Are You Jealous of Joey?



There was a time when I would not have been happy to see this video:


In case you’re unable to make the link work, it takes you to a short film about an 11 year-old jazz musician named Joey Alexander.  He is in my opinion the finest player of his age I have ever seen.  In addition, irrespective of his age, he is also one of the finest jazz pianists I have ever heard.


As you listen to Joey, allow me to offer you some guidance with my somewhat experienced ears.  First, he appears to be truly improvising, and not merely playing well-rehearsed formulae at lightning speed.  I believe this because, second, he appears to be truly listening to the other players and altering what he does based on what he hears.


This is the essence, for me, of good jazz musicianship.  No matter what style, or level, or philosophy of playing you undertake, jazz requires the integration of freedom and communication, without which it is music making of a slightly different kind.  And make no mistake, some immensely talented, even celebratory jazz musicians, have not always been free or communicative in their playing.


Joey is, in some sense, a complete musician at 11, able to express himself while improvising and listening simultaneously.  That should be disconcerting for me.  It isn’t, though, and that suggests to me that I am successfully cultivating in myself the kind of mindset I am attempting to teach.


When I hear Joey play the way I wish I could play, my first thought is, “Well, hell, if he’s already doing it, what am I trying to do it for?  Is there actually room for me?”


I think the answer is yes.  It doesn’t matter how much better Joey is than me, the world will welcome my limited voice, as long as I am using it to communicate with other musicians and members of the audience.  My job is to make music, not to demonstrate my talent.


My job is to do exactly what Joey does:  listen, communicate through the free exchange of my abilities, and adjust based on what I believe is necessary in the moment.  That I am at a lower level than Joey makes no difference in terms of the ultimate value of the music, but is simply a question of refinement.


I am not satisfied with my current level of musicianship.  I am, however, confident that I know what I should be thinking about when I play.  I am also grateful to Joey for setting such a phenomenal example for me to follow.


This is what I want my students to know, every day.  There’s something more important than what they can and cannot do.  That’s the thing we are learning.


Do you get jealous when you see brilliance?  Do you recognize the difference between something that is impressive and something that is profound?  How do you move forward in the face of your own limitations?

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