The Blind Musician Stopped by Westinghouse Arts Academy and Won Over a New Group of Fans
By SHARON EBERSON
The students flowing into the auditorium knew they were in the presence of someone extraordinary as they sat down facing Matthew Whitaker. He was in his comfort zone, at a keyboard, ready to impart words of wisdom and display his amazing jazz hands.
What they didn’t know was, they were in for some party time, too.
Whitaker, the 22-year-old international jazz sensation, is in Pittsburgh as music director for Pittsburgh Public Theater’s world-premiere musical, Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For. On Monday, he introduced himself to a couple dozen students at Westinghouse Performing Arts Charter Academy first with music, and then broke the ice.
“I’m blind, so I can’t see you,” he said, then proceeded to charm and inspire them, ending the Q&A/mini-concert by jamming with the students in different musical styles, changing from jazz to Broadway to pop in a heartbeat.
He explained in detail how braille works for composers and arrangers who are blind, and talked about conducting and arranging for the nine musicians – with him on various keyboards – in the musical about longtime Pittsburgher Strayhorn, which opens this week.
Whitaker accompanied and played with anyone willing to sing and dance or join him at the keys, until, alas, it was time for late-morning classes at the Wilmerding school.
Claudia Pierre, a sophomore studying musical theater, was first to Whitaker’s side after the formal Q&A, and suddenly, he was surrounded by students, faculty, members of the Pittsburgh Public staff and a representative of Solich Piano, which has donated the grand piano that Whitaker will play in the Strayhorn production, as well as of the digital piano he used at Westinghouse Arts Academy. A spokesperson for Solich said that Yamaha “particularly wanted us to be involved with this project because of overlap in the stories of Matthew and our owner, Thomas Solich … who has been visually impaired from birth, and is a conservatory-trained concert pianist. He is also an avid supporter of the arts and of music education.”
For students, it was a day in their education many will never forget.
“It’s just so amazing to see a Black artist at close range, especially in the instrumental musical theater world. It’s coming up a lot more, but sometimes it’s hard to feel like we’re there,” Claudia said. “Also, he seems like such a kind, cool guy, I felt comfortable being able to talk and ask questions about just being a good person and being so famous.”
As Claudia talked, Whitaker had gone from dazzling renditions of Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Something to Live For,” plus his own composition on what New York sounds like to him, to “It’s a Hard Knock Life” from Annie.
Before he was done, students would be dancing and singing along to Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing,” “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys and that standard of a new generation, “Let It Go,” from Disney’s Frozen.
Junior Gabbie Quinn was obviously nervous but sat down on Whitaker’s right and “was improvising for the first time in front of people,” picking out high notes to go with the melody he was playing.
“It was really cool having someone who is a trained professional right there, to help you go through it, while it comes to easy to them,” Gabbie said.
Asked beforehand what Whitaker wanted to impart to the students, the Juilliard alum explained his philosophy, and then repeated it to the assemblage:
“Follow your dreams. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t. Practice your craft. Have fun.”
A charismatic smile, a penchant for hugs and bottomless wells of talent are other ways Matthew Whitaker communicates what he’s all about.
This is a young man who, to every query, said, “Good question.” And at parting, he said, “Appreciate you.”
Ask him about meeting one of his inspirations, Billy Porter, and he could be describing himself.
Porter is a producer of the Strayhorn musical, who brought together writer Rob Zellers (The Chief) and director and co-writer Kent Gash. The Tony-, Emmy- and Grammy-winning Pittsburgh native dropped by a New York City rehearsal for the Public’s upcoming premiere and sat down for a gospel song, accompanied by Whitaker.
“It was so fun!,” Whitaker said, his voice rising a few octaves. “He’s such a humble, nice guy, so down to earth.”
While with the students on Monday, Whitaker occasionally looked to his father, Moses Whitaker, to answer some of the questions put to him.
Mr. Whitaker explained that Matthew was born blind and three months premature. Doctors did not expect him to live. As he developed, learning to speak proved harder than sitting down at a piano and tapping out a tune he had just heard, immediately knowing to use both hands.
In 2020, 60 Minutes profiled the New Jersey native, with the headline: Meet the blind piano player who is so good, scientists are studying him.
“Whitaker doesn’t just play music, he plays with it. Twisting melodies, crafting complex harmonies and improvising at lightning speed. Its acoustic acrobatics performed over 88 keys, and it is not for the faint of heart,” Sharyn Alfonsi wrote for the CBS magazine show. “The sheer complexity and spontaneity of his sets make the most seasoned musicians sweat and jazz fans go wild.”
In addition to the Strayhorn musical, Whitaker will play a set of his own for Pittsburgh fans on Saturday, October 14, at MCG Jazz.
Starting on Tuesday, September 19, Whitaker will be a big part of the team launching Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For, a current jazz great playing and conducting his own arrangements of works by one of his inspirations.
Developing a new musical “is something I wanted to do ever since I was little, and the fact that I’m a part of this is amazing,” Whitaker said. “I’m really honored to be a part of something like this.”
He has played Strayhorn’s music before, but for the biomusical he has been “digging deeper,” and enjoying the interaction with director Kent Gash and actors such as Darius de Haas (Broadway; The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). They will tell the story of the Black, gay jazz icon, whose contributions often were attributed to Duke Ellington during their long collaboration. Strayhorn died at age 51 in 1967.
“You can definitely tell he was thinking of the big picture in all of these songs,” Whitaker said of Strayhorn. ‘Lyrically, musically, harmony-wise, the instrumentation is all there for you already. We are doing it the way we would do it, but making sure he is being celebrated.”
Whitaker, as a first-time music director, is working with acclaimed director Kent Gash. Asked about Gash, Whitaker said, “He’s amazing, He knows what he’s doing — like Billy Strahorn, he sees the picture.
Gash gushed about his young colleague. He had known of Whitaker’s virtuosity, and recommendations by producer Steven Tabakin and Gash’s fellow Carnegie Mellon alum, Michael McElroy, made it happen.
“He has a great sense of emotional honesty in his playing,” Gash said. “Matthew is not just a virtuoso pianist and artist, but the great thing about Matthew is, he understands that music finally is felt. It’s a kind of hard-wired into the soul, and that’s exactly how he plays and works. And because all of the theatricality of everything that we’re doing is new to him, he comes at it with this great sort of youthful enthusiasm that for those of us who have been kicking around for a while, it’s great to be in the room with someone who first and foremost loves what they do.”
Telling Strayhorn’s neglected story in his hometown was important to both men, and almost came as a given to Whitaker, who said simply, “What better location to start out this thing than in Pittsburgh?”
The students and faculty at Westinghouse Academy couldn’t agree more. When last seen, they were reluctantly leaving Whitaker and his music, and heading off to class.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Pittsburgh Public Theater’s world-premiere production of Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For is at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown, extended before its September 19 opening through October 11. Tickets: visit https://ppt.org/production/87809/list_performances or call 412-316-1600.