For this week’s feature on American Composers and Musicians, we will look at the remarkable life and work of jazz pianist Matthew Whitaker. Like many of the musicians featured in this series, he has overcome incredible odds to make great strides in the field of music. Matthew will perform a virtual concert, streamed on the Library’s YouTube page on Wednesday, March 3, at 8:00 p.m.
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.
Dr. Charles Limb, who conducted a study of Matthew’s brain at the University of California–San Francisco, noted how his entire brain—even the part dedicated to vision—is stimulated by music. “His visual cortex is activated throughout. It seems like his brain is taking that part of the tissue that’s not being stimulated by sight and using it or maybe helping him to perceive music with it,” Dr. Limb remarked on CBS in a 2020 interview on 60 Minutes.
Whitaker was the 2019 and 2020 winner of The Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Award for two of his original compositions, and he recently did a livestream benefit performance to raise funds for jazz musicians with COVID-19 through the Jazz Foundation of America, a National Endowment for the Arts grantee. To top it all off, he also enjoys rock climbing and skiing.
To learn more about the music that has inspired Matthew Whitaker, or to read more about the instruments that he plays, please enjoy these selections from the NLS collection. Also, be sure to view Matthew’s performance that kicks off the 90th anniversary celebration of NLS on Wednesday, March 3 at 8:00 p.m. on the Library’s YouTube page. Also on that day, beginning at 8:00 a.m., please watch an interview with Matthew Whitaker conducted by Karen Keninger, the Director of NLS, also viewable on the Library’s YouTube page.
Brown, Bill. All in Love is Fair: for Piano. Bill Brown teaches the Stevie Wonder piano solo “All in Love is Fair” without the use of music notation. Includes orchestrated backing tracks. Intermediate level. (DBM03000)
____ For Once in my Life. Bill Brown teaches how to play “For Once in my Life” on piano in the style of Stevie Wonder without the use of music notation. Available on cartridge only. (DBM03719)
____ My Cherie Amour. Bill Brown teaches how to play Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” on the piano without the use of music notation. Intermediate level. (DBM03319)
____ Ribbon in the Sky: for Piano. Bill Brown teaches how to play the Stevie Wonder rhythm and blues song “Ribbon in the Sky” on the piano without the use of music notation. Includes backing tracks. Intermediate level. (DBM03378)
Wonder, Stevie. Stevie Wonder: Sketches of a Life. Stevie Wonder talks to Norman Middleton of the Library’s Music Division about his Library of Congress commission, “Sketches of a Life,” and his thoughts about composition and music. Then, Wonder, the awardee of the second Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, premieres “Sketches of a Life,” a sprawling, hybrid pop-classical concerto, written between 1976 and 1994. The work was unveiled through a commission for the Library of Congress in the Coolidge Auditorium in 2009. (DBM04282)
Auric, Georges. The Song from Moulin Rouge: Where is your Heart. For Hammond organ in bar over bar format. (BRM33717)
Hammond Century Owner’s Guide (200 Series). Instructional manual for the 200 series Hammond organ with musical examples in single line format. (BRM34840)
Hammond Organ Course: Student Manual Semester 2. Student instruction course for the Hammond Organ with musical examples in bar over bar format. (BRM23961)
____ Semester 3. (BRM23962)
____ Semester 4. (BRM23963)
Matos Rodríguez, G. H. La cumparsita: for Hammond Organ. Arranged by Fred Feibel in bar over bar format. (BRM30918)
Purvis, Richard. Fantasia Ton-y-botel. A chorale prelude for pipe or Hammond organ in bar over bar format. (BRM20703)
Reaves, Erell. Lady in Spain. For Hammond organ in bar over bar format. (BRM30924)
Yamaha Electone Organ Course. Instructional method for Yamaha Electone organ in single line format. (BRM28132)
To borrow any materials, you can download them from BARD, call us at 1-800-424-8567, extension 2, or email us at [email protected]. You can visit our website at any time to learn more about the services that NLS provides.