now that she's out of the puberty woods and a young woman, things haven't been so great for her and she plays in odd backwaters.

    There is something like cruel and unusual punishment in all this.

  4. Thanks for all the responses

    Bandi - thank you in particular for responding. I didn't mean at all to imply any deliberate wrongdoing on anyone's part - especially yours. And I think it's great that he has the opportunity to play with great musicians. But I do think it's wrong for promoters to constantly advertise Andreas (or any child prodigy), as 'the amazing jazz guitar prodigy' He IS an amazing prodigy, there's no question, but people constantly using that as publicity for his gigs is not a good thing for his long term development as a musician in my opinion. It's too much pressure on him and it's too tempting for people to treat him as a novelty rather than as a great musician who just happens to be very young.

    Eddie - I'm sorry if I seem to have offended you, but as I said above, I think it's great that he has opportunities to play with great musicians, and to go to Skidmore, and to work with David O Rourke in NY etc. - that's great, and more power to the people who fundraised for him and helped him with that - that's how it should be. However, I also believe it's NOT right for him to constantly publicised as 'the amazing 13 year old guitar prodigy' - this is not a good way to portray him to the public - it invites them to come and see him because he is so young, not just because he is so good. When people see him play they will be amazed enough - his age shouldn't be used as a publicity tool. I'm not saying SJP used that type of publicity, in fact I didn't even know he was involved in SJP until you wrote to this blog, this is more about the fact that every time I see Andreas' name in advertisements for gigs, it's inevitably has the addendum 'amazing jazz guitar prodigy' attached to it - and this is simply wrong in my opinion.

    Sorry if I offended you and SJP, that wasn't my intention, but I'm not going to change my opinion that Andreas' should be publicised alone on the basis of how well he plays, not on the basis of his age.

    Chris - thanks for the thoughtful comment, you seem to have been the only one who read the article in its totality so far!

  5. Ronan,

    Thanks for yet another thoughtful post. If nothing else, it reveals just how demanding the technical, mental and emotional requirements are for this music. I agree that these two boys show particularly advanced skills. Another promising young talent is Ariel Lani. Like Gadi, he has a strong classical piano background and an exceptionally well developed improvisational sense:

    Let's hope we hear more from all of them.

  6. An interesting, debate if a tad arbitrary. I dont believe the manner of publicity concerning either young genius should be at all detrimental to their development providing those who lead them have their best interests at heart.... always endeavoring to expose them to a level of pedagogy and quality of public audience only befitting their amazing talents. I must admit that I find myself more likely to sit up and take notice when the 'youth aspect' is emphasised as, like in this case, what the 2 chaps can offer far transcends the harmonic/rhythmic threshold one would expect from a young jazz exponent. In any case this blog has introduced me to the two lads for which I am totally grateful!!

    Thanks for all the contributions,

    Mark Bradley

  7. My view of jazz history is that it's probably not personally ruinous to be a prodigy, but rarely is a prodigy able to move into a stage beyond the ability to play the right notes. Such an ability is amazing, but it's not enough. The notes must carry weight-that's where the story-telling unfolds and that's a different kind of gift entirely.

  8. As Steve Provizer & Chris Rich mention often no good comes of being a young prodigy and after all what's the difference between playing excellent music whether you be 12, 22, 32 or 42 etc years old .... except the age, and so of course entertainment value. The list of the few geniuses that cropped up in jazz so far have unfortunately often left the young player packing up their career and becoming a doctor or some such thing.

    Of course, it's possible to talk about the pros and cons for ever, and there will always be plenty of those for and others against. But for me I also find the debate on child prodigies rather strange, but if a child likes (takes to) playing jazz what can you say except encourage it - and any art form. However, all in all probably what's best for a kids development at a young age is playing with his friends, and of course enjoying being a child!

