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.
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.’’
In the Berklee rehearsal room, he’s playing a suite he composed last year on the theme of skiing, with three movements: “Up the Lift,’’ “Down the Summit,’’ and “Experts Only.’’
After his parents sold their Sudbury home in 2002 and bought a farm in Francestown, N.H., Savage became a dedicated skier. As he plays “Experts Only,’’ he describes the music as “big and loud, the feeling of being at the top of the mountain with a beautiful view but with something exciting right ahead of you.’’
Through grade 4, Savage attended public school, with a part-time aide. After that, he was home-schooled, earning his GED at 15. His parents thought he was too young to go off to college, and they spent the next year preparing him for Berklee. He’d been away from home alone only twice: a week in each of two summers at a Stanford Jazz Residency.
“We gave him more and more responsibility for himself,’’ his mother says, “and worked with him to organize his time and just to be able to do the day-to-day things like balance a checkbook, go to the store, cook a meal, all of the things that people need to do when they go away from home.’’
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At 17, he entered Berklee, where he has excelled academically and adjusted socially.
He’s earned straight A’s except for A-minuses in Conducting I and Tonal Counterpoint I. (“That’s when you have two voices moving back and forth with two different melodies. You find it a lot in Bach,’’ he explains.) He hastens to add that he made A’s in Conducting II and Counterpoint II.
Berklee professor Suzanna Sifter, who gave Savage private piano classes for three semesters, says he’s a quick study. “He picks up the ideas and works out many possibilities in an instant,’’ she says. “He’s very intelligent and always polite and even sweet at times.’’
Socially, he wasn’t as adept. At first he was overwhelmed when fellow students would approach and say hello. On campus there was so much going on, all the time, and he needed order and calm and a predictable schedule.
“I adjusted really gradually,’’ says Savage, who lived in the dorm for two years and in an apartment with a roommate this year. Summers he spends on the family farm, lending a hand, along with his younger sister, Rebecca.
At school, he can get easily distracted. If he finds something interesting or different, he may focus on that to the exclusion of all else. “If something is the loudest or brightest or most eye-catching in the room, like a bank of light switches with 30 instead of two, I’d focus on that,’’ he says. “I’ve made a conscious effort not to do that, but it’s definitely typical of people with autism.’’
He seems at ease talking about his condition, but it isn’t something he advertises. He tells only those he knows well. “I don’t walk around with it every day,’’ he says.
People with autism often have difficulty relating to others, and the fact that Savage spent most of his childhood around adults, not other kids, was an added hurdle. When he arrived at Berklee, he was bewildered by the social scene - all those people, parties, and plans.
But now he’s grown to love “society,’’ as he calls it. He’s got friends and been on dates, but says things like slang and fashion elude him. “It’s hard for me to tell what’s formal and informal, what’s fashionable and what’s not,’’ he says. Around campus, however, he looks like any other student, clad in jeans and sneakers.
For a long time, his mother bought his clothes. “Most of the kids go through middle school and high school, where they learn the hard way through peer pressure and social cliques what’s cool and what’s not cool,’’ she says. “And he didn’t have that.’’
Erena Terakubo, a classmate who has often played alto sax with Savage’s band, says Savage made lots of friends on campus and his talent draws respect.
“He’s one of the genius guys,’’ says Terakubo, who is from Japan. “He can remember a piece he has heard just one time, and then play it by ear.’’
Nick Frenay, a student who plays trumpet, has known Savage for three years and says his friend is totally focused while playing. “There may be some awkwardness there dealing with a social situation, but he’s in the zone whenever he plays,’’ says Frenay, who is from Syracuse, N.Y.
Savage pushes himself to be “out there socially,’’ Frenay says. “He sends text messages to 10 or 20 guys, almost every week, asking if people can come to jam sessions. He’s very warm and everyone around here likes and respects him.’’
Berklee professor John Funkhouser, who has played bass in the Matt Savage Trio for the past decade, says the young man has thrived academically and socially.
“He’s basically a typical college kid,’’ Funkhouser says. “He’s gotten good grades, met tons of people, and played with a wide variety of people and in various musical styles.’’
This summer Savage will perform at the Heineken Jazzaldia Festival in San Sebastian, Spain, in July. September brings a gig in Japan and a trip to the prestigious Monterey Jazz Festival in California. His concerts and CD sales have long helped raise money for autism causes, and he serves on a Boston Conservatory advisory board helping autistic kids and adults with music tutoring.
Today his teenage years come to an end. Unlike the old days, his family will sing “Happy Birthday’’ to him.
The Matt Savage Trio will play from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday at the Acton Jazz Cafe. Tickets are $12.50 at the door or $10 at actonjazzcafe.com.Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.