The Genius Gene


Scott LaFaro, Bill Evans, Paul Motian.

Three geniuses! Gee, weird… they look like regular people, right? Aren’t geniuses supposed to look different? And how the hell does the outside world define “genius” anyway?

1. Exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.
“she was a teacher of genius”
2. A person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect.

“Genius is a characteristic of original and exceptional insight in the performance of some art or endeavor that surpasses expectations, sets new standards for the future, establishes better methods of operation, or remains outside (and beyond) the capabilities of competitors.”








Okay. A few famous geniuses- Einstein, of course; Marie Curie, Nicola Tesla, Leonardo Da Vinci. There have been, and still are, geniuses in every endeavor imaginable. Oh yeah, and a bunch of musicians. Why musicians, though? Ha, easy… because that’s the only kind of genius I can identify, the only kind of person I might be qualified to call “genius.” My favorite geniuses are Mozart, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Lyle Mays and John Williams.

You probably think I’m too liberal about what constitutes a real genius. You might be right. I don’t mean to pretend to know what genius is really all about… I do know that some are focused on only a few elements all their lives, while others know practically everything. Leonardo, for instance. I visited an museum exhibition of Da Vinci’s inventions in Seattle, and left feeling like a brainless cretin. Yet another example of the dangers of personal comparisons… they can bite you, and usually do. Better to simply appreciate something, or someone who is simply beyond us.

And yes, I’ve met a few people I would call geniuses, which is one reason I’m fascinated with them, and fascinated with the elements that seem to be inherent in a genius persona. Here are a few things I’ve noticed about the genius types I’ve encountered _

– They don’t need others’ approval
– They are quietly, confidently self-contained
– They are unusually focused on certain ideas and projects, often to the detriment of the simpler elements of their daily lives
– They can work with others, but do their best work alone
– They see things the rest of us don’t see, and understand things beyond what we are able to.
– They take much of what they do for granted, and wonder why the rest of us don’t think as they do.

Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Freddy Hubbard – perhaps the best small jazz group ever.

Now I know there are fine lines between talented, brilliant and genius. I’m not equipped to define them here, nor do I really care, because the fact is that most of the time we “just know” when one is of the genius persuasion. One sure way to know, however, is when we experience someone thinking, functioning, perhaps performing better than 99% of everyone else… and they’re only 6 years old… or even younger!  Mozart comes to mind. He wrote his first musical composition when he was 5.

Here’s an example of what I think genius is -Geoff Gallante can’t be more than 12…


Does this man look like a genius to you? It’s Buster Keaton

Or this guy, with his wife, Oona O’Neil, with his beautiful (and large) family

Yeah, it’s him… charlie chaplin

Genius knows no racial boundaries, no cultural boundaries; genius comes from somewhere else, like genes. Yes, Genealogy plays a large part in bestowing a person with genius capabilities. It’s easy for us to say about someone, usually in jealousy, that “She comes from wealthy parents, and they were talented and well-educated.” Well, of course we could think that and say that. It’s an instant cleansing pad for removing our own shortcomings from the equation. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking also blocks our ability to appreciate genius when it appears.

Joey Alexander

I am as guilty of that as anyone. Take Joey Alexander, for instance. A child prodigy, a master of jazz piano at – age 12! When I heard his first recording, I couldn’t believe it. I had a surge of disbelief which quickly turned into jealousy, as I did an instant evaluation of my style of playing in comparison, realizing that I still can’t play that well!

Here’s what Wikipedia tells us about Joey –
Widely regarded as a wunderkind, Alexander was mentored in jazz piano by his father.He won the Grand Prix at the 2013 Master-Jam Fest when he was nine.
In 2014, Wynton Marsalis invited him to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center. His first album, My Favorite Things, was released in 2015 when he was 11 years old.

So it wasn’t just me. But I do trust my “genius nose” when it comes to jazz piano, for I have played it, studied it and listened to recordings of the masters for 60 years now. Still, I hear someone out there grousing, “It doesn’t take a genius to play great jazz piano…” Eh, perhaps not, mon frer! But when you add all the musical knowledge it takes, plus developing an original style within that genre, then topping it off with being able to ply that knowledge with spontaneous performances that can bring you to tears, you then have, I think, at least brilliance, driven by genius.

This trio dragged me, kicking and screaming, into a lifelong love of jazz, in their playing on the Miles Davis album, “Some Day My Prince Will Come.” Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers

There are other differences, of course… one of which is the motivation of the brilliant-to-genius player who plays what the music and his instincts dictate, rather than what the crowd wants. That’s a distinction that can’t be underrated, for our culture (and many others) attempts to pound into us the need to make money with our art. Yet those amazing few resist all that and instead follow their hearts and their muse. A special breed, for sure.

Let’s play a round of “Find The Genius.” I can guarantee you it isn’t Herb Alpert, top left. Herb Alpert, Tom Jones, George Michael, Bryan Adams, Dustin Hoffman, Trudie Styler, James Taylor, Sting and Tina Turner at the Rock for the Rainforest concert, 1993.

If you really know your jazz, and I hope you do, you can probably  hear other, marvelous conversations within the initial musical language, and begin to understand why I have such a deep and abiding respect for my jazzer peers.

Here is “Full Circle” by Lyle Mays & Pat metheny. One of my all-time faves.,vid:FTGgle6mxF0,st:0

A piano trio or quartet is the perfect pallet for understanding and appreciating how deep a fine jazz player can dive. They might not look like geniuses to you, but when you finally understand where they come from, what other medium they reach in their musical mystical wanderings… when you realize that they bring thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories and visualizations to the table that you were unaware of,  or have long forgotten, you might finally admit you are seeing and hearing the genius gene in action.

Steve Hulse



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