By Hannah Lee | Photography by John Michael Simpson
It was a fairly average Saturday for Julius Schultz in his hometown of Johannesburg, but he remembers the date exactly: April 7, 2012. He sat on his couch to watch TV, but the show was drowned out by the ghostly mimic of a song he had played on his keyboard earlier that day. Julius was the only one in his family who could play the instrument … as far he knew. Maybe it was his 5-year-old son, Justin-Lee, playing the song on his father’s phone, the jazz guitarist thought. Julius sometimes recorded himself to learn the music.
Julius followed the sound into a nearby room. It was Justin-Lee. It was not coming from his phone. Tiny fingers danced elegantly across the keyboard Julius had bought four months prior. Up to that point, Julius says, Justin-Lee hadn’t shown an interest in music, unlike his sister, Jamie-Leigh, who was 9 and already playing drums on Julius’ set list.
“Three weeks later, we were rehearsing with [my] band the day before this major show I had in East London, South Africa,” Julius says. “Justin-Lee looked at me and said, ‘Can I play the song?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, you haven’t even been playing for two or three weeks.’ He said to me, ‘No, I know this song. I know this song.’ He was nagging and nagging, so eventually, I put him on the keyboard.”
Julius looked on while the crowd cheered like he had never heard before. This small boy banged and banged on the keys, feeding off his dad’s energy as he played alongside him. Seated at the keyboard, Justin-Lee’s feet hovered inches above the floor. He didn’t miss a beat.
“He blew the people away, and ever since then, I knew I had something special on my hands,” Julius says.
Julius started inviting Justin-Lee and Jamie-Leigh to play a few songs at every show. Venues began booking the kids instead of the bandmates. People wanted to see the young prodigies.
The tempo picked up quickly. Justin-Lee received a full piano endorsement from Yamaha that same year and opened a show for one of the world’s foremost up- and-coming jazz guitarists, Jonathan Butler.
Julius says his 2012 New Year’s resolution was to play keyboard himself, but that goal led to something greater: helping his son succeed in his newfound talent.
The best way to do that, Julius thought, was to move to the biggest music market in the world – the U.S. Julius called everyone he knew, including a pastor he met in London several years back. Long story short, the man offered him a job as a music director at a church in Michigan, and the family relocated to Detroit in 2015.
That pivotal move propelled Justin-Lee, who just turned 14, to burgeoning stardom. He appeared with his dad and sister on the Nickelodeon show “America’s Most Musical Family” in 2019. He’s also performed on the Harry Connick Jr. talk show and “Little Big Shots,” a NBC talent show.
Justin-Lee and his family chose to call Durham home after traversing the country from Los Angeles to New York. They’re currently looking to buy a house with more room than their three-bedroom apartment (they need space for all those instruments, after all!). The family moved here a month before pandemic lockdowns and are still a bit unfamiliar with the local layout. But time in quarantine did allow Justin-Lee to complete his biggest project to date: his debut album, “Gruv Kid,” released in November.
The album features some of the genre’s biggest names with guest appearances by Bob James, Gerald Albright, Jonathan Butler, Najee, Pieces of a Dream and more, appealing to a broad spectrum of jazz audiences and beyond.
“He’s got so many people on his debut album that a lot of musicians would dream of having, even just to have one of them,” Julius says proudly. “Man, it’s crazy. People who I idolize are all on his album, and to me, that’s incredible. There’s so many things that happened that I can’t really fathom.”
Justin-Lee hasn’t quite hit his dad’s wavelength.
“I’m not really sure about that,” Justin-Lee says when asked if he thinks he’s “made it” in the music industry. “I’m super honored I got to be on all those TV shows, [and in] magazines. I don’t think of myself as a prodigy, but I’m very flattered that other people do.”
He says he owes it all to his family. “[My mom, Charlene Schultz, and dad] are amazing parents,” Justin-Lee says. “They’ve always taught me to have a good work ethic. Work hard, and it will pay off in the long run.”