Taylor Eigsti and the Prodigy Thing
“ When people call you 'good for your age' it's just a filter...[for] those people, it's like they're looking at a bearded lady. ”
Why do some players have it, and others don't?
Let's assume for the moment that it needs no definitionthat we all recognize it when we hear it. We'll also set aside the tendency of the music business to elevate the less-talented and more photogenic, and the sad fact that not everyone who "makes it" actually has it. The question here is more basic: what creates a truly outstanding musicianthat is, the one who has it ? Is it genes, environmentincluding early musical interest and its supportsome major formative event, temperament, opportunity, influences, luck (including the presumed intercession of a higher power), or just a flukey combination of all these factors?
The answer is probably "flukey combination" (just as it is for most human attributes). Although psychologists are still sniffing out the components of creativity, they'll never be able to quantify them into a formula like " it -ness is 35% inheritance, 25% environment, etc." With mushy variables like these, it's all speculation. But since prodigies are closer to their formative experiences, it might be easier to weigh the relative contribution of each factor to the creation of their it -ness.
All this came to mind recently while considering the budding career of pianist/composer Taylor Eigsti, a young man from Menlo Park, California, who clearly has it. [His Swiss-German name is pronounceed IKE-stee]. Taylor just turned 20, but his it -ness has been evident from a childhood which included opening for David Benoit at the age of 8, playing with Dave Brubeck at 12, and releasing his first CD at 14. His fourth, Resonance (Bop City), got rave reviews, and there's already considerable excitement about his next one. Taylor has been on the faculty of the Stanford Jazz Workshop since he was 15; he's opened for the likes of Diana Krall, Al Jarreau, and Hank Jones, and has gigged for years at high-profile clubs and national festivals, including Tanglewood, where he recently taped his second Piano Jazz appearance with Marian McPartland.
I first met Taylor and his mother, Nancy, on a jazz cruise five years ago where he was the 16-year-old "special guest" of Red Holloway. Two years later, he headlined the cruise with his own trio, which included Chris and Dan Brubeck (the three made a terrific CD that remains unaccountably unreleased). What impressed me about Tayloraside from his chops, sensitivity, and enthusiasmwas the fact that he was so good- natured and open. Smart, respectful, and funny, he was nothing like the bratty Mozart in "Amadeus," nor did he fulfill Franz Liszt's gloomy assessment: "you cannot imagine how it spoils one to have been a child prodigy." Taylor was a joy to talk to, neither bratty nor spoiled.
He still isn't. In September of 2004, I was invited to his showcase at Birdland in New York City. It was set up by Mary Ann Topper, who's known for her star-making knack and has recently taken Taylor under her wing; she's been instrumental in the careers of Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, and Peter Cincotti, among others. Backed by the superb Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Rodney Green on drums, Taylor played for the heads of major labels as well as producers and reps from top agencies like William Morris and ICM. Things went beautifully despite the fact that the drums were miced and the Bosendorfer wasn't; there were hints in the air that Taylor might do a week at Birdland in the spring.
But back to the prodigy thing. I thought it would be intriguing to interview both Taylor and his momgetting two views of his formative yearsand see if anything prophetic emerged from the family landscape. I interviewed the warm and delightful Nancy at dinner, over the clacking of plates at Charlie Brown's, and Taylor by phone a week later in LA, where he now lives. Their words are sequenced to better illuminate some of the elements that can create and nurture a prodigy.
There was musical talent on both sides of the family. Nancy Hunt Eigsti, back home in Indiana, had piano lessons for awhile when she was 8 or 9, but was encouraged to stop when her mom thought she didn't practice her assignments enough (she preferred noodling on her own, as Taylor later wouldperhaps there's an improvisational gene?). Meanwhile, Steve Eigsti's mother taught piano, and he played drums in his Illinois high school band; for a time he also had his own jazz trio, which did "little gigs," as Nancy put it. Their daughter Shannon was a gifted pianist who started lessons at four, anchored her high school jazz band, and played on a Doobie Brothers album, Cycles ) as well as in front of 20,000 people.
