Telluride Jazz Fest: Piano Man & All-Around Phenom Matthew Whitaker Debuts

Telluride Jazz Fest: Piano Man & All-Around Phenom Matthew Whitaker Debuts

Telluride Jazz Festival, August 9-11, 2019, still has tickets on sale. Go here for details. 

Jazz keyboard phenom and composer Matt Whitaker takes the Main Stage on Friday, August 9, 3:40 p.m. He performs later that evening at The Liberty, 10 p.m.

“He’s not extraordinary because he’s blind. He’s extraordinary because he’s extraordinary,”
Ray Chew, musical director/producer.

Matt Whitaker, courtesy, Nia Tate Photography.

Still so young. But so very very good. His prodigious talent and versatility entertains as it amazes.

Born in 2001 three months premature, weighing in at just 1 pound 11 ounces, and initially given only a 50 percent chance to live, Matthew Christopher Whitaker obviously did way more than survive. He . thrived and is fast becoming a beloved heavy in the world of jazz.  At just 18, he is already a seasoned pro with a major following.

Young Matt

Considered a prodigy for his skill playing piano and other keyboard instruments, Matthew’s man cave (studio) and the living room in his family home features an acoustic piano; banks of synthesizers; a full-size Hammond organ; a Leslie cabinet speaker;  guitars; basses; amps; a full drum kit; and a vibraphone, the latter a gift he received from Ellen DeGeneres following an appearance on The EllenShow in April 2017.

Matthew already helms his own organ quartet, which includes piano/organ, guitar, bass, and drums. While developing those chops, he paid close attention not only to his mentor, the famed organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, but also to organists Jimmy Smith and Joey DeFrancesco, and pianists Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Barry Harris, Erroll Garner, and Thelonious Monk

Matthew Whitaker draws comparisons to Stevie Wonder, not just for his outsized talent. But because he too wears dark sunglasses, sports a whisper of a teen mustache – and is blind.

Matthew is the organist at the New Hope Baptist Church in his hometown of Hackensack, New Jersey, but the “rooms” he has conquered with his shape-sifting performances also include (but are not limited to) world-renowned stages, among them: Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater; Carnegie Hall; and Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC; SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco; John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC; The Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in Florida; and international venues in France, Italy, Germany, Morocco, and Japan.

In May at The New Orleans Jazz. & Heritage Festival, Matthew Whitaker won a long standing ovation from the crowd. Now he is scheduled to do the Full Caesar in Telluride, when he comes, senses, and conquers the audience at the Telluride Jazz Festival, taking the Main Stage on Friday August 9, 3:40 p.m. and performing later that day at The Liberty, 10 p.m.

“Matthew Whitaker is music. To see and hear him play is to know that divine talent exists. Beyond his innate musical abilities is a sheer joy and passion to create music. You can expect great things on the horizon from this remarkable and lovable young musician,” raved WBGO Jazz 88.3 FM.

Matthew grew up surrounded by music and began to play at the tender age of three after his grandfather gave him a small Yamaha keyboard.

“In the nursery school he was in with the blind kids, most of the stuff is music,” Moses Whitaker explained in an interview with “He was probably attracted to ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’ when he heard it. But then when he came home he could play it.”

And according to his dad (and tour manager) Matthew was not just plinking away at the melody. He was playing it with full chord progressions.

Matthew with his Mom & Dad, May  & Moses.

At five, Matthew began studying classical piano at the Flomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School in New York, the only community music school for the blind in the US. Later, Matthew became the first undergrad to join Juilliard’s Jazz Studies Program.

At nine, Matthew began teaching himself to play the Hammond B3 organ. Four years later, he became the youngest artist to be endorsed by Hammond in its 80+ year history.

At age 10, Matthew was a winner in the “Child Stars of Tomorrow” competition, part of Amateur Night at the Apollo. One year later,  he was invited by Stevie Wonder to perform at Wonder’s induction into the Apollo Theater’s Hall of Fame. When he returned to the legendary venue for FOX TV’s revival of “Showtime at the Apollo” in 2016, he won the audience over with his rendition of Wonder’s classic “I Wish.”

At 15, Matthew was named a Yamaha Artist, becoming the youngest musician to join that stellar group of jazz pianists.

Having composed several originals, Matthew names a list of top-tier musicians, composers/arrangers as his artistic influences, including organists Dr. Lonnie Smith, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, and Rhoda Scott; pianists Stevie Wonder, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea, Chopin, and Bach; and drummers Roy Haynes, T.S. Monk, Herlin Riley, Otis Brown III, Otis Brown Jr, and Johnathan Blake.

The list of outstanding musicians the rising star has performed with includes Ray Chew, Christian McBride, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Rhoda Scott, Cameron Carpenter, Regina Carter, Jon Batiste, Cory Henry, Marc Cary, Arturo O’Farrill, James Carter, Roy Ayers, D.D. Jackson, The New York Pops Orchestra, and Hamiet Bluiett and his Bio-Electric Ensemble.

Matt, courtesy r.r.jones.


Matt & Moses, on the road.

In 2017, Matthew Whitaker was named one of the 17 people to watch in New Jersey by The Record, and one of Crain’s New York Business’ 20 under 20, a list that recognizes young people under 20 who have made significant steps toward their professional goals. Of course, with the help of mom and dad.

With all that and more coming, part of Moses’ job description is to keep his son humble. (Nice pie if you can get it.)

Matthew’s new record, Now Hear This… makes its debut in August 2019 on the Resilience Music Alliance Record label. The release showcases the music-maker’s talent, his bold and confident sense of swing, and a palette that runs the gamut from straight-ahead jazz and hard bop to R & B and Latin influences.

Now Hear This also features Matthew’s distinctive voice.

For more, check out Matthew Whitaker’s podcast:

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