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South Beach Jazz Festival Highlights the Extraordinary Talents of People Living With Disabilities

Matthew Whitaker
Matthew Whitaker
Photo courtesy of South Beach Jazz Festival
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Just as jazz musicians arrange countless combinations of notes and rhythms to create unique songs, people with disabilities navigate a multitude of challenges to create extraordinary lives.

Organizers of the South Beach Jazz Festival want Miami audiences to know that living with a disability doesn’t make anyone any less capable, particularly when it comes to achieving their dreams. In its fifth year, the festival aims to share the diverse rhythms and styles that comprise jazz music and the multifaceted lives of those living with disabilities through a series of performances scheduled for January 8-10.

David New, creative director of the festival and founder of Power Access Inc., a local organization that produces events to increase awareness for those living with disabilities, says the festival’s mission can be summed up in four words: from disability to serendipity.

“People with disabilities can create beautiful things and live full lives that are extraordinary,” New says.

Performers include 18-year-old improvisational pianist Matthew Whitaker, a two-time ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Award winner whose journey living and playing the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall without sight was recently featured on 60 Minutes; Argentina-born vocalist and songwriter Roxana Amed; and vocalist Rose Max and guitarist Ramatis Moraes, whose quintet performs Brazilian jazz. Miami native Jesse Jones Jr. leads a sextet on saxophone, and Troy Anderson and the Hot Five is fronted by a trumpeter who honed his abilities to play and sing just like Louis Armstrong during his career as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army.

In addition to live performances at the North Beach Bandshell, 1111 Lincoln Road and Euclid Oval, a master class led by millennial jazz and world music trumpeter and educator Jean Caze will be held Saturday, January 9, at the Miami Beach Woman’s Club. On Sunday, January 10, local nonprofit Mind&Melody will host an interactive musical demonstration at the Lincoln Center Courtyard.

Eric Guitian, talent and community-engagement representative at Mind&Melody, says Sunday’s demonstration will feature the kind of programming his organization facilitates at schools and senior living centers across the state and via Zoom. Mind&Melody pairs professional musicians with older adults with or without neurological impairments and kids with and without disabilities in performances and interactive activities around music-theory topics like rhythm, tempo, dynamics, conducting, and singing.

Guitian says interacting with and playing music can have profound neurological effects on everyone, regardless of age or ability.

“Music weaves itself into our subconscious and our memories. When you hear a certain song, it instantly takes you back in time. You might meet an older adult who can’t say their name or look at you to greet you, but when they hear ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ their face lights up and they know all the words. This isn’t just a Facebook video. It happens every single day,” he says. “For kids, creating music is an opportunity to shine and build social skills like teamwork and confidence. It helps those who have a hard time expressing themselves and connecting with the world around them to bridge that gap and come out of their shells.”

New says he hopes festivalgoers end the weekend with a broader understanding of what those with disabilities are able to achieve and a greater sense of empathy for all those they encounter.

“We’d like the community to have a greater understanding of what the struggles are for people with disabilities and how extraordinary it is for them to accomplish something,” New says. “Approximately 20 percent of our population struggles with some disability or challenge. I hope audiences feel inspired to believe they can overcome their personal challenges and go further in their own lives.”

With the exception of Whitaker’s performance on Friday, January 8, at the North Beach Bandshell, for which tickets cost $35-$75, all events are free. Masks are required and safety ambassadors will ensure social distancing measures are adhered to. For those not able to attend the festival in person, Whitaker’s performance will be livestreamed on the festival website and other programming will be recorded and available to stream, as well.

South Beach Jazz Festival. Friday, January 8, through Sunday, January 10; sobejazzfestival.com.

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