Early interest and its support
AAJ: When did you first notice Taylor's musical talent?
Nancy Eigsti: From the time he was very little he would humwhen he was happy about the food he was eating, he would hum.
AAJ: His own melodies?
NE: Who knows? Nothing recognizable. And the more he liked the food, the louder he would hum. He had a beautiful singing voice, though he refuses to sing now. Anyway, he'd be eating dinner, and all of a sudden he'd have a chord alert, and noodle on the piano because it was right behind his chair.
AAJ: Chord alert??
NE: Just something going on his head that he had to find on the piano. When he first started talking, one of the things he most frequently asked was, "what's that noise?" He was very tuned into sounds of any kind. When he was about two, he stood on the hearth of our fireplace "playing" a toy trumpet and said he was Stan Getz, because he'd just heard Stan play with Shannon's high school band.
AAJ: So Taylor heard a lot of music early on?
NE: We always had music in our house. Shannon started lessons at four and played piano for her high school jazz band [Menlo-Atherton, in California]. They did Montreux and Antibes. This band has a standing invitation to do the European festivals anytime the director feels he has a band good enough.
Taylor heard Shannon playing from the time he was born, and we also played a fair amount of jazz in our home. He was really into smooth jazz when he was little. I can remember a Fatburger album he'd cry if he couldn't listen to at night. He started listening to jazz radio all night longit had to be turned onand got into David Benoit.
He cried when I took him to his first lesson, at four. He buried his head in my stomach and refused to go into the woman's house. The next time he was fine. His first teacher lasted about seven months. She wasn't happy that Taylor wanted to do things differently from what she wanted him to do; he was trying to improvise and play the jazz that he heard at home.
AAJ: Did you have to push Taylor to practice?
NE: We never had to push Taylor. On the other hand, he didn't sit down and ractice for a set amount of time every day. He did it his way. Years ago an interviewer asked him how much he practiced [daily]. Taylor said two hours, and his dad said, "Yeah, an hour and a half on football, and half an hour on music." Taylor told me before the Rhapsody in Blue concert [August 2004, with the Reno Symphony ] that he practiced for seven hours one day, and that's not like him. And he does a lot of thingsI've gotten on him over the yearshe likes to play video games, he likes Comedy Central, and I always felt he could be putting his time to better use.
Not that I didn't think he needed some down time, but I just... I guess I would liked to have seen him sit down for an hour or two a day, and work on his music. On the other hand, when I go into a club or attend a festival and I hear him play... (big grin)
AAJ: So whatever he's doing, it's working.
NE: (laughs) Yeah, it's working. OK, maybe he doesn't need to practice for an hour or so a day.
AAJ: Taylor, how did your parents encourage you?
Taylor Eigsti: They would tell me to practice, and they would get on my case, but only because they knew that's what I wanted to do. They never really did pressure me. They wouldn't have made me take lessons if my heart wasn't in it. I was 3 or 4 years old, and I wanted it...
AAJ: Although I hear that for your first lesson, you wouldn't go in...
TE: Yeah... (laughs) And I broke down with a temper tantrum during my first recital when I was four. I started crying in the middle of a song, ran off, and then I asked if I still got a donut. But I've hopefully come a long way since then.
AAJ: Do you always get your donuts now?
TE: Not now. [groans] I'm trying to eat frickin' healthy. I always get my tofu now.
AAJ: It sounds like your parents were pretty supportive.
TE: They were definitely encouraging. I know they would've supported me just the same if I was into punk, or whatever was my passion, 'cause that's the kind of people they are. It's not like I haven't had difficulties with them throughout time, but they didn't ever hold me back or try to push me when I didn't want it. They sought out a lot of performances that I could do early on, but they weren't trying to bill me as, "omigod, everyone look at our son, a freak of nature." I'm glad my mom didn't seek out that kind of stuff like a lot of stage moms do.
I think if you have too much of the crazy prodigy stuff, that's just asking for a shutdown later on. I've had a nice, gradual incline of exposure, and I've enjoyed it that way.
AAJ: Some parents wouldn't let you play sports, considering the need to protect your hands.
