He stepped out of the school into the Times Square neighborhood, which, as always, was noisy and crowded. What else might one expect mid-day in mid-town Manhattan? Walking along Eighth Avenue, he was beating a steady rhythm in the air with drumsticks and thinking about Herbie Hancock – turning over in his mind shots of that Hancock video he needed for his personal collection. “They may have that DVD in here,” he thought as he entered a video store. Before he even had time to open his mouth, a big guy towering over him was demanding to know “What are you doing here, boy?” Hearing the boy’s answer, the big guy grabbed him by his collar and threw him out into the street. A sex shop is no place for a teenager or Herbie Hancock.
Nor is the Music Division of the renowned Juilliard School normally a place for a boy so young either. Ordinary rules apply to ordinary children, however, and this boy does not look much like other youngsters of his age or perform anything like those of his generation.
Beka Gochiashvili is only sixteen today, but it has already been twelve years now that jazz has been an inseparable part of his life. Born in the epoch of techno music, he developed an affinity for jazz at the tender age of four and decided to formally study jazz when he was barely six. That may sound strange, even unbelievable, but….
“My father is a musician. He was crazy about jazz. I was two and a half years old when my parents discovered that I had a perfect ear – I used to repeat what my father played in exactly the same key. At the age of three, I was still sucking a pacifier. My parents tried everything to make me give it up – sprinkled it with pepper, hid it – but all in vain. One day my father seized it from me and told me that, if I wanted it back, I had to repeat a fragment from one of Scott Joplin’s compositions. Leaving me alone with the piano, he stepped out of the room only to return soon after hearing sounds of music – I repeated the fragment without any mistake. That very day he taught me the entire piece. Gradually, the jazz became my pacifier. I was four years old when I first listened to Oscar Peterson – his music became a sort of lullaby for me. Then my father brought me an audio-recording of Keith Jarrett - that was the music that was closest to me and Jarrett remains my favorite musician.”
When Beka turned six, his parents took him to the best jazz teacher in Tbilisi. The teacher, Zura Ramishvili, advised him to practice classical music first because he was still too young for jazz. For three years, the boy played classical music. Then, at the age of nine, he went back to Ramishvili. “Soon thereafter, I started playing at Bebe Lortkipanidze’s jazz club ‘Twentieth Century’ in Tbilisi. When I turned eleven, I found myself at the Saulkrasti Jazz Festival in Latvia, where I accidentally became acquainted with Lenny White. Lenny, one of the distinguished drummers in the world of jazz, works with Chick Corea. Back then, Lenny White conducted a workshop there. I did not even know who he was and just started playing for myself. Unexpectedly, White stopped me and asked me to play in various keys.” Before long, White invited Beka to play with him at his rehearsal. Beka agreed, of course.
For quite a while, Beka was known only to a narrow circle of jazz lovers. That was before then-U.S. State Secretary Condoleezza Rice paid a working visit to Tbilisi in June 2008. While having dinner at the Kopala restaurant where Beka played the piano, Condoleezza Rice was impressed by his talent. An accomplished pianist herself, she easily spotted Beka’s capabilities. Later, in an interview, she described Beka as the most gifted jazzman she had ever met. Her assessment became the catalyst for Beka’s success. Soon there followed a meeting with then-U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft, who introduced Beka to Joel Harrison, president of the American Pianists Association. Beka had intended to continue his music studies at the Berklee College of Music, but, after meeting Harrison, he decided instead to audition for admission to Juilliard.
In 2008, with the assistance of the U.S. Embassy in Georgia, Beka and his father left for New York City, where Beka participated in competitions for the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music. Both prestigious institutions admitted the then-thirteen-year-old jazz pianist. He chose Juilliard.
For such a young kid to be admitted to Juilliard is quite an accomplishment or, to be more precise, an extremely rare occurrence. The Juilliard School has very strict admission rules. A child of Beka’s age not only has to be exceptionally talented, but can only be admitted to Juilliard if the child lives nearby, studies at an area school and is available to attend the Pre-College Division on weekends. Kenny Barron, who teaches Jazz Studies at the Juilliard School, was so amazed at Beka Gochiashvili’s talent that bureaucratic hurdles were cleared and an exception was allowed for the boy’s admission to the Pre-College Division.
Nona Shengelaia, Director of International Advisement at Juilliard, had been contacted by the U.S. Embassy about Beka. She knew nothing about the boy and thought that he was yet another ambitious and in no way remarkable Georgian who wanted to get into one of the world’s best performing arts educational institutions. Shengelaia was contacted by the U.S. Ambassador’s attaché, who assured her that Beka was a very talented musician and that the cost of his studies would be covered by the U.S. Embassy. The attaché also asked if she would be willing to take the young musician into her own home. Nona initially refused, not wanting to assume responsibility for taking care of a child at a time when her own daughters were grown and she was about to enjoy a sort of second-honeymoon period with her husband – a quiet and calm period. “Before I met with Beka, I received a phone call from Zura Ramishvili. He told me that Beka was a perfect musician. I was skeptical about the abilities of a boy whom I did not know. I told Zura that Beka might be playing like anyone who plays in doorways of Harlem. After a short pause, Zura said: ‘Believe me, no one can play anywhere like Beka.’ And he proved to be right.”
