Grant Cherry rose from the piano bench and quickly scanned the notes displayed on Mick Burton's cell phone.
The budding jazz pianist had barely taken his seat when Burton blew an achingly high pitch on his saxophone; Grant followed on the piano with a trill of melodies. Within moments, the pair were blending harmonies and tearing off on marvelous musical rants.
"I didn't think I had enough repertoire to last me the whole two hours," Grant said the day after he made that solo debut at Cafe Tremelo in the Foothills Mall on the last Thursday in July. "I only made it through because (Burton) had more."
At the age of 14, and with less than three years' experience on the piano, Grant Cherry is doing something most musicians twice his age can only dream about.
He's making money playing music.
It's not much money - $50 to $100 depending on the gig - but it's a milestone for the Sahuaro High School freshman, who has been playing jazz piano less than three years.
"He's already succeeding in being a professional jazz musician; he's already making money playing jazz," says his teacher, Brice Winston of the Tucson Jazz Institute.
"Everybody tells me, 'Here is this 14-year-old who plays like an adult. He's being given these opportunities that mostly adults get,' " says his mother and biggest cheerleader, Jane Wallace Cherry.
The baby-faced Grant, who stands 4 feet 10 inches and looks younger than he is, shyly brushes off the accolades. When you ask him to talk about himself - his music or his other interests - he answers in quick, short sentences.
"I just play the piano," he says. "I just want to be great at it."
Grant didn't set out to become a jazz pianist. His musical journey began on the drums when he was 8. He took private lessons for a couple of years before his mom enrolled him in TJI.
It was there, in the following year, that Grant saw St. Louis jazz pianist Reggie Thomas perform. Thomas was a guest artist at the institute. "I was watching him and and I thought, 'Wow, I want to do that,' " Grant recalls.
So he pulled $400 from his savings and bought a used keyboard. He doodled around on it for a few months, imitating what he saw on YouTube videos and improvising what he didn't know. Then he hit up his family for lessons.
"I'm from the old school. I always thought you started with classical lessons," says his mother, who signed Grant up with a teacher who focused on classical music. "But Grant wanted to learn jazz."
Grant quit the classical teacher and signed on with Winston.
"He was very excited about the music," says Winston, who taught him music theory and improv. "He's just like a sponge. He's always ready to learn. He is very self-motivated, and he did a lot of self-study."
"I think the first thing about Grant that hit me is that he's got a really high aptitude. He processes stuff really quickly," says Pete Swan, who met Grant at Old Pueblo Grill at one of Swan's Sunday-night jam sessions. He eventually asked Grant to join in.
"He has really good motor responses. He can convert something he's thinking about to his hands really quickly," Swan adds. "And he has a wonderful sense of timing. … It's a really internal sense of timing. He can learn something really quickly and retain it fast."
Swan got Grant his first paid gig - a private party at Skyline Country Club that paid $50 for two or three songs.
Within a year of beginning piano, Grant's talents had outgrown his keyboard. His parents refinanced their home to buy a barely used $12,000 Steinway baby grand piano and redesign the living room to accommodate the showpiece.
Grant, meanwhile, used his performance money - including pay from his $10-an-hour job over the last year as an accompanist to TJI vocal ensembles - to buy gigging equipment, including an amp and music stand.
In his first solo gig at Tremelo, he took home $104; two weeks later, he collected $92, mostly in tips. Cherry says her son is now saving for a car.
If you ask Grant where he would like music to take him, he demures. "I would just like to be playing when I grow up. Nothing else," he says.
"Of course I would love him to become a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer," chimes in his mother. "The music business is such a hard one. But I'm really hoping that he goes on to college to major in music. He's just so gifted in this area that it would really be a shame if he did not pursue it."
"This kid has a lot of potential," says Winston. "If he continues to be as energetic about his (musical education), he can be something really great."
On StarNet: For an audio slideshow, go to azstarnet.com/photo
See photos of Grant Cherry at azstarnet.com/gallery
If you go
Grant Cherry performs live:
• 6:30 p.m. Saturdays at Sheraton Tucson Hotel & Suites, 5151 E. Grant Road. Details: 323-6262.
• 7 to 9 p.m. every other Thursday at Cafe Tremelo in the Foothills Mall. His next appearance is Thursday. Details: www.cafetremolo.com
• 3 p.m. Sept. 25 at the "Tucson Teal Tea" fundraiser for Arizona Cancer Center at UMC North, 3838 N. Campbell Ave.
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4642.