TE: I'd do it anyway, if they wouldn't let me (laughs). That's a big part of my life. Being both a fan of different sports, and... I'm a pretty damn good quarterback. After a concert someone made a comment: "Yeah, he plays good, but he can't throw a ball." I was like, I wish I could... I was fuming!
Here's the weird thing about me: I'm totally uncompetitive when it comes to music. I don't think of impressing people or trying to be better than people. But in sports, I totally do. I am the most annoying basketball player to play with because I talk way too much trashI have a loud mouth that's extremely competitive. That's the competitive part of me, the sports part. Music means something way different to me.
AAJ: It never bugged you that he was using his hands for sports?
NE: It crossed my mind. People used to tell me that I should get his hands insured, and I said listen, as long as we let him play football and basketball, they're not gonna cover him.
NE: Shannon was diagnosed in her freshman year of high school with extra-ossias Ewing's sarcoma; her abdomen was distended, and she was also complaining of cramps in her leg. They did a series of tests, and about an hour later called and said we're sorry to tell you this but we found a mass, and because of the complexity we're certain that it's malignant. I was holding Taylor at the timehe was still an infant. It was just the most difficult phone call I've ever had.
So the next day she was supposed to see the doctors at Children's Hospital, but she did a concert with the jazz band. Within two or three weeks she started chemo. She had about a two-and-a-half year regimen, and did extremely well. Then she had to go off, because that's what they do; the doctors and nurses were very compassionate, but they said that this particular cancer quite often comes back. And when it does, it comes back with a vengeance.
That was right before Shannon went off to Europe with the band, in July. When she came back her hair was just beginning to grow back, she had this fuzz on top. Then she relapsed in October, and died the following June. Taylor was three when she died, and from the time he was seven months old his life was spent going back and forth to the hospitals, since we didn't have someone to stay with him at home. We'd take him out on the playground, do the day room and the game room, and that's what he knew.
Then one day I took him on my lap and told him I had something very sad to tell him; I told him Shannon died today. He couldn't stop sobbing, and finally he said, "But she'll come back, won't she?" And I said "No, Taylor, she won't." Gradually he began to realize that it was forever, and he asked all kinds of questions, like "Am I going to be an old man or a little boy when I die?" And I just said we firmly believe that you're going to be an old man, but we really don't knownone of us knows when we're going to die. Then nine years later, Taylor's dad died of colon cancer. Taylor was 12.
AAJ: That's a lot of loss for someone so young.
NE: People used to worry about himin school, especially in junior highmaybe 8th or 9th grade. Periodically I'd get a call and someone would say, "You know, Taylor just isn't acting out. He's a really normal kid. He's happy." And I said, "Well, what can I say?"
Then he came home and I said, "Taylor, they're still worried about you." And he said, "Why? Daddy wanted me to be happy, and to go on with my life. Of course I miss him, I always will. But I know he'd want me to keep studying my music and playing sports and doing everything." And that was the end of that. Just a very special kid.
Asking Taylor about the impact of these losses...
AAJ: Some studies suggest that prodigies and geniuses experience an unusually high rate of early deaths of loved ones.
AAJ: Yes. Can you think of any influence losing Shannon and your dad might've had on you, your music, or your choice of career?
TE: There's always the idea of carrying the torchI mean, Shannon being a musician and all. But that's not really why I'm in music, just to carry the torch. It's something I connected with from a very early point, and I've always loved the idea of making stuff up on the spot.
When I was eight years old I was in the car with my dad, and I asked him how much David Benoit had to pay each time he performed. My dad said "Taylor, he gets paid." And I said, "OK, well, I've made up my mind for my career, then."
Not only did my music help me through different things, but I always had fun playing. The people I've had to deal with losing in my lifesome good friends, my dad and my sister, and my three grandparentsit's not like I'm always thinking about that, and I'm definitely not a dark guy, but I would say that it helps me put things in perspective in life, which then reflects in the music.
