Jazz Mythology and Reality

By Saul Richardson, May 2015.

I couldn’t make music if I spent all day in a school

Recently a prodigious young pianist from Indonesia, Joey Alexander, has been receiving a lot of attention on social media. Joey is turning 12 at the time of writing this. From time to time, like Joey, other child prodigies are lauded on Facebook and other forums, and with good reason. Their achievements are marvelous and their performance is so far beyond their years as to be simply breathtaking. Young musicians like Joey Alexander are just fantastic and inspirational. Here is a video promoting Joey’s new album:

Fantastic, yes?

However, a closer analysis of the child prodigy mythology seems to reveal two striking things. The first of these are some harsh and realities about what it takes to become an expert musician. The second is an uncomfortable degree of hypocrisy among the adults, particularly parents and teachers, who laud these outstanding young players. This discussion focuses on prodigious young jazz players, but probably applies to other areas of music too.

1. Some uncomfortable truths.

Don’t worry, this is not going to be a diatribe about abuse or tyrannical parents, or a criticism of Joey or other prodigies. Rather, I am going to examine the difference between the rhetoric of achievement in jazz and contrast it against the reality of how people learn to play it and what it means to be good at playing it. This applies not just to child prodigies, but to teaching and learning in general.

The rhetoric surrounding young Joey Alexander is fascinating. Even though it is happening right now, the real picture is hard to discern, increasingly obscured by an already rich mythology surrounding the twelve year old pianist. Articles about and interviews with him and his family and associates make claims about him including that he literally began learning music in the womb when his parents played music to him:

Joey Alexander

The wonderful Joey Alexander. Photo Michelle Agins/The New York Times

“My dad played Louis Armstrong to me when I was in my mother’s womb. That’s what they told me” (interview, 2014)1

or that at age six he spontaneously began playing jazz and the music of Thelonius Monk2. However, other sources or even part of exactly the same articles reveal a different story, one that is often kept hidden from public view by popular jazz mythology.

The first uncomfortable truth is that Joey Alexander was taught to play piano, first by his father and later with support from another teacher. He was mentored by a number of local Indonesian jazz musicians and, later, by visiting American musicians. He did not spontaneously begin playing; like just about everyone in jazz, he was taught, encouraged, and helped by others. He is home-schooled to allow time for music and there he works through a structured program of practise:

“I practice with my dad everyday. My dad gives me material to practice and songs to listen to. It’s a daily menu. We always start with gospel.” (interview, 2014).1

So, the second uncomfortable truth is that he practised. He practised a lot, and very hard. In fact he stopped going to school so that he could concentrate full-time on practising and performing jazz piano. This flies in the face of the mythology of spontaneous genius, and reveals that Joey Alexander’s achievements are based upon hard work and incredible support from his family and a network of teachers and mentors. This leads to my second main point: our hypocrisy in lauding his achievements.

 

2. Hypocrisy

Of course there is nothing wrong with lauding the playing of outstanding child-musicians. They have worked hard, are seriously good, and deserve all our acclaim. However, how many of us (I am writing in Australia) would be prepared to remove our child from school so that she or he could spend all their time studying to become a jazz musician? My own experience as a mentor to outstanding young jazz musicians in Australia suggests that this would not happen. Parents, teachers, and schools are strongly opposed to any such thing! Even the very best school-aged jazz players are warned against wasting too much time on music, that they need maths and science, that their academic studies need to take priority. The assumption is that these areas represent real, serious education, and are the “core” subjects. Teenagers are also warned that they really need “something to fall back on”. In Australia this is not said to young sports people, removing the best from mainstream education is routine and applauded. In other arts, such as ballet, it is also done. It is also seen in classical music and even, sometimes, in pop. But we don’t let our young jazz stars do the same. It is even common for teachers and parents to discourage them from studying jazz at university.

It is interesting to wonder what our most able school-aged jazz musicians might achieve if they were allowed to focus on what they really love and are genuinely good at. We are fooled by the popular mythology of jazz that tells us it is all just a mysterious and wonderful talent that reveals itself spontaneously. That rhetoric and our widespread acceptance of it obscures all the teaching, learning, practice and general hard work that goes into developing excellent jazz players. Of course some kind of talent or aptitude must be involved, but it is meaningless without the right kind of education to develop it. Unfortunately it is the kind of hard work and, more importantly, support, that few in Australia at least would ever be prepared to put in.

So, our hypocrisy is revealed. We love what children like Joey Alexander do and publicly marvel over their achievements, but would almost never be prepared for our own child to do the same, regardless of their talent.

my playing comes from my heart not from technique or anything it’s from the heart…and that’s jazz

Myth vs. Reality

Even jazz musicians themselves say things like:

“my playing comes from my heart not from technique or anything it’s from the heart…and that’s jazz” (Joey Alexander promo, 2015)3.

This is nice, and music is certainly an expressive artistic activity. However, clearly Joey Alexander and most, if not all, iconic jazz musicians are able to play well and gain fame because

a) they have strong technique
b) they have knowledge about jazz
c) they can actually play jazz

Clearly, just “heart” isn’t enough. This is another example of how the popular rhetoric of jazz obscures what is actually involved in being good at playing it. It is an entertaining mythology, but not very helpful for anyone who wants to learn or teach jazz. It also encourages misconceptions about learning jazz, including the hypocrisy discussed above.

To become a good jazz player involves training, immersion in the music and ways of jazz, mentoring, encouragement, opportunities, and practise. It doesn’t just happen and it isn’t all just “heart” or “fun”. But this is good news, for it shows that it doesn’t rely on magic or born talent. Many more people than most of us suspect could, given the right encouragement and work, become good at playing jazz. It is hard to say what it would take for someone to reach the lofty heights of the great jazz icons, but that is a silly objective. Hardly any successful professional jazz musicians reach that status, they represent the tiniest fraction. Maybe most jazz students won’t become Charlie Parkers, but even he would not have become an icon without a lot of hard work and encouragement. Maybe Joey Alexander will reach that level, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that jazz is taught and learnt and achievement comes as much from hard work as it does from personal attributes. We don’t do anyone any favours by pretending otherwise.

“Hypocrisy” is of course a strong term, and a bit sensationalist. It may not matter at all whether a young musician reaches a professional standard while they are still a child. The late starters often seem to catch up and once the prodigy doesn’t look cute and little any more no one really cares: they are just another jazz musician. But what this article highlights is the way in which the popular mythology of jazz works against potentially great musicians ever learning how to play it, and the striking lack of support for young people seeking to learn to play jazz at a high level in Australia, and probably other similar countries.

References

1. Polishook, M. (2014). Jazz Piano Online: Interview with Joey Alexander. Retrieved May 2015  from http://www.polishookstudio.com/2014/02/interview-with-joey-alexander.html

2. Chinen, N. (2015). Joey Alexander, an 11-year-old jazz sensation who hardly clears the piano’s sightlines. Retrieved May, 2015 from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/13/arts/music/joey-alexander-an-11-year-old-jazz-sensation-who-hardly-clears-the-pianos-sightlines.html?_r=0

3.  Rowan, Y. (2015). Joey Alexander – My Favorite Things (Album Teaser). Video, retrieved April 2015 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaoDuDgAsOw.

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