The past twelve months have been very, very good to A.J. Salas. Since last summer, the blues-and-boogie-woogie pianist has composed and arranged a piece for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and wowed large crowds at the People's Fair, the Cherry Creek Arts Festival and several other big-time local events. He's also jammed with the Reverend Billy C. Wirtz and hung out with B.B. King, who chatted with Salas after an appearance at Fiddler's Green in mid-August. And, as if such accomplishments weren't noteworthy enough on their own, there's another factor that makes them even more impressive: Salas is only thirteen years old.
Years before he'll legally be able to drive a car or drink a beer in the clubs he plays, and long before he has any need to shave, Salas is enjoying a career that would leave most adult musicians brimming with envy. Equally surprising is his choice of music, a vintage-flavored sound that couldn't be further removed from the post-grunge and hip-hop beloved by Nineties youth. But Salas is much more than a novelty. His amazing chops make sure of that.
As he walks into the living room of his parents' working-class Wheat Ridge home wearing long, baggy shorts, Airwalks, a baseball cap and a Hawaiian shirt, Salas hardly looks out of the ordinary. But after he sits down at an electric piano, his gifts quickly become obvious. He begins by plinking out the opening notes to "Heart and Soul," every piano student's first song. "I start off like this," he says politely as he apes the two-finger attack of a newcomer. "And then I do this." Suddenly, his hands stretch across the keys, producing inspiring chordal harmonies, nimble runs and two-fisted staccato bursts that transform the song from a beginner's cringer to a New Orleans-style celebration. The ubiquitous number actually lives up to its title thanks to an approach that's brash and more than a little bit punky. Don't dare mention the latter term around Salas, though. He may spend his downtime on a skateboard, but that doesn't mean he's a fan of the tunes favored by most 'boarders.
"I think those punk-rock bands are ignorant," he says. "They're just playing chords. They might know a little bit of music, but I don't think they know what they're playing half the time--and what they do doesn't influence me at all. It's just three chords and 8,000 watts. It makes me mad sometimes, because they're making money doing it."
These days Salas is making a few bucks, too, both at headlining gigs of his own and at select appearances with performers such as Westword profile subject Wirtz ("Pulpit Fiction," April 10, 1997). Prior to Wirtz's turn at the Soiled Dove last spring, he was introduced to Salas by Kai Turner, a local blues promoter and host of Strictly Blues, a Sunday-night program on KRFX-FM/103.5 (The Fox) on which A.J. has appeared. The comedian/piano ace subsequently invited Salas to join him on stage for part of the show, and after taking Wirtz up on the offer, the youngster immediately won over the capacity crowd. Following a four-handed duet with Salas, Wirtz actually left the stage to give his guest some solo time in the spotlight--and judging by the audience's reaction, Salas more than held his own. "As soon as I was done playing, some guy got up and threw $20 over the piano onto the keys," Salas remembers. "People were just shaking my hand and slapping money into my hand. I had $37 by the time I got to my seat. It was cool."
Adds Turner, who's become a friend and advisor to Salas and his parents, "When A.J. finished, the whole room erupted. It was one of the coolest things I've ever seen. I think A.J. is an enormous talent, and the potential that he has is just unfathomable right now. The kid is unbelievable."
Wirtz agrees. "He's got great potential," he says between tour stops in Pennsylvania, "and it's great that he's chosen the blues and roots, because there aren't a lot of kids his age doing that. Plus, he's got a great support system with his mom and dad."
To be sure, Salas's parents have played a significant role in the development of their blues boy, whose love of music has genetic origins. Andy Salas, A.J.'s father, began his music career as a twelve-year-old in Pueblo, where he'd strum Hank Williams tunes for spare change in the bars of the Latino neighborhood where he grew up. He went on to become a working musician, touring for years with the Steel City Band, whose practices A.J. often saw as a child. Carol Sherman, A.J.'s mother, was also an influence. An avid music buff, she ran the now-defunct Sherman's Coffeehouse, where her son rubbed elbows with various local musicians. Today, many of these entertainers are A.J. fans.