You can shed all day, you can practice your ass off, but ultimately music is a tool to express emotions. If you don't go out and have a life and emotions, if you just sit in a practice room all day, then there's nothing to express. You've got all the paints but no canvas. You gotta go out. I think the perspective I got for having to go through stuff makes the music more real to me.
AAJ: By perspective do you mean, knowing which things are truly important?
TE: Yeah, exactly. Even the little everyday things. Sometimes I have to realize that I'm taking things for granted. The biggest thing I've learned from losing people is that you never know what's going to happen. The other thing I'm constantly working on is not to talk badly about people for no reason. Life is a really fleeting thing, and you might as well show as much respect for people as possible.
AAJ: Does that also make you feel that you have to rush along with your career? Do you feel any time pressure?
TE: In a sense, but I'm never, ever in my life going to feel like I've fully developed. It's a constantly changing thing. I've noticed that a lot of my favorite musicians get better as the years go on. You listen to recordings when they're 20, and they may be good, but not as good as when they're 35. Thank God they were kind enough to the public to allow people to see them develop over the years. I feel comfortable to let people see me develop over time. I don't want to save my music up until I'm a certain age. I feel I'm ready to go out there and do it right now.
AAJ: Tell me how the David Benoit opening came about.
NE: When he was seven, we took him to his first David Benoit concert. I had written his manager and asked if Taylor could meet them. He said yes, but it was pouring that night, and David had to leave in a hurry, so we didn't get to meet him. Some months later we got a call from the music school where Taylor was studying. They'd been contacted by Bill Graham, who was producing a David Benoit concert in our home town; he wanted an opening act, so they called the music school. The director called me because he knew what a huge fan Taylor was, and said, "can Taylor do this?" This was about a month before he turned nine. So he opened for David that day, and they became great friends. Taylor eventually gravitated more to straight-ahead, traditional music, but he still loves David. And David has incredible chops, but he's making a great living doing contemporary and smooth jazz. He's a wonderful man.
AAJ: When did Mary Ann Topper get involved?
NE: This past summer. People had told me years ago that I had to get the press kit to her, but at the time I felt he really needed to be a quote-unquote "normal kid"he needed to finish high schooland I'm glad I did it that way. He led a pretty normal childhood. But I certainly knew about her, so I was just thrilled that she expressed an interest in him.
NE: I firmly believe Taylor was given this gift by a higher powerwhatever you call your higher power. I think he was born to play jazz piano. It's his heart and soul, it's his passion.
He was not a planned pregnancy. Our daughter was 13 when I became pregnant with Taylor, and he was born two days before her 14th birthday. Steve and I talked about how strange it was that he came along when he did. We knew he'd been sent to help us get through it with Shannon. He didn't replace Shannon, but being able to have a little one give you hugs and kisses and a focusthat's why He (or She) sent Taylor to us. Only a year or so later we said yeah, and God also threw in this little music thing (smiles).
Taylor's take on being a prodigy
AAJ: What's the up and down side of being a prodigy?
TE: I would love to explain that. At first, being labelled a prodigyor someone who's young and can play really wellis something that can get people to pay attention to your music, obviously. Sometimes people take a little extra notice because they're like, "Hey, what in the world is this?" I've also been in lots of incredible performance situations younger than people getting a later start might have been.
But being 20, I'm at the other side of that sword. What I'm experiencing now is that "youth" and prodigy" are really dangerous words when you get older. You get to an age where you feel like saying, "Like my music or hate it, but listen to the notes I'm playing." When people call you "good for your age" it's just a filter: when those people hear my music, it's like they're looking at a bearded lady--- Taylor the bearded lady! (laughs) They're in it for the novelty, and not for the actual music itself. So being labelled a prodigy poses an immense difficulty in getting people to take your music seriously.
That's where I am right now. I'm trying to create my own new statement in jazznot doing that "impressing people" kind of thing. I've never in my life entered a competition, because I don't like getting into that mentality. I realize that the music business itself is a competitionthere's record sales to think about, there's other cats out thereand you want to make sure you can be successful. So there's a certain level of competition that's involved in that, innately.
