Justin-Lee Schultz: Gruv Kid

[Shanachie; November 13]

For almost as long as there have been pianos, there have been piano prodigies. Mozart famously composed his first pieces by age five; Chopin, at seven, was not far behind; Franz Liszt made his concert debut at 11.

At 13, Durham’s Justin-Lee Schultz is the latest pianist to receive that title. But the closest analog to Schultz’s musical talent may be a more recent prodigy: Stevie Wonder, whom Schultz considers a hero.

On his classic albums, Wonder was known for playing nearly every instrument in the studio. And while Schultz mainly handles keyboard duties on his debut album Gruv Kid, which is out on November 13, he’s hardly stopped there. At five years old, he had already mastered the piano. Not long after, he picked up the guitar. 

These days, if you check his Instagram page—where he has amassed a following of over 300,000—he’s often jamming on the harpejji, an unusual stringed instrument that splits the difference between a piano and a guitar. In the future, Schultz says, he’d like to learn saxophone and harmonica. (“And drums,” he adds. “And trumpet.”)

But the piece of gear most representative of Schultz’s young career might be the talk box. A sort of proto-vocoder, a talk box takes the sound from an instrument and filters it through the musician’s mouth, producing a robotic “vocalizing” effect. Stevie Wonder popularized it during a television appearance in 1972, and it’s no coincidence that Schultz has taken to the talk box in many of his videos, including an appearance on America’s Most Musical Family with his father Julius, a guitarist, and his 17-year-old sister Jamie-Leigh, a drummer. He’s channeling the spirit of his idol.

“The fact that he was doing that back in the ’70s and the ’80s—he was so far ahead, in terms of musicality,” Schultz says of Wonder. “It’s like he’s got his own thing.”

Gruv Kid includes a cover of Wonder’s “Do I Do,” and the musician’s influence is palpable across the album’s 11 tracks, with easygoing arrangements that foreground Schultz’s jazz piano. Recorded and produced remotely from Schultz’s home studio in Durham, it features collaborations with veteran keyboardist Bob James and the Philadelphia-based jazz-fusion group Pieces of a Dream. Julius composed seven of its tracks, reimagining some of his previous releases as a guitarist.

The album is officially credited to Schultz, but it’s just as much a showcase of Julius and Jamie-Leigh, whose contributions are essential to each track. Before moving to the U.S., the family had lived in South Africa, where Julius enjoyed a career as a professional jazz guitarist, releasing three albums as a solo artist. When his children began to show an interest in music, he says that he encouraged them but was initially resistant, remembering his own experiences in what he describes as an unstable, “mafia-like” industry. 

“That was the main reason why we moved to the States—because I was so frustrated at the music industry in South Africa,” Julius says. “I didn’t want my kids to go through that as well.”

At concerts, Julius would sometimes bring Jamie-Leigh out to play drums for a song. Unlike his older sister, young Justin-Lee initially showed little interest in music. It didn’t stay that way for long. 

“There was a keyboard in the house, and I just started fiddling around with it,” Schultz says.

Soon, Schultz and his sister were regularly joining their father onstage, and their profile grew in South Africa. As with many contemporary musicians, social media hype brought the Schultz family a wider audience. Shot with a front-facing camera, the clips that earned them a loyal following on Instagram and Facebook are typically short and informal; they might show Schultz trying out a new song, covering a jazz standard, or playing a duet with Julius or Jamie-Leigh. But in each one, his musical dexterity is on full display. 

When Julius got a job as a music director at a church in Michigan and the family relocated to the U.S. in 2015, that online success translated to an American audience.

Appearances on Harry Connick, Jr.’s talk show and America’s Most Musical Family followed, and Schultz began attracting attention from more experienced musicians, including the ones who would end up on Gruv Kid

The family moved from Michigan to Durham this past February. The reason was simple: “We were tired of the cold,” says Julius. Because they moved just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Schultz and Julius say they haven’t had a chance to explore the city’s music scene. 

But for an artist whose biggest platform has always been online, the increased time indoors—where Schultz takes remote classes and enjoys playing Mario Kart when he isn’t working on music—hasn’t been much of an obstacle.

When it comes to his viral fame, it helps that Schultz has a charisma beyond his years, equally at ease in front of a camera as he is behind the piano. What makes his videos so entertaining isn’t just the playing itself but his expressiveness—sometimes grimacing, sometimes grinning, as he immerses himself in the music. Even with the growing attention, it’s clear that he’s motivated by the genuine joy of playing. 

“It’s always fun for me,” he says. “And that’s the main thing: My dad always told me, “If you’re not having fun, then don’t do it.’”

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