Jermaine Gardner was a true child prodigy. Before he'd reached his first birthday, he could easily play a song on the piano after simply hearing his older brother, Jamaal, practice the tune. His mother, Jacqueline Kess-Gardner, was ecstatic at this turn in her son's development. Until the day she'd first heard him play, she'd been struggling to deal with the prognosis given to her by medical specialists upon her younger son's birth. Not only was her boy blind, he also was born with serious facial abnormalities. Physicians predicted that he might be deaf and pronounced that he was most likely retarded. Their best guesstimate gave him a life expectancy of just two years, at the very most. But he fooled them all in the end, growing up to graduate from the Baltimore School for the Arts in 2001, and heading off to start earning a degree in piano and composition the following year. Also in 2002, he fulfilled another life-long dream by becoming a recording artist with the release of his jazz debut, The Night Shift.
It's hard to say who was more surprised by Gardner's talent, his family or members of the media. When Kess-Gardner first saw him making such beautiful music, she let out such a scream that her toddler screamed back and stopped making music for several weeks. When he started again, his mother phoned a series of reporters in the hopes of drumming up interest in the young prodigy so that somehow he could have the expensive surgery needed to reconstruct his facial abnormalities. Time after time, she confronted disbelief. One reporter, however, thought her story was too outrageous to be a lie. He met with the family and became a total believer after seeing Gardner, then two years old, play the piano. In front of the newsman and a cameraman, the child played eloquently and with mastery. But he didn't play anything as mundane as chopsticks. The boy let loose with Lionel Richie, Mozart, and Beethoven. That was just the start of the media attention he would ultimately receive. A series of television appearances followed, with the blind prodigy making headlines on ABC World News, The Today Show, 48 Hours, Good Morning America, Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, The 700 Club, Donahue, and The Late Show. Kess-Gardner's hunch was right; all of the publicity did aid in getting the child the surgical help he needed. The Foundation for Craniofacial Deformities, in Texas, footed the $200,000 bill for his surgeries, which took place in Dallas with money contributed by the General Electric Foundation.
In addition to philanthropists, Gardner inspired a number of others when he was still a preschooler. When he was four years old, piano technicians from his hometown collectively devoted 700 hours to refurbishing a baby grand for his family to install in their home. At the same age, before his surgery had taken place, Gardner was invited to play at a bash that was thrown to celebrate Stevie Wonder's birthday. For the occasion, he performed songs from one of the older artist's releases, The Secret Life of Plants. Wonder thanked the youngster with the gift of a keyboard synthesizer. Around this time, he also became acquainted with Cher and Ray Charles. Gardner has also performed for a number of other VIPs, including First Ladies Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan. A Japanese producer flew to Baltimore to film the documentary The American Prodigy. In 1991, the pianist received a Peabody Conservatory Friends-in-Art scholarship of $1000. Five years later, he appeared at Japan's Budokan Arena.