BLIND, autistic and with severe learning difficulties, Derek Paravacini seems to have had everything stacked against him.

Yet he is a world-class pianist and regarded as one of the very finest musicians of his generation – particularly among jazz fans.

An autistic ‘savant’ his ability to remember tens of thousands of pieces – all learnt very rapidly, just by listening – saw him dubbed The Human iPod.

Yet this charming and fiercely creative musician is more than just a memory machine. His astonishing improvisations and dazzling technique have wowed audiences all over the world, with more than a million hits on Youtube. Next Saturday he brings his extraordinary talents to St Giles Church, Oxford, for its Jazz on a Summer’s Day concert as part of a trio of musicians including jazz violinist Ben Holder.

Born extremely prematurely at 25 weeks, and weighing just 700g, Derek could fit into the palm of your hand. While in intensive care, his heart repeatedly gave up. His treatment, which saw his alternately starved and overdosed with oxygen, left him blind and damaged his developing brain.

Yet, introduced to the piano at the age of two, he found salvation in music – and played constantly. He has perfect pitch and can play a piece of music after hearing it once. His repertoire includes everything from ragtime to Radiohead, Irving Berlin to the Beatles and Cole Porter to Coldplay.

“There’s something totally unique about Derek,” says his friend, mentor and former piano teacher Adam Ockelford.

“He’s a musical entertainer who plays the piano very well. He’s a great improviser and can get his fingers round most things. He has an amazing memory, with thousands of pieces locked in his mind. He can play almost anything by request and is rarely caught out.

“He grabs his audiences by the scruff of the neck and takes them on an incredible journey. It feels like he is playing personally for you – and that makes for a great gig. People always remember it when they see him playing live.”

Adam first met Derek – who is the nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall’s first husband, Andrew Parker Bowles – when his parents brought him to the Linden Lodge School for the Blind in London, where Adam worked as a music teacher. Hearing a piano being played in the music room, the five year-old Derek left his parents, made his way to the instrument and pushed Adam aside to take over.

Adam gave him daily lessons. A year later Derek gave his first concert in Tooting Leisure Centre in South London, close to where he now lives.

“When Derek was little he didn’t speak much and his behaviour was quite erratic,” says Adam, who regularly introduces Derek, now 38, at concerts. “He wouldn’t let anyone else touch the piano, so teaching was challenging.

Aged nine, Derek played his first major public concert at London’s Barbican, with the Royal Philharmonic Pops Orchestra. The same year, he appeared on Wogan and was the subject of a documentary called Musical Savants.

He has since played concerts around the world, delighting audiences with his mix of jazz, pop and light classics. He has fans as far away as Japan, Australia and the USA – where he has appeared three times on CBS’s prestigious 60 Minutes show and performed at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and in Phoenix for Mohammad Ali.

Back home, he has graced Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, performed twice at Buckingham Palace and played a piano concerto written specially for him at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

“Derek is part of the internet generation, with most of his followers knowing him from seeing him online, and mostly in the States,” says Adam, now Professor of Music and Director of the Applied Music Research Centre at the University of Roehampton.

“He learns entirely by ear as he can’t see and doesn’t read Braille. But like a lot of blind musicians, he has perfect pitch. Every musical note is uniquely different and he translates what he hears onto the keyboard.

“It’s down to practice, and it takes thousands of hours of practice to play like Derek.”

He adds: “A lot of sighted musicians practice with their eyes shut. It’s like touch typing – but much more difficult.”

Given his immense talent at the keyboard, it is all too easy to overlook Derek’s problems. But the artist finds it hard to do the most basic tasks and requires round the clock care. He has an IQ of just 57, compared to an average of about 100.

“The autism make the blindness worse and the blindness makes the autism worse. Just one problem would be hard enough. If you couldn’t see you could still figure things out, but he has learning difficulties so finds everything terribly difficult – even getting dressed in the morning.

“But while he is in the bottom 0.01 per cent of people in terms of intelligence, musically he is at the top of the pile.”

He adds: “The brain is a funny thing. People used to think that intelligence was everything and that you were either good at everything or rubbish at everything, but the modern thinking is that the brain is modular So you may be highly able to do some things but not others.”

And his autism does not prevent him being a wonderful entertainer.

“Autistic people love other people’s company but don’t show it in the same way as other people, so can come across as cold, uncaring and unempathetic. But if you are patient then you can have the most amazing relationship with autistic people.

“Derek might find a one-to-one relationship difficult but in front of a room full of hundreds of people it’s fine. And he is wonderful live.”

He adds: “Autism and disability is a double-edged coin. The disability causes the ability.

“Because when he was young, Derek couldn’t see and didn’t understand language, the world was a confusing place. But instead he didn’t focus on what people were saying but on music. Its patterns and repetition allowed him to make sense of the world.

“Music was the one thing that made sense to Derek and he became obsessed – and he still is.

“His ability is quite incredible and makes for a great show.”

  • Derek Paravacini Trio and Ben Holder play St Giles Church, Oxford next Saturday, May 19, at 7.30pm.
  • The show will raise money for Derek's charity The Amber Trust, giving blind or partially-sighted children the best possible chance to fulfil their musical aspirations. Cash also supports the St Giles Music Academy training young musicians in Oxford.
  •  Tickets from