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At 12, Indonesian Piano Prodigy is Up for a Pair of Grammys

Ika Inggas
2016-02-12
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Joey Alexander, a 12-year-old Indonesian jazz pianist, sits at a piano on the main stage of the "Jazz in Marciac" festival in France, Aug. 10, 2015.
AFP

Listening to him play jazz on a piano, few would think that Josiah Alexander Sila is just 12 years old and a nominee for two Grammy awards Monday night.

“I will always work and I will give my best for music,” Josiah, who is better known as Joey Alexander, told BenarNews in a message just days before his chance to shine.

Besides the nominations, the award committee announced that he would perform in front of the stars of the musical world during the ceremony at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Joey may be young, but his talent rival veteran pianists. And jazz lovers in the United States, where this Indonesian musician lives, are so impressed that he has a chance at music history.

Self-taught

Born and raised in Bali, an island in Indonesia more renown for traditional Balinese dance than modern music, Joey grew up listening to his father’s jazz album collection. His love of music started to show when his parents, Denny and Fara Urbach Sila, brought home a small keyboard to channel the energy of their active 6-year-old.

What Joey did with his keyboard surprised his parents. Only by listening to his father’s album, young Joey learned to play Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t.”

After watching his son play, Denny Sila brought in a music instructor to give Joey lessons.

They did not last long because the teacher focused on classical piano. Joey wanted more freedom and channeled his musical interest through jazz. He decided to teach himself, accompanied by his father.

But he has not always found his choice of musical genre easy.

“Jazz is a hard music,” Joey told the New York Times, “and you have to really work hard and also have fun performing; that’s the most important thing.”

Rising star

The Silas played an important role in helping Joey reach his potential. But unlike the usual stereotypical stage parents, Joey’s case is different. He is pushing his parents.

The Silas decided to leave their tourism business in Bali, moving to Jakarta to allow their son to learn and play directly with the country’s best jazz musicians.

At the age of 8, he dedicated his childhood to jazz after meeting Herbie Hancock, who was visiting Jakarta and said he believed in Joey’s ability.

While grateful for Joey, the Silas do not put extra pressure on their only child in terms of a future career – instead they are going with the flow.

In 2014, with help from some American jazz musicians, including the director of Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis, Joey and his family moved to New York.

Asked by BenarNews whether they had specific expectations regarding Joey’s achievements at this young age, Mrs. Sila said that as a parent, she “would like to protect his development as a child and to raise him fearing God.”

Establishing his name in the jazz world, Joey won the Grand Prix at age 9 at the 2013 Master-Jam Fest, an all-ages jazz competition in Ukraine.

He has performed at prestigious events, including the Jazz at Lincoln Center 2014 Gala, the 2015 Montreal International Jazz Festival and the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival.

He also played for many famous people, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Last October, Joey played the popular song of his country, Bengawan Solo, in front of Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo during his state visit to the U.S.

A humble prodigy

His superior style and talent – not only for a pre-teen, but for jazz musicians of any age – leads many to call Joey a genius and child prodigy.

The New York Times carried a page-one story about him headlined “Joey Alexander, an 11-Year-Old Jazz Sensation, Who Hardly Clears the Piano’s Sightlines.” Last month, CBS’s “60 Minutes” profiled him in a segment narrated by Anderson Cooper that was titled “Little Jazz Man.”

Despite his growing fame, Joey doesn’t seem too comfortable with the publicity.

On Twitter, he responded to an Indonesian TV channel that was about to run his profile, “Hey there! Thanks Om [Indonesian for uncle or a friendly, colloquial way to greet an adult man]. Hope they did not call me a prodigy.”

He considers Monk, Herbie Hancock, Harry Connick Jr. and Bill Evans among his musical inspirations, but the humble kid added that his true inspiration came from above.

“For me, it’s a gift from God that I can do that,” newyork.cbslocal.com quoted him as saying.

Joey is also a down-to-earth, normal kid. Outside of his busy schedule, stage performances, two to three hours of daily piano practice, and homeschooling, he is just like other kids of his age.

“Playing toys. I play sports, like I play a little bit of tennis, swimming … like a normal kid, I watch movies,” he told VOA.

Genius, prodigy, or not, Joey is awe-inspiring. On Monday he could make history as the youngest soloist to receive a Grammy.

His first album, “My Favorite Things,” received a nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, competing with senior jazz players, including Terence Blanchard, Jimmy Greene and Robert Glasper.

He arranged all the songs on that album. In addition, he is nominated for Best Improvised Jazz Solo. He considers his chance to perform at the event another honor.

When BenarNews asked to convey how he felt as the recipient of two Grammy nominations, Joey replied: “I thank God and all those who have always supported me.”

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