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
2 Replies to “A Genius By Any Other Name…”
I just had to comment here, Steve. Loved you words and could feel your pain. However may l offer another perspective.
If you step back and look at this whole thing from a more wholistic view rather than perhaps simply comparing your self to your 12 year old jazz piano player, perhaps you looked like a genius ( by your definition) to some. You certainly did to our family. By your definition, l would day my dad was a genuis, since he was cartooning since he was 5 years old and knew he wanted to be a cartoonist at 7. Every major career decision was to move himself along his dream path. Dad was also very impressed with you and your “early talent”. He certainly liked to surround himself with talented people who he could identify with and even learn from. You and Paul were very inspiring to him.
You must have showed early childhood musical promise, and determination, or you wouldn’t have worked so hard and traveled so far to go to school in Boston.
Since reality is relative, l contend that to many back then YOU look like a young genius! Everyone that l knew that heard you play were in awe. How did you do what you did to those piano keys? Just your improvisation was amazing to us who had never heard such music. We could never do that.
My point. ..talent and genius is a view point of those in the audience.
Maybe now there seems like more and younger great talent, l’ve noticed this myself. But l truely believe it is also connected to opportunity. My dad was strongly encouraged to draw at an early age, given free reign to develop his natural talent. Plus he was committed to following his dream. But although Dad was highly respected for his”genius”, he himself felt that he had perhaps not lived up to his fullest potential. What happened. ..he got married, started a family, had responsibilities and as the single bread winner, bills to pay and quite a number of people who depended on him for their lives! Maybe you found your self in a similar place. As an artist you could not just be free to develop and stretch and explore your talent. You had to provide. Who knows what many of us could have become if this were not the case. Even Mozart complained he had to knock out quick and uninspiring pieces for money to pay the rent. So, please don’t be too hard on deflating your ego. You ARE a genuis to the hoards of non- musical masses. And we ALL have a talent for something. You went so very far with yours! You got to earn your living, and put bread on the table, by doing what you had a passion for. Anyone who does that is one: very blessed, and two: should be proud of what they accomplished, because so few people get to live their lives like that. Maybe, that’s also another part of the definition of “genius”….some one who figures out how to “folliow their bliss “. Seems like this new life you are creating with Betty is a little genius as well!
WOW, well said, Lynn. Couldn’t agree more! 🙂