Blind musician makes audiences see Jazz in a different way

by Mat Cohen

For Matthew Whitaker, a blind eighteen-year-old jazz musician who will be playing at Harris Theater in Millennium Park on Dec. 9, hearing and touch are his most gifted senses.

“It makes me feel amazing that the audience is supportive of whatever music I’m playing,” he said. “I always try my best to make the audience feel it just like I do when I’m playing.”

Whitaker lost his sight at birth. Born prematurely in Hackensack, N.J., weighing one pound, 11 ounces, he was given less than a 50 percent chance to live. Three years later, his grandfather gave him a keyboard and he fell in love. He taught himself nursery rhymes and filled the air with music.

“I’ve been in love with [playing] ever since,” he said. “When I was five, I started taking classical piano lessons and when I was six, I started playing drums. At seven I got into jazz music and ever since it’s been my favorite genre to play and listen to.”

Although he draws from many inspirations, he doesn’t remember the exact jazz albums or songs that drew him in.

“Whatever it was, it got me really interested in it,” he said.

He’s been named a Yamaha Artist; he’s made appearances on “Ellen” and “The Today Show;” he won Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater when he was 9 years old and opened for Stevie Wonder’s Apollo Theater Hall of Fame induction at age 10. 

The legendary musician has been a great influence for Whitaker.

“It’s an honor to be compared to Stevie Wonder, but there’s really only one Stevie,” he said.

He plays at his church in Hackensack and is majoring in jazz piano in New York. Whitaker spends just about every minute immersing himself in his craft. He has released two albums, “Out of the Box” and “Now Hear This.”

“The first album was called ‘Out of the Box’, which really demonstrates the different styles I can play,” he said. “‘Now Hear This’ shows what else I can do. It features a lot more complex styles and I lot of complex music as well.”

At his performance at the Harris, Mix at Six, the audience will hear a little bit of everything.

“It’s going to be a fun time. Get ready.”

Harris Theater’s President and CEO Patricia Barretto is thrilled to have Whitaker perform.

“It’s great to be able to present a young and astonishing talent,” she said. “It couldn’t be a better fit. I think people are going to be blown away.”

Mix at Six draws younger crowds with its more casual style and feel.

“It’s a place for trying new things and trying exciting things,” she said. “They end up falling in love with what we put on stage. He’s so inspiring, he’s young, he’s a self-starter and it’s going to be inspiring.”

Through the help of sponsors of the Harris Theater, Mix at Six has been showing for about five years with tickets at $15. 
For more information visit https://www.harristheaterchicago.org/tickets/2019-2020-season/mix–matthew-whitake

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