That Beka found himself living in Nona Shengelaia’s home must be, first and foremost, credited to her husband, Gia Shengelaia. A lover of jazz himself, Gia Shengelaia decided to give shelter to the boy as soon as he met him and listened to him play. “Today, I can hardly imagine living without Beka. The son of strangers has become a member of my family so much that I never even noticed that. We have never had even a tiny disagreement,” Nona says now.
Meanwhile, the Georgian government also had become involved in making arrangements for what, from that point on, would be the Juilliard epoch in Beka’s life.
“First I found it very difficult to live in New York,” Beka recalls. “I had problems with language, missed my mother and my friends all the time. But, with the support of Nona and Gia and, of course, the jazz, I coped with all difficulties. I knew that it was necessary for me to study here – both for my future and for the future of Georgian jazz.” Beka, however, never actually plans his future: “I do not know what will happen in the future. The life of a jazzman is like his music - it is one huge improvisation, which is silly to plan beforehand….”
The status given of “a genius” means nothing more to him than a responsibility. He hates it when he is told that that status must not make him arrogant. He does not even understand the essence of that phrase. He thinks that self-confidence and courage are his innate qualities. Certainly, those qualities are not at all difficult to acquire when one records an album with Chick Corea at the age of sixteen.
He first listened to Chick Corea perform at Roy Haynes’ 85th birthday celebration at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City. He went with Nona and Gia and found a strange situation there – most people were more interested in eating and making out with their partners than in listening to the legendary musician. Beka himself sat motionless; he was all ears. Nona recalls that that night the jazz great was playing for Beka – an immediate unspoken chemistry connected them even though more than a half-century apart in age. When Chick Corea met Beka after the concert, he guessed instantly who the boy was: “Aren’t you that thirteen-year-old genius who Lenny White told me about two years ago?” Corea gave him his personal e-mail address and a friendship between the two jazzmen began.
Within a few months of their first meeting, they met one other again at the Blue Note and Corea proposed that he and Beka perform together. After performing three or four compositions at one of his concerts, Chick Corea put his hand on Beka’s shoulder and told the audience, “Remember this boy – he is one monster musician.” And again, during a concert several days later with drummer Paul Motian and bassist Eddie Gomez, Chick Corea came to the microphone after playing three themes and said: “There is a boy here who has listened to me since he was six years old. He is so talented that it is time for me now to listen to him.” With those words, Corea invited Beka to take his place on the stage while he took Beka’s seat in the audience. Beka played with Paul Motian and Eddie Gomez for fifteen minutes that evening and received a standing ovation from the audience.
The young musician, though, could not possibly be surprised at the sound of applause. As his teacher Zura Ramishvili notes, Beka has a unique gift of improvisation, an extraordinary sense of swing and, what’s no less important, a modern vision which allows the musician to introduce new motifs, themes into his jazz. The teacher thinks that one of the reasons for Beka’s success is the lack of any fear of audiences. All that explains perfectly well why, apart from very successful performances at prestigious clubs and concert halls, Beka also holds many diplomas. Moreover, in 2009, he became the youngest musician ever to win the Montreux Jazz Piano Competition for young pianists. He had a similar chance at the 2011 competition of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, but he was not selected among the finalists. His young age was the reason he did not reach that final round, he was told privately by Herbie Hancock and Danilo Perez, who were among the judges for the competition.
The career of the young Georgian musician has been developing at high speed. He has already performed at the Blue Note with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White and this summer will see the release of an album he has recorded with Chick Corea. He is now working on another disc and will soon perform at London’s famous Ronnie Scott’s, which extended him a special invitation. Writer Quincy Troupe, who collaborated on Miles Davis’ autobiography and authored his own famous book “Miles and Me,” wants to write an autobiographical book about Beka.
In parallel, he continues with his studies. He is fond of soul music and Stevie Wonder; listens to classical music; likes Georgian folk and urban songs. But he is in love with the jazz and Niniko. He met her in Tbilisi too. She is two years older and the inspiration for the composition “Song to Niniko” which he recorded with Chick Corea. At first, Beka was charmed by her appearance, but then he discovered that Niniko was a person who understands him and loves him for who he is.
And he is the sort of a person who is a lover of freedom, always challenging standards and rules. That is why he has such bad memories of a Grammy Camp summer music program that he compares with jail. David Sears, the Grammy Camp leader, disliked him from the very beginning because of his liberal attitude and sense of bravado. On the day of the Grammy Awards, when everyone was required to wear formal dress, Beka appeared in a T-shirt. He was punished for that after the concert – Sears would not allow him to eat or to step out of the room. Even when Chick Corea came to see him, Sears did not allow Beka to meet him.
When he departed the Grammy Camp, Beka was in a very bad mood. As he walked to catch a bus, someone called out to him. It was Chick Corea, waiting for Beka near the bus. Corea told him that he very much liked both his performance and his clothes. He also liked that Beka had paid no attention to anyone and acted in a way he wanted to act because a goal can be attained only in that way. Beka vividly remembers their exchange: “’Look at me, what I am wearing,’ Chick told me and showed me his tie with red hearts printed on it and a jacket he had bought during a sale at Old Navy. I understood then, once again, how good it is to have absolute freedom in music and not to be restricted by anyone. Where freedom is restricted, music cannot exist – especially jazz, which is a symbol of freedom, is improvisational and must come from heart and mind…”
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 99, published 7 May 2012.