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Joshua White Striving To Master His Craft

Above: San Diego jazz pianist Joshua White. Photo by Vito Di Stefano Photography.

Aired 11/11/11 on KPBS News.

Jazz pianist Joshua White is taking the San Diego music scene by storm. KPBS arts reporter Angela Carone brings us a profile of the young man who spends hours studying his craft.

Joshua White meets President Obama after placing second in the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition. With fellow finalists finalists Emmet Cohenand Kris Bowers. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.
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Above: Joshua White meets President Obama after placing second in the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition. With fellow finalists finalists Emmet Cohenand Kris Bowers. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

On a recent Sunday night at Dizzy’s jazz club, crowds sipped wine at candlelit tables as they waited for the show to begin. The night would showcase the city’s best bass players. But just as impressive was the young piano player who would accompany them.

Joshua White is just 26 years old. He recently placed second in a prestigious international jazz competition sponsored by the Thelonious Monk Institute. He won $10,000 and plenty of critical acclaim. During a set with famed bass player Marshall Hawkins, White really hit his stride.

White says, it's all about communicating with your fellow musicians then making sound decisions. "When we’re playing up on the bandstand, you really gotta listen to the other individuals, you know, see what you can do to contribute, or what’s the best course of action to make the music the best it can be."

Musician Joshua White performs at Dizzy's jazz club in downtown San Diego.
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Above: Musician Joshua White performs at Dizzy's jazz club in downtown San Diego.

White says Hawkins told him what tunes they would play that night, but with jazz musicians intent on improvisation, a setlist doesn’t mean much. "You don’t know the key, you don’t know the tempo, you don’t know the vibe, you don’t know whatever, so you gotta be tuned in to what’s going on."

White says he prefers to play this way. "That’s how the music should be. If you’ve worked on developing the tools it takes to execute your ideas in the moment, in time, in this idiom called “jazz,” and improvisation, then it shouldn’t be a problem to be able to converse with another musician in real time and have that dialogue."

White is unusually focused for someone from a generation raised on video games and texting. According to his longtime piano teacher Jennifer Martin Faulkner, White's always been a disciplined student. "His mom used to say that she’d have to drag him, literally, take him and drag him away from the piano to get him to eat. And anybody who has growing boys knows that that’s very unusual!"

Faulkner taught White piano lessons for 10 years. He started when he was five. Faulkner says White was eager to learn. "It was supposed to be a half hour lesson. We would go anywhere from half hour to sometimes three hours>"

Faulkner says It soon became obvious White was a special student. "It was always that the music came from within him and that’s something that I’ve seen in his performance now as an adult. It's flowing through him, he’s not just playing the notes. I started seeing that probably at age eight."

You know the 10,000 hour rule? This is the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to really master a skill. White seems to have put that rule to the test. "I’m usually up pretty late practicing or just playing the piano, so I don’t get to bed sometimes until like four or five in the morning."

White says studying music is like learning a language: "But if you consider the time it takes to develop that language and to study and to be able to converse with other musicians on high levels, that takes a lot of time, you know?

On Sunday mornings, White plays at the Encanto Southern Baptist Church in southeast San Diego. On the wall above his keyboard is a sign that reads "Congratulations Joshua," a gift from the church after he placed in the Monk competition.

Barbara Conley recently retired as the church’s longtime music director. She’s also married to the pastor. She says White always surprised her. "There are young musicians who have 'it', and he has 'it.'”

Conley says White is constantly experimenting, even with church songs. "He never plays the same thing, the same way twice. Like this morning when we sang, he was experimenting. It’s like something is going on in his head all the time and he’s trying new stuff, even in the midst of playing."

White believes in breaking molds. "Wiith everything you just have to follow your own path, you know what I mean?"

Who knows where White’s path will take him. For now, San Diegans have the opportunity to see this young pianist who is quickly becoming a master of his craft.

The Joshua White Quartet performs at Dizzy’s on Sunday, November 20th at 7pm.

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