Meet Blind N.J. Piano Prodigy Matthew Whitaker

 Matthew Whitaker has played a lot of rooms.

The "room" — showbiz-speak for the venue — might be large, like the  Apollo Theater in Harlem (1,506 seats). Or it might be more modest, like the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall (268 seats). But the room where he's most at home is the one he's in right now: the living room.

"How wide do you want the piano open?" he asks.

As if it matters. Open or closed, Matthew Whitaker is going to fill his house in Hackensack, N.J. with more music than it can handle.

Right now, on the baby grand, he's doing his own version of extraordinary rendition: a shape-shifting performance that segues effortlessly from John Coltrane's Giant Steps to an Art Tatum-like Tea for Two with a killer stride left hand, then to one of his own compositions — of which he has many. His first album, Outta the Box, released last month, is 60 percent his own material.

For the last two years, he's been organist at the New Hope Baptist Church in Hackensack. He's toured Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He has his own publishing company with ASCAP — Matthew Whitaker LLC — and endorsement deals with Hammond and Yamaha. In February, he was the music director for the Voice sensation Wé McDonald of Paterson, at a downtown New York venue. He was the subject of a 2015 documentary short, "Thrive."

Did we mention that Matthew Whitaker is 15 years old? And blind?

"I don't let my blindness stop me," he says. "I want to be a professional musician. I want to have more albums out."

In his dark sunglasses and wisp of a teen mustache, he is already being widely compared to Stevie Wonder — who, you will recall, began his own career as an 11-year-old child prodigy, "Little Stevie Wonder." In December, when Whitaker was a winner on the Showtime at the Apollo TV program (he won his first Apollo Theater amateur night when he was 9), the host, Steve Harvey, proclaimed him "Matthew Stevie Wonder Whitaker!"

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"I think it's normal for people to see the similarities between two people who are blind, and who started playing music very young, and who have a passion for music," says Whitaker's mother, May. "People say that Matt's gestures remind them of Stevie. Which is funny, because he's never actually seen Stevie."

Like all parents of prodigies — like Leopold Mozart, say, or even Mary and Joseph — May Whitaker and her husband, Moses, are in a strange position. They have to feed, guide, protect and discipline a child who has, in some ways, advanced far beyond them.

"Matthew is the only one who has the gift," Moses Whitaker says. "Some of us have dabbled in music. My brother sings a little bit. I took trombone lessons in high school, like other kids taking music class. But Matthew really has the gift. He's a natural. Basically all I do is carry his equipment."

And Matthew has a lot of equipment.

His basement studio looks like a showroom from a Sam Ash music store — nine keyboards, including acoustic piano, banks of synthesizers, and a full-size Hammond organ; a Leslie cabinet speaker, guitars, basses, amps, and a full drum kit.

"I need more, though," Matthew says, still happily improvising upstairs on the baby grand, acquired for him three Christmases ago.

"Where are you going to put it?" asks his father, sounding stunned.

"I need a vibraphone," Matthew insists.

"Where are we going to put a vibraphone?" his father asks.

For the time being, Matthew's instruments are piano, organ, drums, bass, melodica and a smattering of guitar. Organ is his favorite. "Organ is number one," Matthew says. "Because of all the different sounds you can get out of it. It's like there's no limit."

Matthew already has his own organ trio. He's paid attention, while developing his chops, not only to his mentor, the famed organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, but also to the organists Jimmy Smith and Joey DeFrancesco, and the pianists Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Barry Harris, Erroll Garner, and Thelonious Monk.

And Stevie, of course. Though Matthew himself would never make the comparison.

"Stevie is Stevie," he says. "There's no one who can copy Stevie. People try their best to imitate him, but they just can't. And I have met Stevie. I know. When I was 10, I opened for him at the Apollo Theater. He was being inducted into the Hall of Fame. We met backstage before I went on. He said, 'How you doing, Matt?' He gave me one of his harmonicas. I think it was in A-flat."

If Matthew's ego seems healthily in check, credit his dad.

"He gets a lot of accolades and praise, and my job is to keep him grounded," Moses Whitaker says. "So basically I say to him a lot of times, 'Matt, you still have a lot to learn. You're good, people are comparing you to a lot of people, people are comparing you to Stevie Wonder, but there's only one Stevie Wonder. It's an honor to be compared to him, but remember — you're Matthew Whitaker.' "

Matthew Christopher Whitaker is the youngest of four children born to Moses (originally from Paterson), and May (originally from the Dominican Republic) Whitaker, both information technology specialists who moved to Hackensack about 20 years ago. Matthew was a "preemie" — weighing 1 pound 11 ounces when he was born, and initially given a less than 50 percent chance of survival. He was blind from birth.

