This Jazz Pianist Is Achieving Greatness Because He Embraces Risk

T.S. Eliot, the famous poet, wrote, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” Most people understand this best in the context of physical barriers, like working for increased athletic prowess or exploring the polar ice caps, but the arts depend upon risk like few other disciplines. The success of a creative mind demands innovation, and every effort to advance a discipline comes with a very real risk of failure. A writer like Eliot would know that the greats carve their own paths into and through the unknown, regardless of the jeopardy.

Enter James Francies, a pianist who graduated from The New School’s College of Performing Arts with a Bachelor’s of Music in Jazz Performance. If there is no reward without risk, Francies accolades point to some pretty big chances taken. He’s the youngest recipient of the of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) President’s Youth Award and he was awarded twice for Composition and Jazz Arrangement by DownBeat magazine. Revive Music named him one of 8 Artists You Should Know.

You also might recognize him from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where he sits in with The Roots.

Clearly, this is a man destined to accomplish amazing things, but that shouldn’t be a surprise because that was Francies’ plan all along. As a 14-year-old in Houston, Texas, he began dreaming of attending The New School, the private university in Greenwich Village.

“One of the main reasons I chose to go to The New School was to change things,” he says. “My friends and I were like, ‘Let’s all go to The New School and build something there, a music community. That way we can work on our own music, and play, and truly develop something.’”

Developing something means conceiving and implementing big ideas, and that’s a path fraught with opportunities to fail. But Francies had The College of Performing Arts to help guide him. There he found the tools to create a personalized path. Through his college experience, he was able to unlock his creative potential without ever feeling restricted. In fact, the draw of The New School was that its unique approach granted a freedom that would allow him to face setbacks while striving for greatness.

For some young people, moving to NYC fresh out of high school and designing your own path is anxiety-inducing, but with The New School on his side Francies was able to embrace the risk.

“I know for some people, that much freedom can be a little scary,” he explains. “Prior to attending college, people are used to being told what to do, which direction to go. And then, you get to The New School and they’re like, ‘Here’s a blank canvas where you can have all the resources, now you can kind of turn it into whatever you want.’ If you are focused, it can be an amazing experience that develops your sound as a musician, which I think should be the main goal going to an art school.”

For Francies, education is particularly important because many artists’ paths are safe and predictable, including programs with a “cookie cutter approach.” Talented people aren’t able to challenge themselves because they are being asked to traverse the same landscape as the group before them and the one before that. Then they are thrown out into the world, having not yet learned to chance failure. Of this tradition, Francies states: “People wonder why they don’t work, and it’s because they’re not really putting out anything special.”

One aspect of The New School that helped Fancies traverse new ground was the opportunity for substantial mentorship with people making music. He felt free of the classroom and able to pair with professionals who became his primary support system, offering him advice about music and life, as well as helping him work through any stumbling blocks.

“Reggie Workman was one of my biggest mentors at The New School,” he says. “So was George Cables. They both provided valuable knowledge about the history of the music, but allowed me to be who I was. Most great teachers not only teach, but they also help you to find and articulate your individual voice.”

Putting out something special has been central to Francies’ ambitions since childhood. He began formal piano lessons at age five, and though he was as attuned to contemporary music as other young people, he couldn’t resist the lure of jazz. He attended the Houston’s Summer Jazz Workshop for three years and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, known for alumnae like Beyoncé, Jason Moran, Chris Dave, and Eric Harland.

“For me, especially in music and art, you never want to be like a copycat,” Francies declares emphatically. “You always want to have something that everybody else doesn’t have.”

This level of creativity depends upon facing the unknown, which many people — even creative and talented people — aren’t capable of doing. The risk of not succeeding is too frightening. But Francies had confidence in himself and belief in the program he was attending. He’d connected with mentors and built a community. He’d learned to collaborate, including working on projects with the Parson’s School of Design (another New School college). Along the way, Francies found his unique point of view.

“The ultimate goal should be freedom,” he declares with confidence.

Francies believes that this quest for freedom is the only true path to creative growth, while acknowledging that many people can’t handle this approach. Venturing into uncertainty unnerves them because they can’t truly trust themselves. And though some aren’t prepared to pay attention and buckle down without a guarantee of success, the bold will risk it all.

“You think about all the true geniuses, whose music still lives on,” he says. “They were all risk takers. They were all innovators. In order to become an innovator, you have to try things out. Some things are not going to work, some things are going to work. I think that’s what separates people from just being good and being able to access that next level. You look at somebody like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, or Madonna. People like that. They were always risk takers. They were always just getting to that other place that so few artists go to.”

The New School enabled Francies to enter his school community and the greater New York City jazz scene and connect with other artists. It gave him a chance to be one of these risk takers — to explore his artistry similar to how the geniuses he reveres once did: Through collaboration, innovation, and mentorship.

It’s certainly not hard to sift through your memory and come up with some failures among the artists Francies names, but their successes vastly overshadow those moments. They have epiphanic artistic moments that reverberate out from their experience into and audience and society as a larger medium. The risk not only rewards the artist, it betters humanity. And, The New School understands that and supports it. In fact, their programming is based around it.

“Music and art, when you’re communicating with people on such a vulnerable level, you have to be challenging yourself and changing so people can, in the music, definitely be there with you in the moment.”

Francis learned that in school and he’s carrying it forward in every note he plays.