Autistic jazz prodigy already playing with greats

Friday, September 16, 2005 | by dan pine

Matt Savage recently marked two milestones in his life. One, his bar mitzvah. The other, Matt's hands have finally grown big enough to reach a full octave on the piano.

That's a big deal for Matt, at 13 an accomplished jazz pianist with several national tours and six CDs under his belt.

And, he's autistic.

The Matt Savage Trio will make their Bay Area concert debut at S.F.'s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Thursday, Sept. 29.

Though Matt was diagnosed at age 3 with a mild form of pervasive developmental disorder, it's hard to tell that he has autism. Bright, funny and outgoing, Matt comes across like a typical teenage lad. Except that he plays piano like a budding Art Tatum or Dave Brubeck.

In fact, after hearing Matt play, Brubeck said of him, "he's the first one I met that was that young and that talented."

Such accolades don't phase the Harry Potter look-alike. His parents make sure he leads as normal a life as possible, which isn't always easy when you're a certified musical genius.

"Music just came to me," says Matt from his New Hampshire home. "I've been playing for six and a half years, half my life."

He not only plays piano, he composes as well. His latest CD "Cutting Loose" is a sophisticated outing that shows both his sense of melody and his jazz chops. But some of the song titles -- "Ladybug Bounce," "House Cat," "Waltz for Mom" and "Wow!"-- are a giveaway of the composer's tender age.

Musically, that's where the kid's stuff ends.

Matt won the 2005 Young Jazz Composers Award for his tune "Wild Time," and he was recently honored at the second annual Chaka Khan Foundation dinner, at which he performed with Kenny G. and Chaka Khan herself. "They tell me I'm really good," he says of the stars' reactions to his music, "and to keep it going."

He will also receive an award of excellence at a national autism conference next month. Matt is living proof that even a serious developmental disorder need not stop someone from living up to his or her full potential.

Born in Sudbury, Mass., Matt showed early signs of autism, with delays in some forms of social communication. But his intelligence was never in doubt. Matt could read at 18 months and from then on has been a sponge for knowledge.

"He had an additional diagnosis of hyperlexia, a fixation with letters and numbers," says his mother, Diane Savage. "He would not process spoken language, but if we wrote it down, he was compelled to read."

Despite that gift for reading, Matt was on sensory overload, which left him in his own private world. But his parents would not give up on him.

"We were told he wouldn't be able to do a lot of things he's doing now," says Savage. "I just said, 'Not my son.' My husband and I have dedicated ourselves to our children's needs."

The parents enrolled him in auditory integration training when he was six, which normalized Matt's hearing. That led to his first encounter with a piano.

"He just sat down and played," his mother remembers. "Our house had been silent and quiet for so many years, but one evening Matt found the piano and we heard a perfect rendition of 'London Bridge.'"

As his piano lessons progressed, Matt discovered jazz. His early heroes were Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. In time he showed interest in playing with other musicians. Savage took her son to a local jazz café where they met his eventual sidemen, bassist John Funkhouser and drummer Steve Silverstein.

Over the years, Matt and the trio have played all over the United States and Canada, as well as far-flung places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Curacao.

Even with the whirlwind of a music career and the challenges of living with autism, Matt and his family remained dedicated to living a Jewish life.

"What I have loved about Judaism is the family aspect," Savage says. "Both of our kids go to Hebrew school, and Matt was just offered the honor of reading the Torah for the High Holy Days. He decided not to, but he wanted to learn the trope anyway."

With his bar mitzvah in June, Matt sailed through. Thanks to his facility with reading, he had no trouble with the Hebrew, and his natural ease with performing helped as well.

"It went great," says Matt. "To me it was more of a physical challenge, not a nervous challenge. I once performed for 8,000 people, but to stand for an hour, your legs get tired."

Home-schooled by his mother, Matt lives with his younger sister and parents in rural New Hampshire. He does travel often for gigs, but his mother keeps a watchful eye. "My job is to keep him a kid and not let him grow up to fast. We live on a farm, so he can play outside and be with the kittens."

Not a bad life for one cool cat who knows what he wants.

"In the next couple of years," says Matt, "I want to increase my jazz vocabulary and learn some new licks."




The Matt Savage Trio performs 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard St., S.F. Tickets: $5-$50. Information: (415) 978-2787.