Matthew Whitaker at the South Beach Jazz Festival

When pianist and organist Matthew Whitaker closed his concert at the South Beach Jazz Festival in Miami Beach on January 8 with Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration,” for a moment, months of fear and isolation seemed to dissipate. A few in the properly distanced, limited-numbered audience at the open-air North Beach Bandshell got up and danced. It felt equal parts a gesture of release and defiance. For many of us, the simple act of attending a live show and sharing the music with a group of fellow human beings, in person, even if at a distance and with masks, was both extraordinary and wonderfully mundane.

There was nothing ordinary about Whitaker, however. A blind, prodigiously talented 19 year old (he won’t be 20 until April) with a light touch and quick hands, he was fearless enough to jump in the deep end of bop, classic 70s electric fusion, R&B, Latin jazz — and bring to the party a couple of original tunes.

Backed by his regular quartet — Marcos Robinson, guitar; Karim Hutton, bass; and Isaiah Johnson, drums — Whitaker zigged and zagged unhurriedly between Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance,” Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” (which he approached in an organ trio format), and Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof ” — before turning left and revisiting Jorge Ben’s “Mas Que Nada,”  a hit for Sergio Mendes in the 60s, his own piece “Emotions,” and for good measure, Earth Wind & Fire’s catchy “September.”

But Whitaker does not seem to program this material for the sake of nostalgia or as a revivalist. As promising as he appeared as a player, he sounded just as intriguing as an arranger. With his song choices, he sometimes suggested an archeologist going through old artifacts, trying to understand what life was like back then — only to put it back together his own way. Every piece seemed to have several time signatures, a couple of tempo changes, and harmonic passageways to unexpected resolutions. He good-naturedly poked and pulled at the material, as if to find what else might be there, how far it would stretch, whether it was Chick Corea’s speed test “Got a Match?” or Deniece Williams’s anthemic “Black Butterfly.”

An astounding facility at the keyboards, a curious mind, and an engaging presence as a performer make a great combination. Whitaker has justly gained a lot of recognition and applause at a young age; more, no doubt, is to come.

A note about the festival: Whitaker was an inspired choice to launch the fifth edition of this three-day South Beach Jazz Festival, a fundraiser for the non-profit organization, Power Access which has as a goal “to bring awareness to the community about people living with disabilities and to provide opportunities for those people.” The Festival, by design, “takes pride in featuring world-renowned musicians who also have disabilities.” Another reason to celebrate.

Photo courtesy Harvey Burnstein of MiamiArtzine

This story appeared in JAZZIZ Magazine

Luis Olazábal, Music for Your Eyes

Luis Olazábal photo courtesy of Sandra Abousleiman @mypinkpanthetravels ©

Not every musician plays an instrument or writes music.
Luis Olazábal used his camera to make music with images. A dear colleague and arguably the premier performing arts photographer in South Florida, Luis died in his native Lima, Peru, on June 30 of pancreatic and liver cancer. He was 52.

Luis worked for notable clients, including the JVC Jazz Festival, Sony-BMG Music, Miami-Nice Jazz Festival, Miami International Jazz Fest, Miami Light Project, Tigertail Productions, and the adventurous Subtropics Festival. But since 2004, he was the official photographer of the Rhythm Foundation, a Miami Beach-based non-profit which presents music from around the world.

We shared many moments in the back rows of the North Beach Bandshell, talking about music and musicians while taking in all kinds of shows – from Haitian music and jazz to Cuban funk, classical, gospel, you name it. He was an informed and astute listener with a great eye. It made his photographs different.
His work illustrates many stories on this blog. The picture on the header is his.

When I told him about the idea behind the blog I was starting and asked him for an image for it, he said he would think about it, and later that day he sent me some photos. The one I chose was just the second or third I saw. He had some technical objections I didn’t understand and, frankly, he wasn’t crazy about it. But I loved it, so we agreed it would be a placeholder, just to get rolling. Of course, I had no intention of changing it. His photo was, and remains, a better statement about what this blog is about than any description I could write.

That’s the power of his work.

As it turns out, Luis didn’t plan on being a photographer, but, as he was fond of recalling, on a walk on Lincoln Road, he saw an exhibit of black & white images of jazz and blues performers by Herman Leonard. Those photos, he said, “made me realize exactly what I was meant to do. At that moment, I knew that music photography was my calling.” We were lucky he did.

In a town too often dazzled by loud, shiny, and inch-deep, Luis was unassuming, truly talented, and serious about his craft. You can enjoy more of his work here.

Some day we will have concerts at the Bandshell again, and then, I hope to be somewhere in the back rows, listening and taking notes — and I know it will hit me.

I will miss him.



The Shape of Jazz To Come















From left: Linda May Han Oh, Kris Davis, Terri Lyne Carrington, Aja Burrell Wood  Photo by Kelly Davidson

Women have been part of jazz from its beginning. It’s a rich but complicated story framed by limited opportunity mixed with unwritten rules, sexism, and benign neglect. None of this is surprising: Generous as jazz can be, as art, it both reflects and shapes the society that produces it. 

“We live in a patriarchal society, and that patriarchal thread has run through this music as well,” says Terri Lyne Carrington, drummer, and producer, as well as the artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.

She founded the institute to explore a fundamental question: What would jazz sound like in a culture without patriarchy? The question has surfaced at a moment in which society seems open to an important set of conversations and institutional changes, says Farah Jasmine Griffin, a Columbia University professor who has written extensively about issues of race, gender, feminism, and cultural politics, and who sits on the institute’s advisory board.

“Oh, I don’t know that jazz is any worse on these issues than many other parts of our culture,” says Griffin, who is also the author of If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, and collaborated with the late composer and pianist Geri Allen on theatrical projects. “But I’ve always felt that because jazz is so capacious and it’s always been historically at the forefront of social change and modeling social change, jazz would be a great place to try and do something like [the institute] to really kind of challenge our notions of gender norms.”

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