Within four years of leaving Nigeria with his family and landing in Toronto's Regent Park as a toddler, Thompson Egbo-Egbo was playing piano in United Way fundraising commercials.
By 17, he was performing for royalty.
Now, having barely established his own career as a jazz pianist, the 21-year-old prodigy is helping to give a new generation of musicians the chance to learn to love music.
He teaches a day camp at the Regent Park School of Music, not far from the Dixon Hall Music School where he started to learn piano in subsidized classes at the age of 6. And last month, he launched the Thompson Egbo-Egbo Arts Foundation to fund arts education for disadvantaged youth.
Mr. Egbo-Egbo and his family immigrated to Canada from Nigeria in 1987. Like many new Canadians in Toronto, they wound up in Regent Park, where they lived for 14 years. His father, a doctor in his homeland, had to spend several years earning Canadian accreditation.
Now his family lives in Whitby and Mr. Egbo-Egbo is about to move into an apartment on the Danforth.
Critics are already describing him as a piano virtuoso.
"He's a star in the making," says Ross Porter, CEO at Jazz.FM91. "He's warm, charismatic, charming. And when you combine that all with talent, look out."
The station is encouraging the young prodigy to start recording his music.
"When it comes time for him to make his first album, man, that will be an exciting time," Mr. Porter says.
That is a fantasy of Mr. Egbo-Egbo, who is now a scholarship student in Humber College's jazz-performance program. He has performed in front of audiences since the age of 8, but he dreams of forming a jazz group. For now, most of his recitals, like the one he did for Prince Charles, Prince Edward and his wife Sophie Rhys-Jones in 2001, are reserved for private residences, dinner parties and chi-chi nightclubs.
Despite all the accolades, Mr. Egbo-Egbo remains modest. "I'm okay," he says, shrugging and looking away. "I'm not as good as I'd like to be."
As for his latest project, the Thompson Egbo-Egbo Arts Foundation will raise money to help arts-minded young adults continue their education through subsidized lessons or scholarships to postsecondary music programs. Mr. Egbo-Egbo hopes to fund these programs with benefit concerts and fundraisers.
"We're going to sponsor those kids and provide financial support to them," he says. "There's not a lot out there for young adults."
And at the Regent Park school, created about five years ago, Mr. Egbo-Egbo does more than just teach music -- he takes kids out on field trips to local radio stations and organizes cookouts.
Mr. Egbo-Egbo's own career shows how much of a difference a little support can make. His lessons at Dixon Hall Music School, which has offered near-free music classes and instrument rentals to children since 1978, cost his family $2 each in 1989. They cost the same amount today.
He has received scholarships and awards almost from the time his fingertips touched ivory.
In 1998, he was the first recipient of the Hagood Hardy Protégé Honour Award. Three years later, the Alliance for Canadian New Music Projects awarded him the Clifford Elliot Scholarship for his composition Improv in Variations.
In 2002, he received an educational scholarship to study jazz at Humber College from the Cabbagetown Arts Foundation. And in 2003, he received another scholarship from the Minstrel Foundation, which operates the Regent Park school, to help him to continue his jazz studies at Humber.
Despite all his accomplishments, almost all of Mr. Egbo-Egbo's work has been local. He has yet to have the chance to compete overseas. "I've mostly studied at music camps and programs in the city," he said.
He is one credit short of earning his diploma at Humber College and has started to look into university programs.
Mr. Egbo-Egbo says he is considering trying out for one of the major music schools in the United States, such as the Julliard School in New York.
"I'd love to go to the States and study. New York or L.A., I'd be there in a second," he says. "The culture there is different. That's where the music comes from."