At the same time, I think it's a dangerous mentality to want to impress people when you play. I want to be able to give people a wonderful experience, and take them somewhere with my music, but I'm definitely not trying to impressnor have I ever really been about that. But people look at prodigies wanting to be impressed, and not necessarily musically satisfied.
AAJ: Do you think you've outgrown the prodigy thing now?
TE: I'm hoping. The "2" is the first digit of my two-digit age now. That definitely helps, just the fact that I'm not a teenager. Any little thing helps, you know? And then, on a personal level, I've been through so much that I think in different terms than a lot of 20-year-olds I've met. You get a lot of experience through pain. Because of what I've experienced, I think I have a lot of emotional ability to bring to the musical table. I want people to be able to see that, that it's not just child's play.
AAJ: Many prodigies feel isolated, or certainly different from other kids. Did you ever feel that?
TE: No, probably because I've always had and wanted a social life. The only time I felt isolated is when I tried to tell my friends about some cool jazz stuff, and they wouldn't know Benny Green from anythingthat was the only difficulty, because of the genre I was in. But generally, when I'm around my friends, especially if they're non-music people, I don't talk about music or what I'm doing. I never really felt isolated. I don't think I was given too much special attention, eithermy teachers, throughout school. I was treated really regular, and I acted regular, so everything was cool.
AAJ: That's good to hear, because given what you went through so young, technically you should have more problems than you do.
TE: Yeah, exactly.
AAJ: Why don't you?
TE: WellI don't knowI think I've been pretty strong through all that stuff.
AAJ: Umm...how strong can you be at three?
TE: Yeah. (laughs) Being so young when Shannon died, I didn't really understand the immensity of what was going on. I eventually did, but it was something that I grew to accept as a part of my life, that everything happens for a reason. I've been really lucky because there are a lot of different possible escapes out there, and I haven't really taken any of those.
AAJ: Well, you have the music.
TE: Yeah, that's been my escape of sorts, and friends. If I didn't have music, I don't think I could've gotten through all thatbut if I didn't have friends, and a social life, I couldn't have gotten through it, either. You can't get by just with music. There are some people who can, who'd be happy sitting in their room with their instrument all day long for the rest of their lives. But that's totally not me.
AAJ: What are your biggest musical influences?
TE: My influences have changed drastically over time. Early on, I was really into contemporary jazz. I've remained close friends with David Benoit and still respect his music. He was one of the guys who made me want to do what I do. Then I branched out to Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, a lot of other cats, and began listening to more straight-ahead stuff.
Funny, any time you say your influence is a relatively young guy, people tend to scoff and say, "why don't you get your influence from the source?"where they got theirs. But Geoff Keezer is one of my biggest influences as a pianist. Watching what he does completely inspires me, and I don't have any hesitation or shame to call him a big inspiration, or a source of a lot of ideas and conceptions. I think Geoff is terrific, he's so much his own player. I honestly think he's influenced my playing as much as Gene Harris or Oscar or Phineas Newborn or any of the other greats.
Phase-wise, it depends on what I'm listening toevery week it's something different. I try to listen to everything, since I think there are geniuses and pure art in every genre. Listening opens me up: the best of opera, or the best of rock, the best of Celtic music or soulif you listen to the best, you'll get inspired. That's why I love Bjork: whatever you want to call her music, she's the best at it. I just saw her movie, "Dancer in the Dark" last night. It's probably the single most powerful movie I've ever seen. Have you seen it?
AAJ: All I've seen of Bjork is that awful swan costume she wore to the Grammys a few years ago.
TE: No one's gonna get Bjork if they just see that. She's such a complex character, and if you check out her CDs, the harmonies and the beats... she's so much farther advanced than people can realize at first. I totally didn't realize it and had to listen over and over again, trying to get past her weird voicebut then I had this kind of breakthrough. And this movie is a musical, but it's the darkest movie I've ever seen. Check it out, if you have two hours to be emotionally drained.
AAJ: I'll check my schedule.
