There have been a bunch of artistic geniuses on Facebook in the last several
years… and it seems they’re all 12 years old or under. Good god! Most of them
have performances on YouTube, and they are all truly incredible! Dancers,
acrobats, singers, guitarists, violinists and keyboardists… amazing! It’s my guess
that as the population of the world continues to grow, naturally there would be a
larger percentage of these young genius-types. That, coupled with the social
media we enjoy today, makes them easier to find, and enjoy.
But should they be called “geniuses” and what the hell is a genius, anyway??
According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “a very smart or talented person: a person
who has a level of talent or intelligence that is very rare or remarkable”
“A person who is very good at doing something” duh…
“Great natural ability: remarkable talent or intelligence”
Can it not be any more specific? Apparently not, so let’s draw some guidelines
for ourselves on this pressing matter of “genius…” starting with, who do we
perceive to be geniuses? And why? Well, Albert, of course. Nikola Tesla comes
to mind. Isaac Newton… it’s not hard to start thinking of the geniuses of the
industrial revolution. How about artists? there are many great painters, poets,
dancers and musicians to draw from over the centuries. Mozart jumps to mind,
writing a symphony when he was five. Oh yeah, that’s certainly genius.
Considering most of the rest of the world can’t begin to write a symphony score
of any kind without 3-4 years of music at university level. And that, for me, is a
fairly good way of ascertaining genius… the comparison of what most of the
rest of us are capable of at, say, middle age, as opposed to these “young people”
who perform masterfully at the ages of 6 to 12. Now you could say, “Wait, it’s all
relative,” and I’d have to agree with you, as there is a huge gray area between
“talented” and “genius.” Aside from how accomplished one is before becoming a
teenager, there are few defining precepts to the measurement of genius. That
noted, let’s trudge on.
My case in point is a young jazz pianist named Joey Alexander. I heard him on
Facebook about a year ago, bought his first album 6 months ago, and finally
listened to the whole thing last week. Why did it take me so long? Glad you
asked… for that question is a sore spot with me, and I want to get it off my chest
I heard, and watched young Joey play a jazz tune on YouTube, and thought,
“No. No way…” I bought his album later, listened to 3 songs, and had to turn
it off, once again thinking, “No possible way in hell…” but here’s the thing. Joey
Alexander’s exceptional performances at age 12 had challenged me and shot a
huge hole in my ego, as I could hear instantly how much better he was than I.
Well, thoughts rushing through, like “It isn’t fair!” and “How can this be… he’s
only 12?!” And, “Did I bust my ass for 40 + years to come up inferior to a
12-year-old??” The painful answer whispered quietly to me, “yes.”
My ego had been beaten down by a truth I couldn’t ignore. Admitting to that
truth put my musical self into a tailspin for several weeks. I thought about it and
thought about it, trying to analyze it, understand it, deal with it… and always
came back to the same place of “Well then, what does it all mean, after all?
Was my quest to be a fine player all in vain?”
In a desperate search to find something positive in this bitter news, I tried to
remember anything said to me of a positive nature, if for no other reason to
begin the healing of my bleeding ego, and to sleep better at night. My old
pal, The Hawk, Tommy Holcomb, used to tell me I play “happy piano.” That
memory was like a fresh, cooling breeze to me now. In Atlanta, and in Montana,
there have always been jazz pianists I knew who were better than I. But it was okay,
at least the playing field was level. But a 12-year-old??!! I was sick.
Some young guy in a club in Atlanta was talking music with me on a break one
evening. He hadn’t said he like my playing, and when I told him I also composed
and arranged for jingles and nature films, he brightened. “Oh, I get it… you’re an
arranger who plays!” I remember frowning and going, “Well… yeah, I guess…”
One of my favorite memories like that is going on a five-city tour with Johnny
Mathis and Henry Mancini back in the middle ’70’s. At the first rehearsal, I walk
up to Henry and say, “Hi, Mr. Mancini, I’m the piano player.”
He kind of smirks, shakes my hand and says, “No you’re not… I am.”
Okay, this wasn’t working. Come to think of it, had I ever had a validating
experience as a jazz piano player? Ever?? Well, sure, I just couldn’t remember
any at the moment. When you’re in a dark, scary place, you need to start by finding
a match, a flashlight… something.
Turns out my daily well-being was hard-wired to my musical self-perception. Two
things occurred that put that problem to bed for good. One, I was never a genius,
and I figured out that “talented” and “genius” are two entirely different things.
Two, I realized that, in my retirement, my persona was no longer tied to being
“a piano player” or “musician” – now I was just a guy in the world, a retired guy
who used to do music. Big difference! Without that personal classification, I was
no longer tied to my piano playerness… it suddenly didn’t matter a whit whether
I was a decent piano player or a stinker, or even whether a 12-year-old could
burn me. Now I was just a guy, and all that other shit was ancient history!
We are inundated by all the news of our screwed-up world, every day. But now
I know our future generation is holding a wellspring of genius, and highly talented
young musicians who will carry the torch. And now, finally, that’s a most comforting
thought for this old musician. Ego over and out.
“It takes a long time to be able to play like yourself.” Miles Davis