NEW YORK — The past year has been a momentous one for composer and pianist Peter Delano. First came his eight-album deal with Verve Records and the release of his debut recording, with a band that features saxophonists Michael Brecker and Gary Bartz. Then he posed for British GQ magazine in a hip Jasper Conran designer jacket and shirt. Next month, he has a showcase performance in his hometown of New York City. And to cap it all off, today he turns 17.
Understandably, Delano is just a little bit agog at being the youngest artist in Verve's history, a junior-league label-mate to such jazz legends as Joe Henderson and McCoy Tyner.
"I'm still shocked, actually, even after my record's out," he says, sitting in the living room of his parents' Central Park West apartment. Contrary to his record sleeve photograph, Delano is not a moody Harry Connick Jr. look-alike but an engagingly modest teen-ager who laughs self-consciously when he says of jazz, "It's really my whole life. I hear it in my head all the time."
A teen-age prodigy who was jamming with veteran tenorman George Coleman when his classmates at Collegiate School, a private high school in New York, were listening to Kriss Kross, Delano is not--unbelievable as this might seem--the youngest artist signed to a big jazz label. That honor goes to Sergio Salvatore, a 12-year-old from New Jersey who recently released his debut album on the GRP label. Like Delano's album, "Sergio Salvatore" showcases a gifted young pianist tackling a mixture of original compositions and standards with assistance from seasoned pros who are three times his age, in this case Russell Ferrante and Bob Mintzer of the Yellowjackets and vibraphonist Dave Samuels.
Two records don't constitute a major trend but "Sergio Salvatore" and "Peter Delano" certainly show that the jazz world's love affair with youth has reached the giddy stage. Perhaps this is the logical culmination of the past decade, a period in which hip young guns such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis lured a new audience of baby-boomers to jazz by promoting themselves as the torch-bearers of its traditions.
The commercial rejuvenation spurred by these Young Lions has not been without its jarring moments of late. Some critics scoffed earlier this year when Columbia Records released "11" by Harry Connick Jr., featuring recordings that the New Orleans singer-pianist made when he was 11 years old. And in June the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the spiritual headquarters of Marsalis' "neoclassical" jazz camp in New York, caused a minor ruckus when it tried to fire all the musicians in the orchestra over the age of 30, a move Rob Gibson, the center's jazz director, later called "a bona fide mistake."
Gibson's gaffe was not only infelicitous but also seemed discriminatory, and it highlighted the unfortunate tendency in jazz to nurture the young by jettisoning their elders. Increasingly, veteran jazz players feel pushed aside by the industry's quest for new blood.
Even some of the Young Lions wonder about the efficacy of thrusting so many unseasoned players into the spotlight. "We live in a fast-food society, man, everybody wants the (stuff) yesterday," trumpeter Terence Blanchard said recently. "It has to be the youngest, the fastest, the slickest. The thing that's a drag is that some of these musicians run the risk of being like child actors, getting all this attention when they're young and never really developing. I've seen that happen to one guy and it really hurts, because the guy had a lot of talent. He got a lot of attention and all of sudden, you don't hear about him anymore."
Both GRP and Verve emphasize that youth was not the main consideration in their decisions to sign Salvatore and Delano. In his liner notes to "Sergio Salvatore," GRP President Larry Rosen says that "it's his ability, not his age, that is important." The son of a music teacher, Salvatore was 11 when he recorded the album, which has received positive reviews.
Delano came to Verve's attention last year when one of the label's A&R executives, Guy Eckstine, heard a tape the pianist had made with tenor sax player George Coleman. Eckstine says he picked up the telephone after listening to only two songs, and was incredulous when told of Delano's background: The son of a jazz-loving advertising executive, he learned the blues scale at 9, recorded his first demo tape at 12, and studied with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille at 13. On the tape Eckstine was listening to, Delano was all of 14.
"I was just blown away," Eckstine says. "He didn't sound like a kid by any stretch of the imagination." Although he emphasizes that Verve signed Delano based on his playing and writing ability, Eckstine readily agrees that the young pianist is a marketing dream. "A young white piano player who plays straight-ahead jazz? They don't grow on trees," he says.