It may have been in his special nursery school, in a class with other blind children, that a 3-year-old Matthew discovered music. In any case, his parents soon discovered that he had discovered it.

There was a small Yamaha keyboard in the house. Like anything else that makes noise, it was naturally fascinating to a toddler.

"In the nursery school he was in with the blind kids, most of the stuff is music," Moses Whitaker says. "He was probably attracted to 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,' when he heard it. But then when he came home he could play it."

Understand: Matthew was not just plinking out the melody. He was playing it with full chord progressions.

"It was a little keyboard that my grandfather gave me to play," Matthew says. "At first I was probably banging away. Then I started playing 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,' with no one showing me how to play it."

Music teachers would call it a great ear. Call it what you like: Matthew has it. "What happens, Matthew hears something, and he's internalizing it, and he can play it back," Moses says.

Matthew's ability in music, like his inability to see, are both things he takes for granted. On stage, he has his keyboards arrayed around him like a workstation, so he can pivot effortlessly from one to the other as he performs. His sense of his surroundings is well developed. "If I'm on the stage, I'm not that close to the edge," he says.

But Matthew's sightlessness, like his prodigious talent, will always be a little mysterious to his parents. They may never fully understand either.

"We take our sight for granted," Moses Whitaker says. "Whereas Matthew has never seen (anything). One thing I always go back to, one time we were on a plane and he said, 'What does it look like out the window?'  I said, 'Oh, it's really nice, the sky is blue and there are a lot of clouds.' And he says, 'What are clouds?'

"Now how do you explain a cloud?"

Moses and May always makes a point of giving Matthew a full audio description of whatever venue they're playing, big or small. And in recent years, they've been getting bigger. On April 3, he played the main concert hall at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.: capacity 2,465. (He previously played the center's Eisenhower Theater, which seats 1,161.) On May 13, he'll play the 19,500-seat Prudential Center in Newark, as part of McDonald's Gospelfest.

"When we played in France, we were in an open-air theater," Moses says. "He couldn't see it, but he could feel how large it was. We kind of described it to him. It was like a Greek open-air theater where you sit on the stones. I think that was his favorite one, because he really loved the fact that he was outside in the open. He plays so many spots, and because he can't see, if we don't describe it to him, it's very difficult for him to (picture)."

From early on, the music establishment took note of Matthew. When he was 9, the Jazz Foundation of America, based in New York, brought him under its wing. He currently attends the Manhattan School of Music, in tandem with Emerson Junior-Senior High School (he's in 10th grade). He has a marketing deal with both Yamaha and Hammond — in each case, their youngest endorser ever. And his new album was produced by Ray Chew (American Idol, Showtime at the Apollo), the famed music director who lives in Teaneck and has a studio in Hackensack.

"He's extraordinary," Chew says of Matthew. "And you don't want to put an asterisk next to it. He's not extraordinary because he's blind. He's extraordinary because he's extraordinary."


The new album contains a mix of Matthew's own compositions, with titles like Matt's Blues, Flow and Song for Allie (a tribute to his older sister Allison), and standards like Mas Que Nada and I Thought About You. And there are some heavy names in the credits: the bassist Christian McBride, the percussionist Sammy Figueroa and the drummer Will Calhoun are among the personnel.

"Yes, he's a remarkable talent, but he's also got a great aptitude for learning, and a great desire for learning," Chew says. "I like that he's a student of the craft and he wants to continue to explore in his music. I've encouraged him to understand that talent can sometimes be an overrated commodity. Talent is potential — like an I.Q. It's what you do with it. I'm very excited for where he can go."

If Matthew is flying high right now, he's not flying solo. For the moment, his parents are there to nurture him, guide him, and occasionally rescue him when he gets into a jam. His father, for instance, recently saved the day at a gig in South Jersey when his Hammond organ and Leslie — the speaker cabinet with the rotating horns that gives the Hammond its distinctive sound — suddenly stopped working mid-performance.

"I was playing, and then all of a sudden, the organ just cut out," Matthew recalls. "There was no sound happening whatsoever. So what I had to do, I had to restart everything, turn off the organ, turn it back on, and then get dad on the stage to fix the Leslie."

At some point in Matthew's future, there may be roadies to do this sort of thing for him. He does have big plans: to perform, to release more albums, and eventually, perhaps, to be a music director like Chew.

But for the time being, his parents will continue to be his eyes. His ears, he needs no help with.

"My parents are my biggest supporters," Matthew says. "They always help me out."

Matthew's album is available through CD Baby, Amazon, iTunes and Google Play or through his Web site, matthewwhitaker.net

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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