Matthew Whitaker, at 20-years-old, has already lived quite a remarkable life.
Before being hailed as “the greatest” by fellow jazz pianist and friend, Jon Batiste, many audiophiles learned about Matthew Whitaker from 60 Minutes. Born three months premature and blind to the world around him, doctors lamented that he would also never be able to walk or speak—but as want to do in the Black community, Whitaker defied the odds and showcased a musical ability that was divined by God.
He’s been called a prodigy and his talent has enabled him to travel around the world as a professional jazz pianist. His abilities to pick out melodies and play them back by ear enticed neuroscientists to study his brain to better understand his vision of music. They were amazed that someone so young, without the ability to see, was already such a masterful player.
As we fast forward to now, Whitaker shares his own story and explores his own identity for the first time on his latest album Connections, which is out now. Reflecting on his own experiences as a young Black man in America, the album is a new direction for him as he combines his own spoken word passages with collaborations with Jon Batiste, Derrick Hodge, and more.
EBONY was fortunate enough to get some time with the jazz prodigy to talk about his latest musical offering and what even the scientists could not discover regarding his relationship with God and music.
EBONY: How did those first experiences feel to you when you first began playing music?
Matthew Whitaker: I started playing when I was three-years-old. My grandfather gave me my first keyboard and I feel that I have been blessed with a gift from God. I absolutely love sharing my gifts with everyone. By the age of five, I started taking classical piano lessons at at the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. When I turned seven, I started listening to jazz for the first time and that love of melody grew into teaching myself the Hammond organ at nine.
Music excites me and I always get like that whenever I get a chance to play an instrument. So, to answer your question, when I first began playing, it was that excitement and happiness that I felt.
There has been a lot made of your journey from birth to now as a popular recording artist. You’ve overcome a lot of adversity from day one, which would have one ask, how do you approach tackling obstacles whenever it presents itself to you?
I don’t let my disability stop me from doing what I love to do. I say that to anyone regardless of being differently abled or not. Don’t give up! Stay positive and never let anyone take you away from your purpose. Follow your dreams and have fun while you’re doing whatever you want to do—whether it’s music, singing, playing instruments or whatever.
Speaking of fun—one of your most cherished friendships is with singer, songwriter, and pianist Jon Batiste. How did you two even meet?
I met him when I was about 10-years-old. I saw him at the Jazz Admission Center for the first time and ever since then he’s invited me to perform with his band. I was with him as part of his band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, playing keyboards together. It was really fun playing with him ,and to have him be a part of my new record, Connections, has been amazing. I’m so happy that we were able to work together on duo piano.
While you guys maintain this friendship, what lessons were you able to impart upon one another?
Good question. A few things that I learned from him and in playing with Jon was to never be afraid to experiment musically. Don’t be afraid to just step out of your comfort zone when playing the piano—especially when it comes to improv. Jon loves flowing with the spirit, so that is something that I’m trying to improve upon. In the band setting, I learned that when you’re playing with other musicians to remember that you’re supporting what the bandleader is playing, which in this case is Jon, and as a side musician you want to make sure you maintain the fun and unity while playing.
Would you say that that belief in having fun with what you’re doing, filtered through a spirit impacted your latest groove, Connections?
Definitely, yeah. When Jon and I were recording music for Connections, we were in a groove. He would come into the studio and we’d start playing for about 20 minutes. Then we would take parts from the entire session and put it throughout the record. You could really tell how he and I really connected on that and it worked.
There’s also this healthy community of friends who assist on Connections. From Derrick Hodge to Endea Jones to Regina Carter, you have a great cast who—pun intended—had a strong connection with you for this project.
I’m very grateful and blessed that they are on this album. I’ve always wanted to play with them in a studio setting, and it was great to do that. I hope to continue to play with everyone that was a part of Connections, again, soon. The energy was just amazing. It goes to show you that you can put anything on an album these days—as long as you make it fit within whatever you are working on and do well with it.
Were there any other inspiring moments that happened during this pandemic and recording that directly affected songs on Connections?
On “It Will Be Okay,” for example, I wrote it when the pandemic was in its early stages. We were only a few months into the pandemic and I just finished listening to one of the last pre-recordings that were done at my church. I went downstairs to the organ and I just heard these chords in my head, this melody, and then the whole song came together. I recorded it on my phone and I sent it to my dad and he’s like, ‘Yeah, this could work.’
Fast forward to March, and I’m talking to Derrick [Hodge] and he said that the way the song was constructed would work for [the album]. There was this tenseness in the melody and an uneasiness with the whole pandemic going on, and when it would be over, where I kept telling myself, ‘It will be okay. It will be okay. It will be okay,’ and that’s how the song and its title came to be.
In shifting gears to the 60 Minute profile, scientists and doctors sincerely examined your mind and its relationship to music and melody. It was quite unique to see. Many people love music, but those insights gave us a look at the beauty of God. After talking to those scientists, what did you learn intimately about your relationship with music that even they couldn’t denote?
That’s a very good question. When my family and I saw the MRI scan, we were all shocked. The fact that I use my visual cortex to process music is really cool. From my point of view, I never thought that I would use a part of my brain like that, but that goes to show that the way that scientists are able to discover these things and present it in a way that made sense is uniquely cool as well. I want to thank Dr. Charles Limb and the rest of his team for doing that.
How does that knowledge help you to define your own musical identity as you continue your journey as an artist?
I’m really grateful to Derrick [Hodge] for empowering me to tell my story fully. Not saying that I didn’t have an opportunity to do that on my first two albums, but for Connections, I had a chance to dive in—especially with all my equipment with me. The guidance from Derrick and everyone else really helped me out as well. I was able to be free musically and do whatever I wanted to do. I would take my sounds and play them on the keyboard with Derrick and he would say, ‘Save that sound,’ and it was a liberating experience. You have to be free in order to be creative, so shout out again to Derrick for guiding me. I learned a lot and I hope to work with him again in the future.
With Connections out now and people enjoying it, would you say there are plans in the future to do a sort of Robert Glasper-esque remix project for it or your other work?
[Laughs] That is a good idea. I have been doing some other songs from my first record with my band and, yeah, that is a good idea. I’ll ask the team about that, but that is something that definitely needs to happen down the road.
Kevin L. Clark is an editor and screenwriter who covers the intersection of music, pop culture and social justice. Follow him @KevitoClark.