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Little Jazz Man

Joey Alexander plays jazz like a veteran of decades, but he's just 12 years old. Anderson Cooper reports on the jazz prodigy

The following is a script from "Little Jazz Man" which aired on Jan. 3, 2016. Anderson Cooper is the correspondent. Michael Gavshon and David M. Levine, producers.

We've never seen anyone like the young boy we're going to introduce you to tonight. His name is Joey Alexander, he's 12 years old and he's becoming a musical sensation. He's not a pop star or classical music prodigy...he's a jazz musician, a piano player. He has been nominated for two Grammy awards this year. But it's not just his young age that makes him remarkable, it's where he's from: Bali, a small Indonesian island that's hardly famous for jazz. Since he arrived in New York 18 months ago, Joey has been captivating fans and fellow musicians alike, and after you meet him...we think you'll understand why.

For a jazz musician there's no bigger stage than the Newport Jazz Festival. Most artists work a lifetime to get here, if they ever make it at all.

joeyalexander.jpg

It's Joey Alexander's first time playing Newport...he's the youngest person ever invited to perform on this stage. He may only be 12 years old but his sound and his soul seem a lot older than that.

Newport audiences can be a tough crowd, but Joey had them on their feet.

When we sat down with him later in New York, we were reminded he is just a kid who first touched a keyboard six years ago.

Anderson Cooper: What do you think it was about jazz?

Joey Alexander: I think it has that special feeling that which is the blues, and swing feel.

Anderson Cooper: What do you mean by swing?

Joey Alexander: Like, swing is, like, the groove. It's like...

Anderson Cooper: I've never had a 12-year-old try to explain to me about groove.

Joey Alexander: Oh.

Just listen to him groove on this song, "Ma Blues." He wrote it when he was 10. What's most remarkable is that Joey is already a master of improvisation. Most of what he plays, he makes up as he goes along.

Anderson Cooper: Do you know how you're going to improvise something before you do it? I mean, have you planned it all out?

Joey Alexander: When I'm in stage I never plan, you know, "I'm going to do this." But of course, you have a concept what you're going to do. But you don't really plan it.

Anderson Cooper: So every time-- it might be different?

Joey Alexander: Yeah.

Anderson Cooper: It sounds really hard?

Joey Alexander: It is kind of hard.

And yet Joey makes it look so easy. Wynton Marsalis, one of the biggest names in jazz and a contributor to 60 Minutes, has seen a lot of young talent over the years.

Wynton Marsalis: I've never heard anyone who could play like him.

Anderson Cooper: Nobody.

Wynton Marsalis: And no one has heard a person who could play like him.

Anderson Cooper: He has genius.

Wynton Marsalis: There's no question about that, tto any of us.

Genius? This is what he means.

Wynton Marsalis: Let's take a traditional hymn like "Just A Closer Walk With Thee." So if you just play the melody, and with basic chord changes -- this is with no improvisation.

Joey Alexander: Oh, the song, OK. How does it go?

Wynton Marsalis: Now he's going to improvise on it. Just--

Anderson Cooper: That was cool.

Wynton Marsalis: Oh, man, somebody 12 playing like that.

Joey's talent may be undeniable, but Marsalis says no one can explain where it comes from.

Wynton Marsalis: Why? We don't-- we don't know why. I once asked Miles Davis about sound. "Man, how you get the sound you get?" He said, "Man, nobody know about sound. Sound just is." And I think that about his-- his-- his abilities. They are.

Anderson Cooper: They just are.

Wynton Marsalis: They are.

It's not just how he plays that sets him apart, it's where he's from Bali, a tiny Indonesian island better known for palm trees than piano players.

He was a hyperactive kid, so one day, when Joey was six, his parents, Denny and Fara, brought home a keyboard hoping to channel all that restless energy.

Anderson Cooper: You thought that maybe that would focus him.

Denny Silas: Yeah. Yeah. At the same time we wanted to find out whether he's musical or not. 'Cause we have musical family.

Anderson Cooper: And that was the first time he started playing with the keyboard?

Denny Silas: Yeah.

Here he is one year later at age 7. Remember no one taught Joey how to play like this. He just picked it up listening to his dad's albums of Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk.

Anderson Cooper: He was just listening to your records and playing along?

Denny Silas: Right. Right.

They did hire a piano instructor, but he tried to teach Joey classical music, Chopin and Tchaikovsky. It didn't go well.

