Kevin Gullage sat at his piano, putting his considerable musical talents on full display.
He began playing a song while singing along with it before his father called out a different song by a different musician — then again, and again. Each time, the 18 year-old pianist and singer shifted gears immediately and effortlessly, his recall and range stretching from The Beatles to Lionel Ritchie to Fats Domino to Rupert Holmes and many more.
Gullage, 18, is a musical savant.
The Luling resident and son of famed musician Tony Gullage, Kevin began composing his songs in kindergarten and showed an advanced knowledge of rhythm and musical notes for his age. Since then, he has cultivated his gift en route to several achievements, including his most recent: Gullage was selected for the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute National Performing Arts High School All-Star Jazz Sextet.
Kevin will be tour April 2-7 with jazz great Bobby Watson in St. Augustine and Jacksonville, Fla. In addition to performing on stage at various venues, Kevin will conduct a peer-to-peer master classes in the public schools in those cities.
“It was one of those moments where I was struck with awe, because you’ll be out there touring when you’re just in high school,” Kevin said. “And you also know that you’re going to be with someone who does this very seriously.”
While he hasn’t yet met Watson, he is very familiar with his work.
“He’s been on the whole spectrum,” Kevin said. “He’s put out his own stuff, has been the music scorer for many, many movies. He was also one of the saxophone players for the Wizard of Oz … so, I realize that, man, this is gonna be something serious. I’m going to have to step up my game.”
Kevin, a senior at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), has a number of major credits to his name. He was the 2016 St. Charles Got Talent winner and has performed with the Louis Armstrong Summer Jazz Program, the Berklee City Music Summit, the United Professional Horsemen Association Conference (Mardi-Gras World) and the Cooking Across America Conference. He has also had the opportunity to perform with Grammy winner Patrice Rushen and has shown his stuff on WWL-TV’s morning show and on WGNO’s News with a Twist.
Naturally, he credits his father for inspiring his early interest in music.
“I was born into it, always right there on his heels,” Kevin said. “I was always right there listening behind him. I learned what rhythmic rotation was, how to read it, how to clap it and how to write it. From there on, my father saw I could do that, and that’s when it became set in me, my path.”
Tony said he began to realize his son had a gift very early on. He recalled being in another room and hearing Kevin, then in kindergarten, correct his sister about a note she was singing.
“He had some music notes he had written on a paper,” Tony said. “I hear him tell her, ‘no, this was a quarter note.’ I come in and ask to see his paper and I see these notes. I’m thinking, ‘Okay, his teacher must be taking extra time with him.’
“When I saw her next, I commented to her, ‘Wow, you’re putting a lot of time into Kevin.’ And she said, ‘I thought it was you.’”
In a way, Tony admitted, it was intimidating.
“When a child shows signs of advancement, you want to take the right steps,” he said. “It’s a little scary as a parent because you don’t want to push him too quick but you also don’t want to slow him down.”
Kevin, who specializes in piano but also plays a multitude of instruments including melodica, harmonica, bass, drums and the saxophone, has met a number of different performers from all over the world, and says he’s learned and borrowed a bit from all of them.
“That’s something I was blessed with from the start,” Kevin said. “My father, I feel, is a very, very important musician. Not just to me but to a lot of people. He has so much knowledge to share with me, and with so many others, and it circulates back now with those others coming to see my father.
“I liken it to a tree. I’m the truck at this point, but you have so many roots that feed the trunk the nutrition it needs, what the leaves and branches grow from. You have all of these people, but they all have fed into me. So it’s not only me (when performing), but also everything they’ve taught me as well.”
He’s also ambitious — he isn’t satisfied with the idea of specializing in any one genre of music.
“I’m not aiming to please myself. I’m aiming to please others,” Kevin said. “To make myself what others need me to be. People want me to play country, then I better know some country music. If they want to hear blues, I better know some blues.”
He cites one of his heroes as an example.
“What was Duke Ellington? A big band director, a music educator, a music historian or all of the above? Of course, it’s all of the above,” Kevin said. “He’s such a music educator, historian, a musician, a movie star. He was anything people needed him to be. If you can give to history what it needs you to be, then you’ve done your job, not only as a musician but as a person in general.”
A hard-working, budding star, Kevin will be embarking on a new adventure with the Monk program next month, and he aims to learn as much as possible from the experience.
“I’m going to get to learn so much from other students who have just as much determination as the type of people you should aim to be around,” he said. “I’m so honored to be going.”