When talking to Matthew Whitaker, one can’t help but smile a little. The title “music prodigy” isn’t something that’s used lightly in the industry. But Whitaker seems to handle all the hype with grace, an air of humility and general gratefulness for the experiences that have led him to this point in his life and music career. On Friday, the 18-year-old Whitaker will take the main stage in Town Park during the Telluride Jazz Festival from 3:40-4:30 p.m., along with a Jazz After Dark show at the Liberty at 10 p.m.
“This is my first time I’m coming here to Telluride and I’m super excited,” Whitaker said. “I’m ready.”
Google Whitaker and one of the first things you’ll likely discover is that he is blind. He was born about three months premature, and as a result, was diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity and lost his vision. Often compared to Stevie Wonder, it is important to note that Whitaker’s ability to play, learn and compose music is like an innate skill. Like an instinctive second language or some sort of musical superpower, something that he has been gifted, the miraculousness of which is only amplified by his blindness.
“Matthew is on his game, playing the best jazz clubs around the world and we’re excited for his Telluride Jazz Festival debut,” said Patrick Shehan, partnerships coordinator for fest organizer SBG Productions. “His new album ‘Now Hear This’ comes out on Friday when he performs, so it will be an exciting day for him and the crowd.”
Whitaker’s music abilities first came to light when he was 3 years old.
“My grandfather gave me my first keyboard at three years old and I taught myself nursery rhymes,” Whitaker said. At 5, he started taking classical piano lessons, but the real magic happened when he was 7.
“When I was 7, I first listened to jazz, for the first time. My dad and I were in the car. He was playing jazz on the radio, and ever since then, it’s been my favorite genre to play and listen to,” Whitaker explained. “Jazz allows you to be free musically.”
Over the years, Whitaker has learned to play a number of instruments, mainly the piano, organ and keyboard, but he’s also familiar with the clarinet, bass and drums, too. It doesn’t stop there, as he’s currently working to add the vibraphone to his inventory of music abilities.
Even for those who are musically inclined, it might be difficult to wrap one’s brain around how Whitaker does it. How is he able to hear a song, interpret it perfectly, then replicate it with nearly flawless precision? Videos of him hearing a song and then repeating it on the piano can be found all over YouTube and in documentaries.
Whitaker explained the process matter-of-factly, as anyone might explain how they learn something.
“If I’m hearing something for the first time, then I usually figure out what’s going on musically, like what style is the song in, how fast or slow it is, and what chords or notes is in the music, and I try and analyze that,” Whitaker explained.
Composing music also seems to come naturally to Whitaker.
“Sometimes when I compose, as well, I start playing random things on whatever instrument I feel like playing and if I like it, I just keep going with it,” he said.
The same day he is slated to play at Jazz Fest, Whitaker’s new album, “Now Hear This,” will be released on the Resilience Music Alliance record label. Whitaker said that he plays piano, organ and keyboard on the album.
“It features a few of my original songs and a few arrangements as well,” Whitaker revealed. “It’s jazz, Latin, gospel, funk. It’s a lot of different styles.”
He said of his Jazz Fest performances, “There’s going to be some songs from the new album and some of my arrangements that I just love to play live. It’s going to be really fun.” He added he will play a few mashups, as well, if time allows.
Outside of music, Whitaker said he also enjoys video games, bowling, rock climbing, skiing and basketball.
“I don’t let my blindness stop me,” he said.
For more information on Whitaker’s music, visit matthewwhitaker.net.
For more information about Jazz Fest, check out Editor Justin Criado’s front page story or visit telluridejazz.org.