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Precocious Teen Pianist Has Feel for Jazz

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Lenny's girl already has a name that befits the way her hands manipulate piano keys.

Kne-O'Chaw (knee-O-sha) Hampton of Willingboro is a musical prodigy who plays as if she were raised in a smoky Harlem jazz club.

She can sight read and play by ear. Compose a song before breakfast. Transpose for horns and write for strings. Lay musical tracks with her computer.

She's jazzed up everything from “Chopsticks" to “Fur Elise," and produced two albums, From Deep in My Soul and Planet 9ine. She's at work on another CD that will combine jazz and gospel.

She's 14.

“I think it was about 30 days after she started taking formal lessons," Lenny White says about his then 6-year-old granddaughter. “She actually started sight reading from the book and our mouths were hanging open . . . That's when I knew she was way beyond her age."

Now an eighth-grader at Life Center Academy in Burlington Township, Kne-O'Chaw is also beyond her 49-year-old grandfather and his four decades of musical experience, a fact he is happy to promote.

Lenny plays bass and drums, but nothing prepared him for his granddaughter's precocity on the piano, a trait he and his wife, Roslyn, noticed about a year after she came to live with them. (Kne-O'Chaw is the daughter of Roslyn's son by a first marriage.)

“She's had an inkling for it since she was 5 or 6," says Roslyn, 50.

Kne-O'Chaw first discovered piano at a baby sitter's house. A toy model didn't cut it. Her first instructor on a real piano dispensed with the books and assigned her original compositions. Another, now deceased, dropped his other students to work solely with Kne-O'Chaw and taught her chords, what he called “her bread and butter" because of her mature variations on them.

“The first year of playing piano, I showed her the scales of the keyboard on the bass," Lenny enthuses. “And she picked it up in about 30 seconds."

Kne-O'Chaw was 8 when she took her first lessons at Cherubini Music Academy in Burlington City. By the age of 10, she was onstage at local county events. At a military service sponsored by county freeholders in 2003, 350 people watched in awe as members of the Army Jazz Band crossed the stage to play with her.

“We knew it was a lot of pressure, but it never bothered her, never shook her," Lenny recalls. “We knew then she was solid. She's very serious, even now. She's a tactician, a technician. Everything's got to be perfect."

Even a gritty Lumberton sports bar didn't deter the jazz kid.

“We go in, and people are watching Sunday night football," says Lenny, still awestruck months later. “They've got their beer. They're eating their steaks. And along comes this 14-year-old with her keyboard . . . Before it was over, they were bringing her food, soda. I had thought, “She can't handle this.' And she floored 'em. She took those people away from their football game."

It's obvious to Lenny that Kne-O'Chaw can floor the best of them, including experienced musicians. She's less likely to jam with other kids than with adults in their 40's and up, including her grandfather, her de facto manager and producer.

“Even I'm intimidated at times," Lenny says. “We'll play together and she starts takin' off, and she'll actually have to call chords out to me to let me know where she's at. I could never catch up, even if I played another 20 years."

Kne-O'Chaw learned early how to go her own way with the music.

“The most important thing I learned about playing jazz is that when you improvise, you play what you feel, not what's on the sheet music in front of you or what you've memorized," she says.

“The music should come from your soul, your heart not trying to copy someone else. That's why I love playing jazz; it gives me freedom in my music."

While emulating the likes of Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk, Roberta Flack and Ray Charles, Kne-O'Chaw is content to be a normal kid whose interests include dolls and cross-country. But her grandfather knows the time will come when he can no longer say no to music types who want to fast-track her career.

“Sooner or later she'll have to cut me loose," he acknowledges. “That's the part that's gonna hurt me more than her moving on.

“But she tells me I can be her driver."

“I would make him wear the hat and the whole outfit," Kne-O'Chaw claims. “Even nice shiny shoes and a name tag."

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