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Sunday, July 18, 2010
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’
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