Matthew Whitaker: Taking Jazz by Ear

By Jack Zimmerman

Imagine for a moment that you’re a jazz pianist/organist. Also imagine that you’ve made a recording, a good part of which is your own material. And while you’re at it, imagine that said recording followed several major public appearances: Apollo Theater in Harlem, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, and even a segment on Ellen (she loved you so much that she gave you a vibraphone!). You also own a music publishing company and have toured abroad, performing in such far-flung places as France, Italy, Morocco, and Japan. Along the way you’ve picked up some major endorsement deals from Yamaha and Hammond.

And to complete the scene, imagine that you’re 16 years old and have been blind since birth. This is the life of Matthew Whitaker, the youngest of four children born to Moses and May Whitaker of Hackensack, NJ. Matthew weighed 1 pound and 11 ounces at birth and was given less than a 50 percent chance of surviving.

The kid not only survived, he thrived—especially at all things musical. “I started playing when I was 3 and my grandfather gave me a small keyboard,” Whitaker says. “I taught myself, but I started taking piano lessons when I was 5. When I was 6, I started playing the drums; took lessons on that, too. When I was 9, I started on organ.”

Back on that little keyboard, Whitaker was picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” a natural enough selection for a youngster. But he didn’t just play the melody, which still would have been a considerable accomplishment. This toddler harmonized it as well. Fortunately, the Germans have given us a term for someone like Matthew—wunderkind.

“I remember me and my dad riding in the car with jazz on the radio. I don’t remember who was playing, but I remember the experience,” Whitaker says. Those early listening experiences would be seminal. Jazz is his musical home now, and the artists that influence him are a who’s who of the art form. He ticks off a few names in rapid succession: “Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Ray Charles, George Shearing, Marcus Roberts”—and that’s just pianists. “I’ve been influenced by all of them,” Whitaker says.

Among them, of course, is Stevie Wonder. The comparison is inevitable. Wonder, who’s blind, was also a child prodigy, and when Whitaker appeared on Showtime at the Apollo, program host Steve Harvey bestowed upon him the moniker “Matthew Stevie Wonder Whitaker!”

The same year that Whitaker first heard jazz while riding in his father’s car was also the year of another major revelation. “I was 9 when I first played a Hammond B-3 organ.” The sound of the B-3 was completely enthralling, and soon famed Hammond artist Lonnie Smith was mentoring him. Whitaker also listened intently to noted Hammond virtuosos Jimmy Smith and Joey DeFrancesco.

At 13 Whitaker joined the ranks of Hammond artists, the youngest ever named to the company’s roster. When he was 15, Yamaha recruited him to join its stable of jazz pianists.

These days he plays piano, organ, drums, bass, melodica, and some guitar. Organ, though is his favorite, “because of all the different sounds you can get out of it.” His studio, in the basement of his family’s home, contains numerous keyboards and synthesizers, an acoustic piano and, of course, a Hammond organ. And there are various guitars, basses, a drum set, and, thanks to his appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, a vibraphone.

While his truckload of instruments is impressive, Whitaker’s talent is even more so. Amazingly, he does not come from an overtly musical family. Neither of his parents, nor any of his siblings, are professional musicians. (His mom and dad are both information technology experts.) He’s presently studying classical piano and drums at the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School of the Lighthouse Guild in New York. It’s the only community music school for the visually impaired in the US. He also attends the Manhattan School of Music’s precollege jazz program.

Whitaker’s debut album, Outta the Box, was released to Amazon and Google’s and Apple’s stores earlier this year.

The phenomenal Matthew Whitaker appears with his trio at Ravinia’s Bennett Gordon Hall on November 4 on the BGH Classics series. He’ll be playing both organ and piano in this his first Chicago appearance. 

Jack Zimmerman is a Chicago writer who has spent his life in music.