I'm a freelance writer by day and a working jazz musician by night, and often I am able to combine my two lines of work. This blog is for posting gigs & various rants about music and life in general.

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

musings in Dm

It's been a while since I contributed any sort of thoughtful commentary. Been too darn busy to think about stuff, let alone write it. But in the spirit of conversation (and it can be two-way conversation, if anyone cares to post a comment or sign the ol' guestbook), I've got something now.

Word of the year: prodigy.

This has to be one of the most overused terms these days. The definition, according to Webster, is "(a) an extraordinary, marvelous, or unusual accomplishment, deed, or event (b) a highly talented child or youth." While I'm on board with example (a), I guess I'd have to beg to differ with (b). There are a lot of parents who think their kid is a prodigy (I used to work music retail and can't count the number of moms/dads that went on and on about how their precious 3-year-old Jimmy-poo could sit down at the piano and play just like Oscar Peterson. Uh-huh.) I suppose this is natural. But when this word is used to label every kid who plays a little above average, it begins to lose its meaning.

For example, last week a local restaraunt/bar had signs plastered all over the place announcing this 15-year-old guitar player from Chicago who had a gig lined up for Saturday night. We had the night off and considered checking him out, but due to laziness we couldn't decide whether to go or not. The deciding factor would be, we said, what we thought when we heard the sound clips on his website. Preparing to be blown away, we tuned our ears eagerly towards the computer speakers.

Hmmm. The kid sounded ok, but he didn't sound like a prodigy. He was actually kind of sloppy and didn't really play anything out of the ordinary. (We didn't go to the gig.) In all fairness, I realize it's probably not cool to judge someone based on a few low-quality sound clips on a website. But I did talk to a friend who attended the show and asked what he thought. "Kid sounded all right," he said. "Better than average, maybe. But no wow factor."

Shouldn't a prodigy have some sort of wow factor? (See definition [a]). Shouldn't something about their playing make you stand up and say, holy crap, this is unbelievable? Shouldn't you be envious of their ability, as you've been playing for many more years than this youngster?

I can honestly say I've known exactly one prodigy...a young saxophone player from Peoria. He was amazing at age 13. Blew most--if not all--of the adult musicians away. Today he still sounds great...he's grown in many ways--his approach to music, the type of music he plays, etc--but you know, anything he plays now (technical, general sound, improvization-wise) he could do then. It really is amazing. I've known other kids who were really good for their age, and who work hard and have become fantastic musicians, but I wouldn't describe them as prodigies. This is a special term that should be reserved for really exceptional individuals.

Like 13-year-old Kit Armstrong, a classical piano player who was recently interviewed on NPR's Weekend Edition. (He's also taking graduate-level classes in math & physics.)

Or a kid I just heard on the radio today, 18-year-old Eldar Djangirov. Now he sounds like Oscar Peterson!

And 16-year-old Julian Lage, a guitarist touring & recording with vibraphonist Gary Burton these days (I wrote about him before).

So am I writing this out of jealousy? Maybe. But not really. I'm a wordsmith in addition to being a (very mediocre) musician, and misuse of terminology bugs me.

Every prodigy (both real ones and those who are mislabeled) has one thing in common: one day, he/she will grow up. Then that wow factor will wear off. While she'll certainly be regarded as an excellent musician, the special attention that was lavished upon her will cease. (Well, maybe not for "her" if she continues to perform wearing skimpy outfits and long, flowing blond hair...but for the guys, definitely.) Will he be confused? Will he think he's no longer good enough? How does all this special attention affect the kids?

All I'm saying is to think before labeling.

My $.02...go ahead, hit me with your commentary. I'm ready!


Blogger Chef Kevin said...

Cassie -

How true your prodigy post is. And, of course, it goes beyond music..one segment that really comes to mind is women's tennis. Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger, Pam Shiver and now a slew of young Russian young women. Their names are forgotten 20 years later and are the "answer" to Jeoporady! "questions". But back to music...the theme of your blog. Are the names you mentioned in this blog going to follow the same lead as the tennis players above and fade into obscurity, or will they eventually make a name for themselves that will last a lifetime? How does a prodigy stay in the limelight when they get older? This brings up a whole other subject. Society moves so fast today. Are these so called prodigies also a victim of our time? Are they "hot" until the next latest, greatest, newest (fill in the blank, here) comes around and the spotlight goes away? I doubt their talents have diminished, just the public interest. Not that she was ever considered a prodigy, but did Mariah Carey's vocal talent (we won't talk about the "music") diminish or was she simply a victim to the scantily dressed, trash lyrics, sex driven "talents" of Britney Spears and Christina Agu-howeveryouspellherlastname? Will there ever be another Ella, B.B., Eric, Elton, who made names for themselves and those names have lived on for nearly (or over) a half century? Personally, I think few who start today will have the legacy of the above, let alone remembered, in 2055.

As more of a blues guy than a jazz guy (you can send the hate mail to chef_kevin@sbcglobal.net), two guitar prodigies like Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd come to mind. Mid teen guitar slingers when they started. Lang sang and played, but didn't write his own stuff (or much of it) and KWS wrote and played, but didn't sing (well, he does now after changing his sound, but I think that was a bad idea). Where is the heart and soul in either of those two scenarios? And then there is Mato of the band Indigenous, who makes either JL or KWS sound less impressive and few have heard of him. Maybe it's best not to be a prodigy.

9:34 PM  
Blogger dixiejazzguy said...

I couldn't agree more about the whole prodigy thing. There are indeed very few prodigy musicians...most are just kids who practiced their scales before they realized they had to. They spent time playing through Aebersold books instead of reading Harry Potter. Very few have some sort of "gift" that is any different from others and once they grow up and lose that cuteness factor, they are just another good musician trying to find work! I think the problem is that behind every "prodigy" there is a pushy mom or dad who wished they had practiced as much as their kid. They drag them to every jazz society event or jazz bar and insist they sit in. Everyone oohs and aahs over their ability to run scales and not say much. Some of these folks have elaborate web sites and photo spreads that rival pop stars. The problem is that the parents and sometimes their teachers are not really letting them pay their dues. They build them up far beyond their abilities and at the very least are not allowing them to set high goals. They think they have already reached them and they aren't able to drive to the gig yet! I feel sorry for some of these kids as they have to work so hard to try to live up to the reputation their parents have built up for them, and many of them walk onto a gig like they have worked a lifetime of shows. Teach them humility and the rules of the road and let the music do the rest!

8:04 AM  
Blogger Casper said...

I do agree with your conversation about the overuse of the word. Having said that, I have to say you should check out Isaiah Williams. He's this kid with incredible time and a flair for the kit. I'm hoping that he grows into his talent, but he's pretty darn good for 9.

6:52 PM  
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6:16 AM  

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