The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS), Library of Congress, will kick off its 90th anniversary celebration with a free virtual concert by jazz pianist Matthew Whitaker on Wednesday, March 3, at 8:00 p.m. (EST)—and you’re invited! The event will be streamed on the Library’s YouTube page, and will be available on that platform for two years.
Born in 2001 in Hackensack, N.J. at 24 weeks, Matthew weighed 1 pound 11 ounces. His parents were told he had less than a 50% chance of survival. One of the many complications he faced was retinopathy of prematurity, a disease that can lead to blindness. After several surgical procedures as a toddler, his vision could not be saved.
However, his grandfather gave Matthew a small Yamaha keyboard, and he almost immediately began harmonizing nursery rhymes. He would eventually be endorsed by Hammond organs at age 12—the youngest person ever to be endorsed by Hammond.
At age 10, Whitaker was the opening performer for Stevie Wonder’s induction into the Apollo Hall of Fame. While many people have tried to make the inevitable comparison to Wonder, Whitaker simply said in a 2018 interview, “There’s only one Stevie.” (Stevie Wonder was the 2009 recipient of the Library’s Gershwin Prize).
A patron of NLS since the age of 13, he studied classical piano and drums at the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg (FMDG) Music School in New York City, and learned to read braille music. “I learned the basics of that for playing classical music, because there’s not much braille music available for other styles of music. I do learn music by ear, but if the music is really challenging I check it by the braille to be sure,” Matthew stated in a 2020 interview.
He also studied at The Harlem School of the Arts, and was a member of both the Jazz House Big Band and the Organ Messengers at Jazz House Kids in Montclair, N.J. Matthew attended the Manhattan School of Music’s Precollege Jazz Program and is currently a second-year student in the jazz studies program at Juilliard in New York City, studying with jazz composer/pianist Frank Kimbrough.
He won the ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards for 2019 and 2020 and has been featured on stages around the world and on TV shows including Ellen and NBC’s Today. In a story on the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes neuroscientists discussed how Whitaker’s brain is stimulated by music—so much so that his visual cortex lights up when he plays.
Karen Keninger, the Director of NLS, will conduct an interview with Whitaker, which will also be available on the Library’s YouTube page starting at 8:00 a.m. (EST) on March 3.
Direct links to each event will be made available on Tuesday, March 2. For this and other information, follow NLS on Facebook or check out the Library of Congress Events page or the NLS Music Notes blog.