Piano Prodigy Returns to the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival
By Becca Newell
Eighteen-year-old pianist Matthew Whitaker is hastily making a name for himself in the jazz world. And for good reason, as anyone who caught the New Artist Showcase at last year’s Monty Alexander Jazz Festival can attest.
After a show-stopping performance (more on that below!), there was no question about inviting back this piano prodigy. Whitaker returns to the Festival—now celebrating its 10th year—on Saturday, August 31st.
An Exciting Debut, An Eagerly Awaited Return begins at 2 p.m. at the Avalon Theatre in Easton.
Blind since birth, Whitaker was introduced to the piano at the age of three, when his grandfather gave him a small Yamaha keyboard. At five years old, he began taking piano lessons—his studies, like most new students, were rooted in classical piano, but the focus later shifted to jazz, where his true passion lies.
“I’ve always had a love for music,” he says. “I first heard jazz in the car with my dad. I was about seven years old. Ever since then, it’s been my favorite genre.”
By 15, Whitaker was named a Yamaha Artist, becoming the youngest member to join this group of notable musicians. He’s received awards and accolades from competitions and festivals across the country, including a stunning 2016 performance on Showtime at the Apollo that deservedly took home the grand prize. He performed an impressive tribute to one of his personal inspirations, Stevie Wonder, earning the young musician comparisons to the legend himself.
Last year, he was named one of seven rising stars for 2018 by USA Today network’s 201 Magazine.
It’s no exaggeration to say that concertgoers were in awe of Whitaker’s musical finesse and ingenuity during his previous performance on the Festival stage. At one point, he had two instruments—a piano and Hammond organ—on either side of him and played them simultaneously!
“Matthew Whitaker’s performance amazed everyone in the crowd,” says Concert Promoter Keith Ghezzi, who was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the New Artist Showcase. Ghezzi and his wife, Lisa, were so impressed with Whitaker’s Festival debut, they decided to sponsor this year’s performance.
“Truly a gifted and creative young man at the dawn of his musical career… I am looking forward to his future concerts in Easton with great anticipation,” says Lisa Ghezzi.
Not only was she impressed by Whitaker’s burgeoning talent, but his demeanor was equally impressive, particularly for such a young and accomplished musician.
“He was so gracious,” she adds. “Just a lovely person.”
Unsurprisingly, one of Whitaker’s dream collaborators is the Festival’s eponymous headliner, Monty Alexander.
“I love his style and how he combines different elements of music,” he says. “It’s really cool to listen to.”
Like Alexander, Whitaker takes inspiration from other genres—think gospel, R&B, country, and funk—and works them into not only his own compositions, but into standard and contemporary classics, too.
“[It’s] what jazz really is all about—making it you,” he says.
Catch Matthew Whitaker at 2 p.m., Saturday, August 31st, at the Avalon Theatre in Easton. Tickets are $45 for reserved and $25 for balcony. For more information about MAJF, visit JazzontheChesapeake.com.
The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival is partially underwritten by the Maryland State Arts Council and the Talbot County Arts Council. Jazz on the Chesapeake is a program of Chesapeake Music.