When Lexington native Steven Feifke was young, he wanted to become one of two things: a professional baseball player or, more unusually, a jazz pianist.
Judging from his recent hardware — a Grammy for the best large ensemble jazz album awarded to his Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra, along with his collaborator Bijon Watson — Feifke has achieved that and more. He has also rewritten Grammy history in the process, becoming the youngest winner ever of the large ensemble category at the age of 31. According to his publicist’s press release, “no one — not Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie — won it sooner.” The award was also the first Grammy win for a Canadian jazz label (Cellar Music Group). All of it only adds to the young artist’s impressive list of other achievements including being a two-time semi-finalist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition.
Feifke says he has been thinking about music since he can remember. “I was asking for music for before I knew what it was. Yeah. Probably before I even knew my name, honestly. My mom always says that I was sitting in the back of the car, like in my toddler seat shouting ‘mic,’ which I guess meant music.” Carole Feifke, his mother, confirms the story. “I just remember this kid screaming ‘mic’ and I didn’t know what ‘mic’ was, and one day it suddenly just clicked. Every time I switched off the music, he was screaming for it to go back on. It took me months to figure out what that was,” she laughs.
Feifke’s mom was also his first instructor, sitting with him at the same piano that belonged to her South African father, for whom the young musician was named. “Apparently he had perfect pitch,” Feifke says almost wistfully, talking about the elder man he never knew. “He could go to the movies, come home and play anything back that he heard there.” According to his mother, Feifke inherited his grandfather’s perfect pitch and a personality that she describes tenderly as “a gentle soul.”
Music was central to Feifke as he grew up attending Lexington public schools from kindergarten through Lexington High School. Where did he hang out with his teenage friends? “The band room,” he laughs. “I also played sports in high school and middle school, and there was definitely a point in time where I did toy with the idea of quitting [music] if I’m completely honest. But I’m glad I didn’t.”
Reservations aside, Feifke spent many of his out-of-high-school hours honing his natural skills at New England Conservatory Prep. One of his instructors from those days, David Zoffer, remembers the potential he saw while also noting that his student needed more than just straight up musical instruction. “When Steven first started, he really needed the nuts [and] bolts of how to be relaxed at the piano,” Zoffer says today, with a chuckle. “There is a different way of being relaxed at the piano for the different styles of American music. Whether you’re talking about jazz or funk or rock … Every kind of instrument and every kind of genre has different body language.”
According to Zoffer, by Feifke’s senior year, he had made “big leaps[:] When you see a student like that,” he remembers fondly “you see that drive every year, propelling [him] forward [because he] just loves it so much.”
By the time Feifke landed at New York University he was already beginning to think a bit more seriously about what his career path might be. “The questions that inevitably come up once you have a major, like once you have a degree, what do you do with that degree? Can you then go and make a living or something like that? And music, it’s just always the question is like, how do you do it? Nobody seems to know the answer until you actually do it,” Feifke says. His practical side considered a marketable major like economics. “But in terms of the conversation I had with my mom,” he recalls, “I just remember being 17 years old and saying to her, you know what? I just don’t think that a minor in music is gonna be enough for me. I think that I need to major in music.” He says his parents could not have been more supportive. Economics dropped to his minor while he focused on picking up gigs where he could. One summer, he interned at the famous Blue Note in Greenwich Village.
While Feifke got into music as a pianist, like many other jazz musicians, his considerable reputation is as a composer. Zoffer notes that is not uncommon in the jazz world. “If you look at Duke Ellington and then Monk and Miles Davis,” he says, “they’re also really well known as composers, not just improvisers.” Even a jazz newcomer can appreciate Feifke’s composition skills just from listening to him describe the fundamentals of his art.
“There’s like five primary elements of music as I see it, or hear it. There’s rhythm, melody, harmony, arrangement and orchestration.” The first three are what Feifke calls “musical DNA.” “That’s really what makes up a composition,” he explains.
“When you compose or arrange, that’s the framework.” Likening it to our interview, Feifke goes on. “But neither one of us knows exactly where the conversation’s going. You’ve prepared some questions, maybe, and your questions are gonna change probably as the interview goes on. And, you know, the longer that I talk, the more open I get. That’s just how conversations work generally. When we’re playing music together, it’s the same sort of a thing.” Jazz composition, by contrast to classical music where every single note is written out, will have some sections where every note is written out but also sections for improvisation. “Everybody has the ability to add their own voice,” Feifke adds. “And that’s where the uniqueness comes out.”
As for the Grammys, Feifke says he is still “just pinching myself that it’s all real. My musical heroes are on that list, you know? Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Henry Mancini. Even being mentioned in their company is just so humbling and so honoring. It’s just, it’s really, really wild.” When he heard his name called the day of the ceremony, Fefike remembers, “I’ve never really experienced a rush like that before in my life of like, holy crap, what just happened? Did somebody say my name? kind of thing.” He still sounds stunned.
Carole Feifke agrees. “It was in a way like time stopped.”
Zoffer is confident that his former student’s future will be equally bright. “He has a great work ethic and a great kind of humility … he’s a hustler … he never stopped grinding it out even when the live performing world [ground] to a halt” during the height of the pandemic. “He’s just a sweet, sweet guy,” he gushes.
Feifke is characteristically thoughtful when asked for his own view. “I love writing music and I feel honored and flattered that people want me to write music for them.” Does he feel more pressure now with a Grammy on his shelf? “I guess the truth is that I never thought that I would win a Grammy. I never chased it. It’s just something that happened. When I tell you that, I’m like truly humbled by just having my name mentioned on that list … it really is a hundred percent true.”