TE: Another thing I like to listen to is a piano that's been tuned in a much different way. We're used to tempered tuning, and you hear 88 separate notes, but in other cultures there are notes between those notes. There may not be a 12-note octavethere might be 16 notes in there, or five notes, but different tuningsa whole other zone.
AAJ: How do you feel about the possibility of becoming well-known?
TE: When people follow you around like paparazzi, that just interferes with your life. But when people refuse to give autographs, which is the easiest thing you can do to please someoneyou're signing your stupid nameI never get that. It's always puzzled me. Any small doses I've ever gotten of people wanting my autograph. I love the fact that people find enjoyment in just the simplest thing that I can do. I dig the idea that you can really make someone's day by just being nice to them. If I ever get a lot of exposure, and get into the position where people would recognize me, I would continue to be respectful and nice, making people happy.
AAJ: You could also lend your name and your presence to things you believe in.
TE: Exactly! That's another benefit of itif people know you're behind a charity, for example. Like the good parts of being a prodigythe whole novelty thingsometimes there's a novelty in fame that can be used for good.
AAJ: I can just see you with your cape flapping behind you... So, what's next for you, musically?
TE: The next CD is going to be really funky. I want to reach a younger audience, help them appreciate improvised instrumental music. I just want to go out there and do a lot of recordings, work with a lot of symphonies, do a lot of great musical thingsI'm really open in terms of what I'll let happen. I'd love to do combinations of different genres, be it classical, rock, funk, jazz, R&B, whatever.
AAJ: And your ultimate goal?
TE: I would guess just success. There's a lot of different ways to define it, but for me it would be making a lot of people happyas best as I can do that, that's what I'm going to try to do. I'd also like to be happy myself, be comfortable enough to raise a family. My goal is to be able to bring out whatever I have musically.
AAJ: Are you still in college?
TE: No. I'm out. I just left because it got to be too hard of a balance. USC was good, but I wasn't getting out of it what I wanted to, and when I got the chance to work with Mary Ann [Topper], and get my stuff started right now, I wanted to take it. If there's a time and place to go back to college later in life, then that's what I'll do. For right now, I'm kind of just going with my heart.
AAJ: You were there for a year [as a jazz studies major]?
TE: A year and a half. It was midway through my sophomore year when I thought I'd take a little time off, but a little time off led to a lot of time off... I'm getting more out of life by not having to go to class: I'm learning more about myself, I'm expanding more musically. There were a lot of classes that are designed to teach people music. I've spent my whole life learning music, and there's so much more to learn, but I think I can gain more by experiencing it live, and playing with great players, rather than being in a classroom.
AAJ: So now you're getting the real deal...?
TE: If I can get the same thing out of going out there and performing, why not?
AAJ: There's an ongoing debate about whether the best players come from the street or from the classroom. Musicians often defend whichever way they came up.
TE: Of course, yeah. I don't knock college schooling, but there are a lot of things I'm not cool with as far as how they teach music in college. But that's a whole other story.
AAJ: Like what?
TE: I could write a book. One of the things is the hypocrisy. Jazz musicians have to take all these classical classes where they teach you rules, but they don't tell you that these rules applied in the 1700s, and really don't now. But classical musicians don't have to take one class in improvisation. I think that's a load of baloney. I've had eight years of teaching experience at different jazz camps, and I saw firsthand what works and what didn'tlike, in school, there was no emphasis on the individual.
AAJ: Sounds like you made the right choice.
TE: For me, I did. I don't need the college thing right now. But even though I had a hard time with the classroom setting, it was amazing to be in an environment of great players. I got some awesome advice and wisdom from a lot of really talented and warm people, like Shelly Berg and John Clayton. Those two faculty members in particular had a big positive impact on my growth as a musician.
AAJ: Last question: what you would like people to know about you?
TE: That I'm not in this to impress anyone. I'm not going to bust out all my chops just to show off. I'm in it to make great music with great people. There are lots of misconceptions about what young players are all about. I think I'm easily underestimated because of the whole prodigy thing, and I hope that when people realize that music is a deeper thing for me, they'll think of me differently. That's all I can hope for: to be taken seriously.
With Marian McPartland by Ken Franckling