The Grammys: Who is Joey Alexander and why is the 12-year old Indonesian/American up for an award?

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Grammys: Who is Joey Alexander and why is the 12-year old Indonesian/American up for an award?

OK, we had a pretty good inkling that Bruno Mars’ performance on the catchy “Uptown Funk” would garner some nominations for the 2016 Grammys, but the big surprise announced this morning (Dec. 7) is Joey Alexander, whose first album won two nominations: Best Jazz Instrumental Album and Best Improvised Jazz Solo.

You see, Joey is all of 12-years old. At that tender young age, his amazing musical talent is wowing jazz fans and fellow musicians around the world.

(Let’s be upfront here. I love music and I know of its impact and importance in our world, but I don’t pretend to be an expert or knowledgeable about the music industry. My daughters laugh at my ignorance. So if you’ve already heard of this young man, I yield to your superior knowledge and I apologize as a johnny-come-lately fan.)

One of the musicians who plays on the Grammy-nominated album “My Favorite Things” is drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. He’s 32, and says that when he closes his eyes in the studio, he doesn’t hear a kid.

“I watched him close his eyes, and I watched his head kind of just bobbing to the side. He has this thing that he does when he’s really going somewhere, and I was like, this is freakin’ amazing,” Owens says, laughing in amazement. “Watching this little kid, he’s going on all these harmonic adventures and melodic adventures, and doing some really hip stuff. He’s just gone, he’s just completely in this next stratosphere. I’m like, that is a gift, man. This kid is literally from another planet.”

Born and raised in Bali where his parents ran a travel business, the family moved to Jakarta so that the prodigy could play with Indonesia’s best jazz musicians. That is where Herbie Hancock heard him. From there, word quickly spread in the jazz world.

Where did his talent come from? “Well, my dad played a little bit of piano and guitar, but not that professionally,” Joey says. “I saw him play and (felt) like, ‘I want to play. I want to try this instrument.'”

By age six, he was playing Thelonius Monk.

Joey’s parents gave up their business and eventually moved the family to New Jersey so there son could pursue his music. When he’s not performing, the young pianist is home-schooled.

Despite his growing fanbase and the accolades he receives, he seems to have his head on straight, remaining humble and respectful. Like any other 12-year old, he also likes pop music — Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin and The Beatles.

“I’m still me,” he says. “I play sports — like, I play a little bit of tennis, swimming, like a normal kid. I watch movies.”

When you watch the Grammys on Feb. 15 next year, watch out for Joey. He might be sitting on a cushion. As an Indonesian youngster, he’ll stand out in the auditorium full of seasoned music artists, but now he’s part of that world. He belongs there. He belongs.

He doesn’t want to be known as a child prodigy. “I just want to be called a jazz musician,” he told Today Show hosts Lester Holt and Matt Lauer.


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