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"Jazz is always about the sense of community. So when I play with legendary musicians like Wynton Marsalis, we are all the same, we are all equal. There is no hierarchy, no boundaries between us." – Joey Alexander.

Joey Alexander, Jazz Musician

Jun 26, 2020 5:50 AM

AT JUST 16 years of age, jazz musician Joey Alexander has recorded six studio albums and earned three Grammy nominations. He’s shared the stage with jazz greats such as Wynton Marsalis and Brad Mehldau, and performed for former US presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. He’s been invited to play at the Grammys, Jazz At Lincoln Centre, Montreal Festival, Newport Festival and every other notable jazz event.

But the real wonder of it all may be that a decade ago, 6-year-old Alexander had taught himself to play jazz on his small children’s keyboard, after listening to his parents’ CDs. Add the fact that his parents are ordinary middle-class folk in Indonesia – half-a-world away from the US, the birthplace and nerve centre of jazz – and you get a miracle story to rival any other. 

When he was 10, videos of Alexander playing the piano were already circulating on YouTube. Marsalis, the world-renowned American trumpeter, saw one of these videos and promptly invited him to perform at a prestigious 2014 Jazz At Lincoln Centre gala. It was here that he made his breakthrough and found the necessary advocates to help him become a recording artist. He and his parents have since been invited to live at a philanthropist’s estate in the US, where Alexander has also received a O-1B visa granted to “individuals with extraordinary ability”. 

Now Alexander may be what many would call a “prodigy”. But please don’t call him that. He doesn’t like it because it suggests a certain showy youthfulness that doesn’t fit his personal conception of his music. For one thing, several critics who’ve reviewed his albums all agree that his playing sounds “mature”. And they don’t mean it in a condescending “mature for his age” way. Rather, they mean that it is thoughtful, contemplative and philosophical – the kind that a 50-year-old musician, who’s taken life on the chin and weathered a personal tragedy or two, might make.

On July 15 at 8pm, Alexander will perform with Singapore’s top blues brother Jeremy Monteiro in the online ChildAid charity concert organised by The Business Times and The Straits Times. The concert can be viewed on the respective newspapers’ Facebook page and YouTube channel.

This international phone call is taking place at 11 am, Singapore time, and 11 pm in New Jersey where you are – a timeslot you or your agents picked. As a 16-year-old, do you usually get to stay up this late? Or is this just part of a musician’s life?

 You can say it’s a musician’s life. But also, there’s a pandemic out there. So in an unusual time like this, I guess you can say I can sleep at any time… But really, what I miss the most right now is playing live music for people, having that level of communication and connection with fellow musicians on stage. Jazz is the people’s music, and that’s what I feel I should be doing right now, but can’t.

What were your earliest memories of experiencing jazz?  

Since I was very little, I’ve always had music in the house. My dad has a passion for jazz, so we had the music of many, many great musicians playing in the house – too many musicians to mention. He also played piano and guitar. So I was always surrounded by music.

What was it like to move from Indonesia to the US at a young age to be a performer?

It’s been a great life-changing experience. New York City is bursting with pure energy. And I always feel like it’s pushing me to be better. The more I play with other musicians, the more knowledge and experience I gain. To be here at the centre of so much human creativity is really a blessing. And, of course, it’s not just the music. There are also the museums, the cinemas, the theatres…

Five years ago, when you were 11, you made your US debut at Jazz At Lincoln Centre. The New York Times called you a “sensation”. How has adolescence changed you and your music since?

Well, my appearance has changed, obviously. And the way I think is also different… But fundamentally I still hold on to the joy of playing music. And I don’t think I’ll ever lose that spirit of playfulness and creativity. That’s an important part of who I am that I never want to give up. Over the years, I’ve become more focused on composing my own material. I’ve also tried to examine more closely the details of my playing to see how I can improve.

How do you handle reviews by critics? It must be tough being subjected to that. 

I try not to let no-so-great reviews be my downside. I use that as a kind of my motivation, to be aware of whatever it is I have to work on. I try to be positive. I do think some musicians are too hard on themselves. But my advice is, don't let a bad review stop you. I do think that sometimes reviewers don’t understand what you’re trying to convey. The music that I make is for the sake of other people’s enjoyment. Art, for me, is always for the audience. 

You’ve played with some of the biggest names in jazz. Do you ever get nervous around the likes of Wynton Marsalis? Or do you feel right at home when you’re playing with them?

Jazz is always about the sense of community. So when I play with them, we are all the same, we are all equal. There is no hierarchy, no boundaries between us. There shouldn’t be any.

A lot of critics say that your music is mature and thoughtful. How do you think you've cultivated that exceptional voice relatively quickly? 

Mostly through trial and error. You just have to try different things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In the words of Miles Davis, the hardest thing is to sound like yourself. And that really is a very complicated thing in jazz. The stage and the studio are constant proving grounds for me. And, of course, I’m also very self-critical. Whenever I think I’ve given a good performance, I will replay it, listen to it, and review it. I see what else to include, individually as well as for the group. 

You’ve found success at an early age. How do you stay balanced as a person? How do you not let success get into your head?  

My parents keep me grounded. And, well, I still have homework to do… But basically I remind myself to show gratitude to those who have supported me on this journey, the musicians I play with who bring their best each time, my agents, my labels… I have to say, with all this social isolation going on because of the pandemic, I don’t feel as motivated as I used to. So I’m trying to stay positive and continue believing in the music that I make. Art is the most honest expression of humanity and music is a way of bridging some of the hatred and divisions in this world.