Jazz pianist Matthew Whitaker reflects on Cal Performances, musical upbringing, future projects

Matthew Whitaker
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Versatile in nature and fueled with talent, jazz pianist Matthew Whitaker is a force to be reckoned with. At age 19, Whitaker has already achieved massive feats as a growing musician, being the youngest person ever to be endorsed by Hammond Organ USA. With two albums under his belt, Now Hear This and Outta the Box, Whitaker’s future is nothing but bright.

Whitaker was planning to give a debut concert with Cal Performances this year. However, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage throughout the country, he took part in the Cal Performances at Home series instead. Filmed Sept. 26 at Bowery Ballroom in New York City, Whitaker played the piano and the Hammond B-3 organ alongside his quartet for the Nov. 5 broadcast release.

Marcos Robinson (guitar), Karim “Kace” Hutton (electric bass) and Isaiah Johnson (drums) are members of Whitaker’s performing quartet. Whitaker and his father usually choose the set list for any show, but there are moments during which Whitaker and his quartet have had to improvise and think on their feet about what music they wanted to play.

“Sometimes we get to the venue and they say, ‘You’ve got five minutes to get ready.’ So it’s like, you know, no sound check. Just go,” Whitaker said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “They improv with me, you know. It’s just building on top of something that’s established. And that’s the one thing I love about jazz. You can do whatever you want!”

Whitaker reflected on the reality of what he is missing most from live performances. While touring may not be in the cards for this year, Whitaker looks forward to a smooth transition to a virtual concert stage.

“It’s not going to be that interactive because there’s nobody in the room with you, unless they’ve been approved or something to come in and watch the show,” Whitaker said. “But as an artist, I love interaction with the audience. That audience interaction, whether it’s moving along with the music or how they’re interacting with us, I love that. And I hope to keep that going, even virtually.”

From an early age, Whitaker was captivated by music, playing instruments and everything in between. His grandfather gave him the initial push when he was just 3 years old by giving him his first keyboard. From then on, Whitaker ran with music and never looked back.

“At 5 is when I started taking classical piano lessons,” Whitaker said. “And then at 6 I started playing drums and at 7 I started getting into jazz and (at) 9 I taught myself the organ.”

Much of his youthful passion sparked from major musical inspirations, some including Dr. Lonnie Smith, Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder. Most fittingly, at age 10, Whitaker was the opening act for Wonder at the Apollo Theater in New York City.

“It was an amazing experience to me,” Whitaker reminisced. “I remember meeting him at the Apollo. He was being inducted into the Hall of Fame. I got a chance to meet him before he went on stage.”

But Whitaker’s musical journey hasn’t always been easy. Blind since birth, Whitaker has and continues to face uphill challenges with learning music. He typically prefers the method of learning by ear and reading Braille music. With the help of his longtime music teacher, Dalia Sakas, he is able to learn music with each hand separately and then synchronously.

“The hardest part is memorizing because now after learning each hand you have to memorize each hand and then memorize to play them together,” Whitaker explained. “You can’t just be like, ‘Here’s a piece of music. Read it.’ That ain’t going to work. We can’t see the page!”

For the coming months, Whitaker is making plans for the direction of a potential third album. Whether it be in the genre of jazz, Latin, gospel, R&B or a mixture of everything, Whitaker is eager to get back into the creative process and in the studio.

“We are actually thinking about ideas for my third record,” Whitaker said. “If all goes well, we may start recording in late March, early April. Again, everything isn’t confirmed yet. We’ve got a good set list so far but we just got to figure out a few things with production and studio and all that.”

As the future remains unpredictable, Whitaker keeps an upbeat attitude about the possibilities of his musical career. No matter if it’s in the form of performing, arranging or creating music, the centerpiece is Whitaker’s passion and unwavering drive to be a positive, influential light to the world. 

“I have a lot of people who inspire me,” Whitaker said. “And it is great to know that I can be an inspiration to other people.”

Cal Performances is now offering $15 streaming passes to the entire series for UC Berkeley students. All UC Berkeley students can view “An Evening with Yo-Yo Ma” on November 27 for free.

Contact Ashley Tsai at [email protected].