Music & Film

Keeping a Vision of Jazz With Your Eyes Closed

Local jazz drummer Sebastian "Bash" Whittaker overcomes blindness and adversity with his sensational jazz sounds.

By William Geoffrey Wood February 12, 2016

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Image: PlayTheTunes

The snare drum sizzles out a bustling tempo followed by a trumpet and the rest of the four-piece jazz band at Vic and Anthony’s downtown. While the band plays, indistinguishable voices mingle with the sounds of utensils clinking against dinner plates. This is a familiar arrangement for local jazz drummer Sebastian “Bash” Whittaker who has been playing in nightclubs from New York City to Houston since he was in his early twenties. The journey to becoming a professional musician for Bash, who participated in a jam session in connection with the ReelAbilities Film and Arts Festival, was a little different, however, because of an illness that took his sight when he was three years old.

“When I was coming up in junior high the band director told me that I couldn’t play because I couldn’t read the music,” says Sebastian.

This seemingly insurmountable pitfall did not stop Bash from pursuing music and his dream of becoming a jazz drummer. He would record the practices and take the recordings home and continue to fine-tune his skills. He often learned the tune quicker and more proficiently than his classmates.

“That adversity created a fire in me to get better and be the best,” remarks Bash in an apropos, jazz vocal timbre. He talks smoothly and his sentences are intermittent with the word “man.” If you close your eyes you can imagine him smoking a cigarette outside of a nightclub on a busy street in New York City.

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Sebastian "Bash" Whittaker (far left) performs at his alma mater, HSPVA, this past January.

Image: HSPVA

As a blind African-American in the '80s and '90s, the struggle for acceptance and the chance to succeed was extremely arduous. Sebastian had to wade through not only racial issues, but the problems of someone who was visually impaired as well.

“I was the first student without sight at The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and broke down that barrier. I wasn't thinking about that but it’s what happened,” says Whittaker. One of his main goals now is to help people with disabilities and to promote empathy.

Sebastian’s ability to become a successful musician is why the ReelAbilities festival exists, to show others that people with disabilities can achieve their dreams. The film fest shows 12 films, all featuring stories of people with disabilities, running from this Sunday through next Thursday at places like the Children's Museum, HCC and Edwards Greenway Grand Palace Stadium 24.

“I pray the impact is that everyone recognizes that there is an organization that wants to bring this to the community. Maybe everyone will get an understanding of people who have differences and won’t just judge the book by its cover.”

Feb 14–18. See website for schedule. 713-667-9336.

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