Sunday, July 3, 2016

Joey Alexander inhabits the spirit of jazz musicians who turned to Islam

Jazz piano prodigy Joey Alexander is dwarfed by his sidemen as they acknowledge a standing ovation on Friday night at a concert in Montreal. Alexander responded with two encores.

Editor's note: In Montreal for the 37th annual International Jazz Festival, we've been eating our way around town, and going to hear and see such great musicians as Joey Alexander, who turned 13 on June 25.


MONTREAL -- Joey Alexander was born in Indonesia -- the most populous Muslim country in the word -- learned to play jazz piano at age 6 and released his first album at age 11.

As remarkable as his story is, Alexander still can't fill the shoes of jazz great Fritz Jones, who was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., on July 2, 1930, and began playing piano at age 3.

Except it's likely you have never heard of Jones, who is among the dozens of black jazz musicians who adopted Muslim names to combat bigotry and racial injustice in the United State.

See: American Jazz + Islam and Muslim Names in Jazz, a list of black musicians whose exotic names ring a bell with many fans of the music.

In Jones' case, that name is Ahmad Jamal, whose award-filled career spans more than six decades.

Others are Yusef Lateef (William Evans), Sahib Shihab (Edmund Gregory) and Idris Muhammad (Leo Morris).

In a way, Alexander -- born Josiah Alexander Sila on the island of Bali -- is a spiritual descendant of Ahmad Jamal and all those Americans who sought comfort in Islam in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Baby face, baby voice

Even though I've heard so much about Alexander and saw him profiled on CBS' "60 Minutes," I wasn't really prepared to see his trio perform at the International Jazz Festival in Montreal.

He isn't quite 5 feet tall, and plays the piano both sitting and standing, favoring uptempo numbers based on the repertoires of John Coltrane and other jazz giants.

On Friday night, the bespectacled Alexander and his much older sidemen came on stage and started playing, and the teenager didn't speak to the audience until later.

When he did, I was struck by his baby face, baby voice and heavily accented English.

He put on a spectacular show, backed by a great bass player and drummer, showing his command of the jazz piano at such a tender age.

Imagine a concert pairing this young phenom with a true master, Jamal.

Alexander, who is under 5 feet tall, plays the piano standing as well as seated.

American jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal is among dozens of African-Americans who took Muslim names after experiencing discrimination. Jamal was born in 1930 as Frederick Russell "Fritz" Jones in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Joey Alexander speaking to the audience on Friday night in Salle Luder-Duvernay, a Montreal concert hall that was inaugurated in 1893 and is said to be Canada's oldest theater.

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