Pianist and composer José André Montaño performed with the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Peer-to-Peer Sextet at the historic Blues Alley. (Ja’Mon Jackson/The Washington Informer)
Pianist and composer José André Montaño performed with the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Peer-to-Peer Sextet at the historic Blues Alley. (Ja’Mon Jackson/The Washington Informer)

If you hear about José André Montaño performing anywhere in D.C., you will want to be in that room. 

Mostly self-taught, he started playing piano at age four. Now at age 18 and a rising senior at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Montaño has performed in D.C., around the U.S. and in several countries. The fact that Montaño is blind has not interfered with his drive to continue developing his music skills at a hard-driving pace.  

I saw Montaño lead his trio a couple of months ago at Flavor Garden, a restaurant in the Van Ness area of Northwest, D.C. His trio included drummer Lenny Robinson and bassist Grant Lay.

“It was fun to play with those cats,” said Montaño. “We played the first set as the house band, then other musicians came through. Some of my friends from school were there.”

Calling fellow musicians “cats” or “bros” is common when Montaño talks about collaborating with artists.

He is comfortable with musicians of any age. 

The Love of Jazz 

Montaño is interested in several genres of music, but what drew him to jazz?

“Well, when I was a little kid, I listened to a lot of Miles Davis, specifically the tune ‘So What.’  I have loved jazz since then,” Montaño said. “I love the feeling of it and how you can interact and play what’s in your heart. It’s a genre to express yourself and improvise.”

With school and jazz gigs, Montaño has a busy schedule. Last year, he performed at the U.S. Department of Education with the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz (HHIJ) Peer-to-Peer Group. The students were joined by U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona, who played bongos with the group. 

This year, Montaño became a formal member of the HHIJ Peer-to-Peer Program. As a member of the 2023 sextet, Montaño and his high school bandmates traveled to Richmond, Williamsburg, and Charlottesville, Virginia performing at high schools, and discussing jazz with local students. A concert at D.C.’s historic Blues Alley wrapped up this year’s tour.

The Peer-to-Peer program is headed by JB Dyas, Ph.D., vice president for Education and Curriculum Development at HHIJ. He met Montaño last year when he played with students who performed with Cardona.

“José is an angel. He’s an example of when you’re given a set of circumstances, you have a decision to make,” Dyas said. “That decision is to take that set of circumstances and shine or to allow yourself to be encumbered by it. Well, he’s shining bright.” 

Carnegie Hall and a European Tour 

This summer, Montaño is in the prestigious NYO Jazz program. This jazz intensive is a part of the historic Carnegie Hall, where 22 young musicians ages 16–19 from across the U.S. are led by Artistic Director Sean Jones. 

Jones, a trumpeter and an educator at The John Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute in Baltimore, recently worked with Montaño as a mentor for this year’s HHJI Peer-to-Peer Sextet. This week the group is in concert at Carnegie Hall with vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. NYO Jazz and Bridgewater will then tour Europe performing at several jazz festivals.

Montaño is usually accompanied by one or both of his parents when he performs. That means they also keep a busy schedule. Giovanna and Roberto Montaño love seeing their son create magic with his piano. They have been intent to ensure the best music educators surround their son. That’s how they found pianist and composer Cyrus Chestnut who became their son’s mentor.

Chestnut is also on the faculty at Howard University as a master instructor in jazz piano and improvisation. He began working with Montaño in 2014. 

Like everyone else who has encountered Montaño, Chestnut used the word “amazing” several times when describing his mentee. He described how Montaño can listen to a piece of music and play it back with astonishing accuracy.  

“He has an insane ear. He can process things in a way that is very special,” Chestnut said about his mentee. “He’s a brilliant human being. In a short time, the whole world will be able to experience that brilliance.”

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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