Given this environment, it's no surprise that the junior Salas was barely out of diapers when he began playing. He took up the violin at age three, moving on to the piano at five. At first he stuck mainly to classical music, but that all changed after seeing a Disney cartoon video that featured "Bumble Boogie," a swingin' track by Freddie Martin. "It was a real big influence on me when I was seven," Salas says. "I've just always liked the blues and jazz stuff. It's easy to play, and it's got great feel."
Before long, Salas was falling asleep with Count Basie in his headphones, and by nine he was swooning to the work of Dr. John, Professor Longhair and Oscar Peterson, all of whom he now counts as musical role models. He composed his first tune--"Finger Bustin' Boogie," named for the pain it caused in Salas's tiny hands--shortly thereafter. The tune was recently dubbed Song of the Year in the 1998 Pikes Peak Young Composers Competition, which accepts entries from songwriters between the ages of twelve and eighteen. But when asked by his mom to play the number, Salas resists. "I like the song, but I wrote it when I was ten," he says, shrugging. "I've got to move on."
According to Sherman, much of her son's rapid musical growth can be traced to the decision not to push him in any particular direction. "When he was growing up, I didn't say, 'Go practice.' I said, 'Go play.' And we never said, 'You're going to go play that piano and you're going to do this song.' We've never done that."
"That's how I got better," Salas feels. "I find something that I did, and I'll repeat it and then learn how to play it."
Salas, who tosses around advanced musical terminology like most kids toss baseballs, already has a formidable work ethic. Even though he claims to be "no good when it comes to practicing," he plays for a minimum of two hours a day. His parents do their part by ensuring that his keyboard sessions never seem like work. Several nights a week, they can be found sitting on the couch talking shop with him during the entire time he's letting his fingers do the walking.
Such encouragement has been crucial for Salas, whose classmates haven't always been behind him. Sherman says that A.J. was moved out of one area school "for his own safety. The kids there made fun of him and called him 'piano fag.' They really picked on him. I drove up toward the school one afternoon to pick him up and there he was, surrounded by six boys older than him. He already had a bloody nose and a black eye, and they were beating him up. This happened a lot."
"I wasn't ashamed to admit that I played the piano," Salas notes. "I was proud of it. But the kids made fun of me for my Hawaiian shirts, too."
After Salas transferred to the Denver School of the Arts, the physical abuse stopped. But that doesn't mean everything's gone swimmingly since then. Although he generally earns average-to-good marks, he actually received a failing grade in piano last year from an instructor who's no longer with the school. Jerry Noonan, his current teacher, defends the negative evaluation. "What A.J. does on his own is great," Noonan says. "But he was not willing to work at school on some other aspects of his piano playing. These are things that, if he really wants to be an overall piano player and get lots of work as a professional, he's going to have to be adept at."
With another year of school under way, Salas is dedicating himself to staying out of academic trouble. "My teachers are making me sign a contract this year that says I'll do this every day," he says, interrupting a jazzed-up version of Henry Mancini's theme from Peter Gunn to pound out a snippy, lock-step classical scale. In the meantime, though, he continues to work on getting better at playing the type of music he truly loves. He spent a week this summer at a "blues camp" in Elkins, West Virginia, where he picked up tips from contemporary ivory ticklers such as Anne Rabson, pianist for the Alligator Records group Saffire. But such heady company didn't intimidate Salas. "The adults there were all kind of square," he says. "They all needed sheet music to play, and they couldn't pick it up by ear. And my teachers got mad, because sometimes I showed them some things they were doing wrong."
When he's not hunkered down with his studies, Salas has a busy performance schedule that includes dates at various coffeehouses and a return to the Taste of Colorado. As for his long-term plans, he's got his future pretty well mapped out. "I plan on attending a music college," he says. "I'll still have a band, and I'll get famous. I'm going to do as many gigs as possible and play around and travel, playing blues and all sorts of music.
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"I told B.B. King I was going to play with him someday," he continues, making reference to his recent meeting with the King of the Blues. "And I'll try my hardest to do it. I plan on practicing a whole bunch."
Won't King's advancing age be a hindrance to achieving that goal? "I don't think so," Salas says. "He'll still be around when I'm fifteen, right?"
A.J. Salas, at the Taste of Colorado. 4 p.m. Friday, September 4, KUVO Heritage Stage, free.