The Master of the Keys

Oct 06, 2016

Don’t call Joey Alexander a genius. Yes, the 13-year-old is a celebrated jazz artist and one of the youngest Grammy nominees in history, for his debut album My Favorite Things. But he doesn’t like the labels that come with being preternaturally talented.

“I really don’t think I’m a genius or a prodigy,” he says. “I want people to dig my music, and not care about who I am.”

Alexander was born in the summer of 2003 in Denpasar, the sweltering capital city of the Indonesian island province of Bali. His family is a musical one: his mother’s sister is the Indonesian pop singer Nafa Urbach; his father dabbles in piano and guitar.

“My parents told me that when I was in my mother’s womb, they’d play jazz greats for me,” he says. He remembers hearing jazz for the first time when he was three — Louis Armstrong and Thelonius Monk — and started playing himself three years later. He saw an electric keyboard and thought it was a toy. “And then I found the keys, and I just felt the sound,” he says.

Joey Alexander at a rehearsal studio in New York, NY. Sept. 25, 2016. Ryan Pfluger for TIME 

His father taught him the rudimentary basics of the piano, but Alexander largely taught himself how to play. He and his Dad would attend jam sessions at local jazz clubs. One day Joey went up. “Afterwards, I was just, like, ‘wow,’” he says.

His potential was obvious to all who cared to listen, and plenty did. In Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital and largest city, he performed for the storied jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. Then in 2014, the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center, spotted him playing on YouTube. He invited him to play at the Center’s gala that year, and has subsequently become a mentor.

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Alexander says his discovery was “God’s plan.” A devout Christian, the teenager alternates hours of piano practice with bible study. His faith has helped keep him grounded, he says. “My music, it’s a gift from God, and it’s a gift I’ve had to learn. It takes hard work and focus.”

What’s next? The future looks bright; he just released his second album, called Countdown, after a John Coltrane track. But adulthood is also looming, and all that it brings. “When he really experiences life — when he has his first heartbreak, say — we’re going to see his music evolve,” his drummer, Ulysses Owens Jr., says. As he gets older, he’ll have more to say.”

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