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Sharp Talent

BY Ali Margo | March 20, 2018 | Feature Features

Pianist Matthew Whitaker defied early odds to become a jazz pianist prodigy.

When Matthew Whitaker was born in Hackensack, N.J., 23 weeks premature, he weighed only 1 pound 11 ounces. The doctors gave him less than a 50 percent chance of survival. The oxygen that kept him alive damaged his eyes, and after 11 surgeries, he lost his sight at just 3 months old. It’s the kind of “against all odds” tale that might end up on a daytime talk show (and it did), but there is a lot more to Whitaker’s story.

Whitaker’s grandfather gave him a small keyboard when he was 3. To his parents’ surprise (neither were musically inclined), he taught himself “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” At 9, he was playing the Hammond B3 organ, and by 10, he opened for Stevie Wonder’s induction into the Apollo Legends Hall of Fame. Five years later, he was named a Yamaha Artist, becoming the youngest musician to join the stellar group of jazz pianists. Now 16, he plays drums, keyboard, piano, Hammond organ and is learning the vibraphone, and he has performed on major stages all over the world, including Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Carnegie Hall, SFJAZZ Center and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and internationally in France, Italy, Germany, Morocco and Japan. He makes his Aspen debut with the JAS Cafe at the end of March.

His music education has been extensive and spanned more than half his life. He’s currently studying classical piano and drums at The Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School of Lighthouse Guild in New York City, the only community music school for the blind and visually impaired in the U.S. He also attends the Manhattan School of Music’s Precollege Jazz Program and Harlem School of the Arts.

“I love jazz, gospel, R&B, but I listen to almost every genre of music,” Whitaker says. “When I play, I sometimes use a little bit of each genre in my music. My style of play is my own.” For inspiration, he turns to organists Dr. Lonnie Smith, Jimmy Smith and Rhoda Scott; pianists Stevie Wonder, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Chick Corea and Jon Batiste; and drummers Roy Haynes, T.S. Monk and Herlin Riley. “I try to incorporate what they do, but make it my own style of playing,” he says.

Last year Whittaker did make it onto that daytime talk show, but not because of his blindness. He appeared on Ellen because of raw talent, and performed piano onstage, opening the eyes of everyone in the audience to this undeniable prodigy. $40, March 30-31, 7 and 9:15pm, The Little Nell, jazzaspensnowmass.‌org

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