These 2 Musicians Are Among Westchester’s Best—And Youngest

Young musicians are striking all the right chords with performances around the county.

How long has it been since you promised yourself you’d dust off that old guitar and learn a few chords? Or maybe sit at the heirloom piano that’s taking up too much space in your house and hammer out some keys? I’m not a wagering woman, but I’d bet it’s been more than a handful of years. And now you’ve let your dreams of titillating audiences as the next Hendrix or Thelonious Monk all but wither away.   

Well, some inspiration is rolling into Westchester this month. It’s coming in the form of a pint-sized piano prodigy named Joey Alexander, who’ll bring tears to your eyes when he performs at Caramoor’s Jazz Festival on July 18, and 16-year-old Quinn Sullivan, who’ll prove he can trade licks like a pro at his July 2 concert at Tarrytown Music Hall, where he will perform alongside friend and mentor Buddy Guy. Get to know these two a bit more before getting out of the house to see them live. Then get back to living out those childhood dreams.

Joey Alexander

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Joey Alexander is younger than any whiskey worth drinking. Yet, the 11-year-old has had more success in the past year—a newly released album and a recent performance at Lincoln Center that garnered a standing ovation—than most people do in a lifetime. 

It all started thanks to his father’s jazz collection. The Indonesia-born Alexander began his path to child prodigy status when, without any formal training, the then 6-year-old played Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t” by ear. Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, brought Alexander to New York to play with the center’s orchestra after discovering him at a jam session in Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta, about a year ago. Following his Lincoln Center debut, Alexander has played several other high-profile gigs. 

But it’s not just the fascination with his age that’s kept the rapt attention of jazz lovers and critics. Watch Alexander sit at the piano, close his eyes, and tap out those first few notes, and it’s obvious that his natural talent stems from a grace and soulfulness that’s far beyond his years. “For me, jazz is all about freedom to express myself and having the discipline to have that freedom,” says Alexander. 

So far, 2015 has been a big year for the pianist. He released his first album, My Favorite Things, with Grammy-nominated producer Jason Olaine in May, featuring original interpretations of songs by John Coltrane and Rodgers and Hammerstein plus a song titled “Ma Blues”—Alexander’s first composition. He’s also performed at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center and is slated to appear at both the Newport and Montreal jazz festivals. 

What’s next for him? Continuing to do what he loves—play tennis, swim, listen to plenty of Michael Jackson, and, of course, play a lot more jazz. “What I hope is to keep performing and to travel the world, to keep composing a lot of songs and collaborating with people,” says Alexander.

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Photo by Chuck Lanza

Quinn Sullivan 

It was just a hint of what was to come when, at 5 years old, Quinn Sullivan was already playing the Beatles’ “Blackbird” on his Squier by Fender Stratocaster guitar. It was the first song he asked guitar instructor Brian Cass to teach him after becoming obsessed with the British band. While Sullivan is a self-professed “Beatles fanatic,” it’s his relationship with another musician that’s become a defining influence of his career. 

When Sullivan was 8 years old, his father got him backstage to meet blues legend Buddy Guy at the Zeiterion Theater in their hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts. “I remember going backstage and seeing this man just sitting in a chair in his dressing room, and it was just something else,” reminisces Sullivan. “I’d never met anyone like that before.” When Sullivan asked for an autograph, Guy challenged him to play a few chords. And Guy says what he heard blew him away. “I told his dad I was gonna go unplug his amp so I could make sure it was really him,” says Guy. “He was hittin’ me, Jimi, B.B., Eric, Stevie—that night I thought to myself, ‘Man, I’ve got to let people know about this kid!’” 

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In the nine years since, the guitar-wielding duo has formed a relationship that’s as much a learning experience as it is about a shared love of performing. “I like to call it ‘going into history class,’” says Sullivan. “All the stories, they never get old.” Sullivan has played alongside Guy at huge venues like Colorado’s Red Rocks and major festivals like Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival at Madison Square Garden. He’s maintained such a busy schedule that last year he took online classes from the road. He also released two albums—2011’s Cyclone and the more mature Getting There in 2013—with famed Nashville music producer Tom Hambridge. 

Lest you think all the success has given him a big head, Sullivan enjoys the same things most 16-year-olds do. “I love hanging out with my friends, going to the beach in the summer, and just relaxing.” His ambitions—to headline his own tour and have an album that really takes off—might be a tad loftier than most teens’, but he’s already well on his way to meeting those goals. “I think he might be teachin’ me now!” muses Guy. “He’s 16, and he’s just amazing.”

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