When 8-year-old Gregory Jefferson came home from school one day and announced to his parents that he wanted to play the flute, the first thing his mother Joann thought was: “The flute ? Why the flute?”
Asked the same question today, Gregory shrugs his small shoulders and answers: “I liked the tone. It looked fun.”
No one in the family had knowledge of the instrument, but the fourth-grader, certain he could play, persuaded his parents to buy him one. Ruddie and Joann Jefferson soon realized how gifted their son is.
At 10, he was the youngest member ever accepted into the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra. Now 11, he has performed in competitions throughout Southern California and most recently appeared on the “Ghosts, Ghouls and Goblins” Halloween program of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, under the direction of Victor Vener.
He is preparing to appear at a concert in New York City with Julius Baker, an instructor at the Juilliard School of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music.
Baker, the retired first flute of the New York Philharmonic and considered to be one of the best flutists in America, said of Gregory: “It’s the first time I’ve ever heard a child prodigy at that age. . . . He’ll be a sensation in New York.”
His parents, teachers and just about everyone who hears him play agree there is something unique about Gregory’s ability.
His first private teacher, Barbara Friend, said that even when he began lessons in 1986, there was occasionally “such an exquisite sound that I would just stare at him in disbelief.”
Gifted as he was, Gregory did have some problems at first, Friend said. His hand position was “quite bad” until his mother posted a picture of the correct position on his music stand, Friend said. “He came back in one week and it was totally corrected.”
At times Friend found she had to give the rhythms to his mother to go over with him at home, she said, but he then retained what he learned.
Although he admitted that when he first began playing he would sometimes rather be outside or just “lying around,” he now realizes that his success comes because he works so hard and loves what he does.
“I’m good because I like it so much,” he said unabashedly. “I practice three hours a day, one in the morning and two after school.”
But his instructor, Jamie Johnson Pedrini, who is also the principal flutist for the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, said, “Gregory practices more than usual.”
Pedrini, a flute teacher since 1971, said Gregory has a capability that is “way beyond what I’ve heard in kids that age. . . . I’ve had pretty gifted students, but I never had one like this before.”
When he first heard Gregory compete at the Pasadena Exchange Club’s Search for Talent in March, Vener, who was one of the judges, said he wrote just one comment: “WOW!!!!!”
Gregory was unanimously chosen as the first-place winner. He has won half a dozen such awards, all within the last six months, and Vener has invited him to appear with the Pasadena Pops Orchestra twice.
“He’s got a God-given talent,” Vener said. “He played like a little artist; that’s something you can’t teach.”
Does he ever get nervous? “Nope,” Gregory said, shaking his head. “Only if I haven’t practiced.”
He can only remember making one major mistake, at a concert in Hidden Valley where he had a momentary memory loss. “I just stood there and came in later,” he said, laughing. “I covered it up.”
Gregory’s most recent appearance with the Pasadena Pops Orchestra was at its season premiere, where he performed the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 by Johann Sebastian Bach, along with Pedrini on flute and Endre Granat on violin. It was easy to see Pedrini’s influence on Gregory as they played, swaying rhythmically, side by side. Their silver flutes gleamed as they rocked to and fro, accentuating notes with syncopated nods of their heads.
When they finished, the applauding crowd jumped to its feet, the only standing ovation of the evening. After the concert, Gregory was swarmed by well-wishers and a few requests for autographs while his parents and his 16-year-old sister Michelle watched proudly.
“He deserves this night,” his father said. “He’s worked hard for it, but it’s fun work. He does it willingly.”
His parents cannot fathom where Gregory’s intense desire to play came from. His father, a sergeant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department at the County Jail, played the clarinet for a year and a half when he was a youngster, but only “by force,” he said, laughing.
Ruddie Jefferson’s father, who died when Gregory was 3, was a New Orleans jazz musician who taught himself to play the violin, clarinet, saxophone, piano, guitar and banjo.
“He never attended a conservatory; it wasn’t available to blacks in those days,” Joann Jefferson said, although he joined the Watts Symphony Orchestra in the late 1960s. “Maybe his dreams came true through Gregory.”
Despite Gregory’s age, the Jeffersons aren’t afraid that their son is being catapulted into stardom: “We’re just going along with whatever comes,” Joann Jefferson said.
As for Gregory, who will be 12 on Nov. 27, he’s got his future planned. First, the New York Philharmonic. Then, he’d like to “go all over the world performing,” he said.
Meanwhile, when the Wilson Junior High School student isn’t playing his flute, he likes math, swimming, track and collecting baseball cards.
“And,” he said with a grin, “I’m thinking of beginning piano next summer.”