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Friday, April 17, 2015

Matt Wong: The Jazz Prodigy

Posted By on Fri, Apr 17, 2015 at 9:49 AM

click to enlarge SCOTT CHERNIS
  • Scott Chernis
Matt Wong is a 16-year-old high school senior, San Francisco native, and “jazz prodigy,” according to Adam Theis of the Jazz Mafia, who has played with Wong.

Wong hit the stage at the world-renowned Blue Note jazz club in New York City at the age of 10, the majestic Davies Symphony Hall at 14, and Great American Music Hall at 16. His skills on the piano (and anything else with keys) have followed a similar trajectory as other musicians — but at an almost-alarmingly quicker pace.

But, that’s normal for Wong. He’s been skipping grade levels since elementary school, and has been on an accelerated learning track for his entire academic career.

“Muddy Waters and Lightnin' Hopkins spoke to him as a 4-year-old,” Wong’s mother, Janice Lee, says. “There was always music in the house, but we didn’t listen to the old blues he gravitated towards.”

According to Lee, she noticed something was special about Wong’s music abilities when his various piano teachers all seemed eager to spend additional time with him (free of charge), and asked to bring him on stage at their performances.

Despite a laundry list of awards and accolades, Wong remains humble, shrugging off words like “prodigy” with a dismissive tone. “It’s flattering but I don’t really like that label,” he says. “The awards and all that are good validation, but I would rather someone just come up to me after a set and tell me my music made them feel something.”

Wong started composing his own material at 11. Recently, he’s moved on to composing big band pieces that have been performed by various local groups. Still, he looks to improve. “I haven’t written my favorite composition yet,” he says.

Wong’s style is informed by the past but with a contemporary perspective. You can hear the roots of Thelonious Monk, but also a strong influence by current jazz pianists like Robert Glasper.

Jazz might be seem like an interesting genre for a high schooler to dive into — but Wong doesn’t mind what other kids his age are up to. He likes watching old movies, reading, and anything related to aviation. “I don’t listen to any pop music,” Wong says. The closest thing he can think of is Dirty Loops, a Swedish group that twists and distorts pop songs of the day into unique compositions.

As a high school senior, Wong is deciding which college to attend. He hasn’t made up his mind about which particular school to go to, but he knows which area he wants to live in.

“I’m not sure which one I’ll go to yet, but I know I want to be close to New York,” he says, continuing, “to be near the jazz.” 
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About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Bio:
Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.

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