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Matthew Whitaker: A New Voice On Jazz Piano


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When I am performing I want the audience to enjoy themselves and feel the emotions of the different styles of music I play.
Matthew Whitaker is an American jazz pianist. Blind since birth, he has performed at venues including Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and The Apollo Theatre, where aged ten, he opened for Stevie Wonder.

Though he is only eighteen years old, multi instrumentalist Whitaker has come a long way to get where he is today, overcoming adversity and dedicating countless hours to honing his craft. Now with his declarative label debut Now Hear This (Resilience Music, 2019), Whitaker announces himself as a major new voice on jazz piano, organ and a wide range of keyboard instruments.

All About Jazz: How does it feel now that your declarative label debut has come to fruition?

Matthew Whitaker: It feels great! This album, Now Hear This gives me a chance to share where I am now musically because it has more complex arrangements within the different styles of music.

AAJ: How did you come to collaborate with such an amazing group of artists, composers, producers, and arrangers for your project? Guitarist Dave Stryker, drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr., percussionist Sammy Figueroa. keyboardist Marc Cary, bassist Yunior Terry, and flutist Gabrielle Garo, just to name a few.

MW: Mr. Dave and Sammy Figueroa were both on my first project Outta The Box [Jazz Foundation of America, 2017]. This was my first time working with Ulysses Owens Jr, and Yunior Terry but I have known Ulysses since I was nine or ten years old. Marc Cary and I have played together many times before and I have learned a lot from him. My friend Gabrielle Garo and I have performed together with the Harlem School of the Arts Band and in my first band. She is an amazing flutist and saxophonist. It was an honor to have all of them share their gifts on my album.

AAJ: How closely did you work with producer Brian Bacchus and which songs did he produce?

MW: Working with Brian Bacchus was an awesome experience. He and I sat down and listened to a lot of different songs that I had composed and arranged. He also made a few suggestions of some songs that he thought I should consider learning and listening to for the album. [Ahmad Jamal's] "Tranquility" was one of them and I love it. Mr. Brian is the producer for the entire album. One of my goals is to be a producer, and I learned a lot from him as well.

AAJ: Have you ever met Ahmad Jamal?

MW: No, I have not met Ahmad Jamal but I do listen to his music. Maybe one day I will get a chance to meet him.

AAJ: Guitarist Dave Stryker appears on almost half the tracks The improvisations between you and him on these songs are very smooth. What can you tell us about your experience working with Dave Stryker?

MW: I have known Mr. Dave Stryker for a long time, since I was eight or nine year old. I met him when I was attending the jazz house kids summer program. He was the instructor for the ensemble. Since I knew him and loved his playing I asked him if he would be on my first albumOutta The Box and he said yes. I was fifteen years old when I recorded that album. When Mr. Brian asked me about musicians for Now Hear This, we both agreed that Mr. Dave would be a great fit.

AAJ: How did the decision come about to collaborate with Marc Cary on this project?

MW: Marc is playing the Fender Rhodes on "'Black Butterfly"" I met Marc in the studio through a friend of mine who helped me record my first album. Marc was recording one of his albums and asked me to play the Hammond organ on a couple of his tracks.

I also played a tour with him at some of his Harlem jam sessions. In my mind when I was recording "Black Butterfly" I heard the Fender Rhodes sound during the bridge and asked Marc if he would record it for me.

AAJ: On "Thinking of You," one of your original songs, I read somewhere you said it was an open ended dedication with no "you" in mind. Can you elaborate more about composing this song?

MW: I had not written a ballad since the one I wrote for my sister "Song for Allie" which I recorded on my first album. So, I decided to compose "Thinking of You" but I wanted to play it on the organ. Everyone asks me, who did I write the song for. But, this time it was not like that. This song hopefully puts the person listening to the song in a mood to think of someone special to them.

AAJ: Matthew, your piano playing is prolific at best. When you are performing, what would you like for the audience to feel or take away?

MW: When I am performing, I want the audience to enjoy themselves and feel the emotions of the different styles of music I play.