Anderson Cooper: Why, 'cause Joey wanted to improvise?

Fara Silas: Yeah.

Denny Silas: Even just a little bit.

Anderson Cooper: Just a little bit.

Denny Silas: Just embellish it.

Anderson Cooper: And there-- the classical teacher didn't like Tchaikovsky being embellished.

Denny Silas: No, no.

Anderson Cooper: What did that tell you?

Denny Silas: He wants to be free.

Anderson Cooper: And jazz allows that. Jazz allows that freedom.

Denny Silas: To express yourself.

Joey began expressing himself on stages across Indonesia. Videos of him playing went viral and made it to Wynton Marsalis, who's managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.

He was so impressed by what he heard he invited Joey to perform at their annual gala, their biggest event of the year.

And even, though it was his New York debut and his first time performing for such a crowd, Joey decided to play one of the toughest songs in jazz, "Round Midnight."

And when he was done, the orchestra rose, the crowd rose and Joey who was 10 at the time, he didn't know what to do. He tried to walk off the stage. The host that evening was Billy Crystal.

["Don't go Joey, don't go. Take it in, man... take it in. Come back out, come back out. Joey Alexander!"]

Joey had arrived.

Anderson Cooper: You got a standing ovation?

Joey Alexander: Well, thank God for that.

Anderson Cooper: Thank God for that?

Joey Alexander: I mean, I didn't expect to have a standing ovation.

That concert changed Joey's life. His parents sold what they had in Indonesia and moved the family to New York. He started playing gigs, touring the country, winning fans and learning the rhythms of a very different world.

Anderson Cooper: So how do you like New York?

Joey Alexander: Well, I-- New York is great. I love it.

Anderson Cooper: Yeah?

Joey Alexander: Especially, like, here, where we now. The people and, you know, it's so-- so much. The energy. I mean, everybody wants to be here. S-- even me.

Within months of arriving, he was in the studio recording his first album. "My Favorite Things."

Gary Walker is the music director at jazz radio station WBGO. He's been following Joey's progress since he came to New York.

Gary Walker: If you listen to the way Joey Alexander plays "My Favorite Things." At one point in that piece of music, his sensibility through his left hand is almost like you're going to church. Brothers and sisters! Right? At-- but his right hand is playing at such a fleeting moment, there's a traffic ticket waiting for him when he's done.

Anderson Cooper: Is he good for a 12-year-old? Or is he just good?

Gary Walker: He's just good. He's just good. At any age, his language is pretty special. But at the age of 12, you almost think, "You know, I might even believe in reincarnation, perhaps."

Joey will tell you he's just a young kid with a gift that comes from God but he still has to work very hard. He practices two to three hours a day then is homeschooled. He also has a tough tour schedule and his late night gigs can keep him up until midnight.

Anderson Cooper: Some people who are going to see this story and think, "This kid is being pushed by their parents. These are stage parents."

Wynton Marsalis: He's not. He's not being pushed by his parents. This kid philosophically is so strong. And his parents are not pushing him. He's pushing them.

Anderson Cooper: They're facilitating his gift?

Wynton Marsalis: They're facilitating him.

Facilitating Joey is a fulltime job. His parents were on hand as he was getting ready for a performance with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York. It was the first time he'd play with an ensemble this size. The music is by Thelonious Monk, among the toughest tunes there are.

Before the concert, there were three days of intensive rehearsals. Joey didn't get it right away...

[Wynton Marsalis: If you could remember the way you played in the middle, when you start off try to play with that same feeling.]

A prodigy still needs plenty of practice...

[Wynton Marsalis: Joey, concentrate on the melody, right?]

But it didn't take Joey long to finally find his groove and, then the big night, a sold-out show at New York's Town Hall. Joey was as ready as he could be, everything was in place, almost. Once the seat was adjusted, his hands took off.

Jazz is always conversation but Joey doesn't just want to hold his own. On this night, he stood and took the lead.

And just look at the faces of the other musicians. The audience was rapt, his father beamed. This time, the little boy from Bali stayed on the stage and took it all in.

[Wynton Marsalis: Our young genius, Joey Alexander on the piano.]

  • Anderson Cooper

    Anderson Cooper, anchor of CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360," has contributed to 60 Minutes since 2006. His exceptional reporting on big news events has earned Cooper a reputation as one of television's pre-eminent newsmen.