Jazz Is The Soundtrack To His Life

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Autistic jazz savant graduates from Berklee

Boston Articles
May 12, 2012|Bella English


Matt Savage doesn’t like to think of his younger days, when he couldn’t stand the sound of music, even his family singing “Happy Birthday’’ to him. Diagnosed at age 3 with autism, he was hyperactive, engaged in repetitive motions, and lasted two days in preschool before being kicked out. Noise of any sort, including music, was anathema.

Now, music is his life. Today, his 20th birthday, Savage will graduate from Berklee College of Music with a 3.99 grade point average. He still has a semester left, but since Berklee has just one graduation ceremony per year, he will collect his diploma with the class of 2012.

Matt Savage in a music lab at Berklee College of Music. He will graduate today, on his 20th birthday.

Matt Savage in a music lab at Berklee College of Music. He will graduate today,…

The diploma caps the astonishing first chapter of his jazz career. Savage cut his first album at age 7, formed his own band at age 8, has performed in prestigious festivals and competitions around the globe, has won several ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Awards, and has jammed with the likes of Chick Corea and Chaka Khan.

When his course work is complete, he hopes to attend graduate school in music and add teaching to his resume.

“Music is a soundtrack to my life,’’ he says in a rehearsal hall at Berklee. “It transports people into what life could be. When you play music, it feels like you’re making the world that much more exciting.’’ His eyes fix immediately on the grand piano, as if he can’t wait to touch it. With a slight build and glasses that lend him a studious air, he looks more 12 than 20. Gone are the most obvious signs of autism, though he still struggles with distraction and focusing.

Ask Savage how many songs he’s written and he can’t really answer. “Definitely over 100, maybe over 200 by now,’’ he says. As a graduation party, he’ll perform some of them today at the Acton Jazz Cafe, where he played his first gig at age 8. Back then, his feet didn’t reach the pedals and the audience couldn’t see his head over the top of the piano, but the music was accomplished way beyond his years.

Along with autism came another label: musical savant. When he was a young boy, his parents, Diane and Larry, saw that Matthew got several types of therapy, including auditory integration, which helped him tolerate sounds. As a result, he fell in love with music.

Today, when Savage sits at the piano, he seems as though he’s in another world. His slender fingers fly over the keys, alternately muscular and nuanced. He says he plays in the bebop tradition of the ’50s and ’60s. Thelonious Monk is his hero.

“He totally did his own thing,’’ Savage says of Monk. “People were bewildered at first, and then realized it’s some of the most melodic music out there.’’

As for himself, he plays from both the heart and from the brain: “But the brain is secondary to the heart, and that’s the way it should be.’’



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