  9. Interesting debate here. However, it seems to me that Ronan has made his comments from a rather idealised and removed position, from where I would suggest it is easy to pass comment on the performance activities of other artists. No musician, prodigy or not, has ever made it without the support and help of others. The fact that talented musicians from this country and others are willing to assist Andreas, and his musical development, is something that should be celebrated. This is surely better than having him and his talent overlooked. I note your comments on labeling young musicians as child prodigies in advertisements etc. and the potentially counterproductive nature of this activity. However, this is not the crux of your argument or where you place your strong criticism. You suggest that others are exploiting Andreas for their personal gain. This is what has caused such a strong reaction to your blog and where I think you are completely wrong.

  10. In the original post I used the phrase 'meal ticket' which a lot of people in Ireland took offence at, and since the purpose of these blogs is to write about music, and not to personally offend anyone I've removed that phrase. However, I still believe my original point - it is not a good thing for a very talented, yet very young person, to be endlessly paraded around the circuit under the publicity banner of 'child prodigy'. It's just not a good thing to do in my opinion

  11. Well, young musicians are just that, musicians that are young. I know you don´t seem to want to involve yourself thus far, that´s fine. If a guitar player can stroll through tunes that are as complex, and a piano player can excavate the binary keys of his instrument so deeply it is because they have an inherent, and learnt facility that allows them to. I remember two amazing 14 year old guitarist in dublin, Phil McDermott and Jason O´Connell who came along as barely teenagers and potentially set the bar higher for a city that is already renowned for guitar playing. I´ve been told that Phil has just released a wonderdful CD, I´d love to know what Jason is doing because at the time (late 80´s) I chose to play with him.

  12. Well, these posts are certainly interesting! I am responding as a mother of a son who seems to be, as we've been told, a child prodigy. Our son is a drummer and is currently playing at at a very high level. He just turned 8. In fact, he is playing nearly at the level of my husband, a well-known drummer in the Canadian jazz scene. Our son has played the drums for 7 years already... yes, he was creating music at the age of 1. I'm coming to this conversation as someone who is a mother, but also someone who has a musical performance background (jazz & classical), and as a music teacher.

    While my husband and I are excited and amazed by our sons' talent, we also have concerns. What can we do to nurture his talent? Last year, when he was 7, we were wondering what kind of school he should attend as a teenager... an Arts high school? We were worried that if he were to go to the high school in our community, he wouldn't have enough musical opportunities. But, we've decided that it's too soon to even discuss this, and we want him to have a normal childhood and teenhood, as much as possible. Also, if he continues to practise with such passion, then he'll be just fine. We want to encourage friendships in the community where we live, playing outside, all the things that kids do. Plus, we want to know, like any other parent, where he is, what he's doing, who he's with, etc.

    Instead of sending him off to an Arts school (he'll probably be more advanced than most of the other kids, anyways), we've decided to try to nurture his gifts in other ways. My husband continues to give him the odd drum lesson, although our son seems to learn new skills and develop new ideas when he practises on his own! We're providing a variety of music for him to listen to. He is definitely drawn to jazz, so we're introducing him to the different styles within the jazz idiom. He's like the thickest, most porous sponge you could find! He just loves to play.

    The trickiest thing now is to find rehearsal and performance opportunities for him. We're having a hard time finding kids who can play at his level, or close to it. He is currently playing at a university level, but how many older teenagers or university students want to jam with an 8 year old? I think the most important thing for him now, or at least soon, is to have opportunities to stretch his musical mind, without involving publicists. So our biggest concern right now is, how do we find other kids for him to play with so that he will have fun, and will continue to grow, musically. Not just keeping time while the others figure out the head of the tunes. But really jamming and exploring tunes. Should we be concerned about this? Musicians should play with other musicians.... right? Where can we find these kids?

    If anyone has any advice or direction for us, it would be greatly appreciated. While his talent is truly amazing, it's makes us a little nervous. What can we do for our little guy?

    Thanks for listening. Your advice or suggestions are welcomed!