AA: Was that your goal when you recorded the track "Emotions," because I do feel a lot of emotions when listening to this song.

MW: I guess you can say that. I attend a school for the blind in New York and they were having a concert at the Metropolitan Museum and I was asked to compose a song. The theme of the concert was rhythms of life. I decided to compose a song that had a lot of different rhythm changes and called it "Emotions" because people go through a lot of emotional changes.

AAJ: Your Mom says you love music but you love people more. How does that special trait help you when performing, writing, and composing?

MW: I love to feel the energy of the people I meet. If they are sad I feel bad for them and try to encourage them to let them know everything will be alright. If they are happy then I am happy. Hopefully the songs I write and perform will reach each person in some way.

AAJ: How often do you play or practice daily?

MW: It is really hard for me to say how long I practice because I am always playing my instruments. Sometimes it is the piano, sometimes the organ, then the drums. It will be all of them at some point during the day. I am the organist for the church choir, I am learning songs. coming up with new arrangements of songs, and composing my own songs. So, I am always playing until my dad tells me it is time to go to bed.

AAJ: At what age did you first perform at the Apollo Theatre Were you nervous on that stage, we all know how competitive it is.

MW: Yes, I was nervous when I played the Apollo Theatre at nine years old. But, you have to go out and do your best, and that is what I tried to do. Once I started playing the nervousness went away. I am not sure how many times I have played there.

I have been invited back to play during their holiday concerts and as a guest artist during the Jazz Foundation of America gala events. It has been lot of fun and everyone has been so nice and helpful.

AAJ: You played the John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival in 2017. How familiar are you with his music?

MW: I am very familiar with John Coltrane's music. I played a lot of his music when I was in the Harlem School the Arts jazz band and with the jazz house kids organ ensemble and jazz band. I guess my favorite John Coltrane song is "A Love Supreme." I usually play it in my sets and it seems to be a favorite of a lot of people in the audience.

AAJ: Matthew, you have had a busy year of touring the world and playing a few jazz festivals. How has that experience been for you?

MW: I have really had a great time visiting different countries and cities in the United states. I especially enjoy meeting people and kids in the audience. After the show, I have a chance to say hello and thank them for supporting me and my music. Hopefully I can be an inspiration to someone.

AAJ: I am sure you are an inspiration to so many people. Young and old. How does the process come together when deciding which covers you want to record like; "Black Butterfly," "Yardbird Suite," and "The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power"? On this song you take us to church with your foot stomping, electrifying playing of the classic Hammond B3 organ.

MW: I like all genres of music and sometimes I try to see what I can do to make a song sound different. "Black Butterfly" is a song I like and my dad said, ..."so why not do your own arrangement of it." I know a lot of Charlie Parker songs and I chose "Yardbird Suite" to arrange because I was going to play at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival and I wanted to honor him.

"The Blood Will Never Loses Its Power" is a song I love to play at church and I asked Mr. Bacchus if I could record it and he said yes. I love playing the Hammond B3 because of the different sounds you can get out of it by adjusting the drawbars and percussion switches. Plus, I get to play the bass line with my feet.

AAJ: The track "Miss Michelle" is dedicated to your manager Michelle Taylor. How long have you two been working together? Can you tell us how fantastic she is?

MW: Ms. Michelle is awesome! I think we were having a meeting at my house and I was ready to go play some music and Ms. Michelle said "Why don't you compose a song for me." So I went downstairs and composed "Miss Michelle." We have been together for a little over three years.

AAJ: While recording and composing for this project, how did you determine which instruments will be played?

MW: Usually when I am composing a song I have an idea in my had as to what instrument I want to use. When I start recording the tracks using logic software, I add these instruments and if I like them, I use them. If I do not like them, or I hear something else in my head, like less instrumentation or a different type of instrument, I will change it.

Sometimes I hear a song being played on the piano and the organ in my head. Then I have to decide which one I like best and if I want to add synthesize sounds or not. It is hard to explain because the music is all in my head.

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