Do you think anyone would blame you for being proud, or a little arrogant, if for your entire life you were called a prodigy for your jazz piano playing ability? How about if you’re always compared to Stevie Wonder, or if you can say that, among many other places, you’ve performed at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall? What if your first album, Outta the Box, contained six original compositions?
And what if you were only 17 years old?
The Spy recently spoke to Matthew Whitaker, the wunderkind, who will be one of the featured artists at this year’s Monty Alexander Jazz Festival (Friday, August 31 – Sunday, September 2). One might have expected some smugness from him. Instead, Matthew turns out to be both unassuming and a well-rounded teen. Not surprising, his mom and dad have a lot to do with that, even though they deny it. Since 2011, Dad has traveled with him, acting as everything from chaperone to road crew—setting up and taking down all the musical instruments they bring. Joining us for the interview, Moses Whitaker was quick to remind me about the other important part of his job: “I make sure he stays humble. And he is that—he’s humble.” The love and admiration they have for each other is palpable, and neither is shy about expressing it. During his appearance on both the Today Show and the Ellen DeGeneres show, Matthew could be heard saying, “I love you, dad,” as Whitaker led his son to the piano.
Oh, did we forget to mention Matthew is blind?
With a Wikipedia worth of accolades, web pages of accomplishments, and YouTubes of videos, Matthew is used to interviews and being asked the same questions. As soon as we started, without a prompt, he quickly ran through his statistics: Born three months prematurely and weighing under two pounds, he wasn’t expected to survive. He was later diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), which caused his blindness. On his third birthday, he received a toy keyboard from his grandfather, and after hearing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” was able to play it. Started taking lessons at five years of age, fell in love with jazz when he was seven. At nine, he taught himself the organ, and four years later became the youngest artist to be endorsed by Hammond in its 80+ year history. Currently, he’s studying classical piano and drums and learning to play the vibraphone, a gift he received from his appearance on Ellen’s show.
Then, of course, there is that frequent comparison to his idol Stevie. How does it feel, we asked? “It’s an honor, Matthew replied, “however, there is only one Stevie Wonder.” A modest thing to say, you think, until you watch him perform. There’s a reason for the comparison. Matthew is good.
No, really. He’s that good.
Take into consideration how in 2010, Matthew was the winner in the “Child Stars of Tomorrow” competition, as part of Amateur Night at the Apollo. How, a year later, at the age of 10, he was invited to perform at Stevie Wonder’s induction into the Apollo Theater’s Hall of Fame, returning in 2016, to the televised Showtime at the Apollo. Last year, he was listed on the breakout list of 20 under 20 as a performing artist on Crain’s Business New York and named as one of seven rising stars for 2018 by USA Today network’s 201 Magazine.
Having established his credentials and having read that he is also talented with other musical varieties (including R&B, classical, gospel, and rock), we asked about the special connection he feels toward jazz. “With jazz,” Matthew said, “you get to be completely you. With other genres, you have to play it as it’s written, jazz allows you to do your own thing. I love to improvise.” If he has a ‘sound,’ he claims, it’s a mixture of various styles that he combines into making a song his own. He likes the versatility, and he is quick to let you know about his influencers, which include a variety of musicians from Chopin to Thelonious Monk, embodying the soul of these ageless giants who left their mark on the music world.
Since Matthew has played for audiences most of his life, he’s comfortable changing his setlist even an hour before show time. “What we play, depends on the crowd and on the type of performance. I love the reaction when I play a song that is recognized by the crowds.” Something else that makes him happy is hearing that there are people his age in the audience. “I want to be able to introduce jazz to others. I want them to listen to this music.”
Matthew has been fortunate to be able to take the music he loves not just around the US, but overseas. Some of his favorite moments include traveling to Europe, notably Portugal and Switzerland. Despite being told Europeans have a deeper appreciation of jazz, he feels the same appreciation here in the US. “I’ve had amazing audiences in both places,” he says.
With all this success, it’s easy to forget that Matthew is also just a kid in his senior year in high school, who is slightly ‘freaked out’ about all of this attention. Whitaker is quick to point out that his son doesn’t miss too many school days. They try to schedule his performances around days off and summer vacations. He receives school credit for his concerts. If traveling overseas, his teachers send and expect him to complete homework. Next year, Matthew hopes to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, three hours away from home and a place that is accommodating to the visually impaired. He wants to study further in what he is already doing: directing, composing arranging, and orchestrating music.
As for his appearance in Easton, Matthew is excited to have been included as part of the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival. “I love Monty. I’ve met him a few times, and I have a lot of his records. Monty is sort of like me, and I can’t wait to be part of the show.” He wanted us to make sure that people coming to the show knew that there would be a lot of different musical styles and a lot of improvising. “It will be a fun time. Come out, invite everyone and bring friends. Can’t wait to meet you.”
Whitaker confirms his son’s enthusiasm. “Matt has a special gift,” he said, “he didn’t get it from me, he didn’t get it from his mom. The thing he really likes to do is share his gifts with everyone. When he finishes playing, he doesn’t want to go, like some musicians, backstage or to the dressing room. He goes out into the audience and talks to people. He likes to share.”
Do you, we asked? “Nah, he said, “I’m just the guy packing up the equipment.”
And raising a wonderful and talented son.
Matthew Whitaker will be playing on Saturday, September 1 at the Avalon Theater, at a free community performance that will provide an introduction to jazz. For more information about the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival please go here.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.