The cheers rang loud and long for Joey Alexander after he had played his last delicate piano chord in a recent sold-out set at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Manhattan.
Beaming at his standing ovation, he stood between his bassist and his drummer, intent on taking a group bow. The scene was sweetly comical: The top of his head barely grazed their chests.
Which only made sense, given that Joey, jazz’s latest media star, is 11 years old.
This was far from his first turn in the spotlight. He became an overnight sensation — not too strong a term — with his guest performance a year ago at a Jazz at Lincoln Center gala, which won him rave reviews. His debut album, “My Favorite Things” (Motéma), is out this week, and he is booked for a series of notable appearances in the coming months, including one at the Newport Jazz Festival in August.
Discovered in Jakarta, Indonesia, about three years ago, Joey moved with his parents to New York last year, with the help of jazz luminaries like the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who called him “my hero” on Facebook and with whom he now shares a manager.
It’s all part of the improbable life of a child prodigy. Joey may be the most talked-about one that jazz has seen in a while, though he is hardly alone. There’s José André Montaño, a 10-year-old blind pianist from Bolivia; Kojo Roney, a 10-year-old drummer who had a concert residency last month in Brooklyn; and Grace Kelly, 22, an alto saxophonist who made her first album at 12. The list goes on, with some prodigies developing major careers and others falling short of their early promise.
It is natural to harbor mixed feelings about this phenomenon, and for a critic it’s all but imperative. The acclamation given to musical prodigies usually involves some mix of circus-act astonishment and commodity futures trading. All the attention lavished on them can distort the ecology of an art form, even while bringing encouraging news about its survival. And, as with any celebrated young talent, there is a question of intention: Who benefits most from the renown these performers receive? Is there a way to marvel at mind-blowing precocity without stunting an artist’s development?
Joey looked like a cherub several years ago when his reputation began to build in jazz circles: small in stature, with a thick mop of black hair over a face that still showed traces of baby fat. He is taller now, though the sight of him at a grand piano can still be disconcerting, especially when you hear what he plays.