#CMchat Exclusive Interview: Jason Lyle Black

Nashville is home to great music, across the genres. It is also home to great people. One of whom is Jason Lyle Black. His most recent video release, “How Far I’ll Go” from Disney’s Moana, is in honor of Down Syndrome Awareness Month. The trio performing the song, pianists Cambria (16), Joby (16), and Kiley (17), all were born with Down syndrome.

“I really wanted to tell a story of individuals with special needs at the piano…It’s what I call the ‘Susan Boyle’ effect—demonstrating to others just how incredible these girls are.  My goal is for us all to realize the innate potential within ourselves.”

Watch the video here and behind the scenes extras here

Jason Lyle Black’s bio reads in part “an award-winning pianist, composer, entertainer, and speaker, known for his performance on the Ellen Show and for his 30 million music video views worldwide.”

Award-winning composer, concert pianist, and musical comedian – wouldn’t expect them in the same sentence – how did you come to combine them?

“These are my passions—music and comedy.  Both began organically for me at age 15.  That’s when I started playing the piano backwards and started writing comedic parodies at the piano. It’s also the time that I started composing serious music for the piano, and working on my very first album.  So it’s really been the brand since the very beginning. 

The way I try to explain it is to think of the Disney film brand, and how those movies make us laugh and cry in the same story—that’s what I seek to do onstage and with my music and videos.”

Growing up what role did music play in your life? Do you come from a family of musicians? 

“I’m the first in my immediate family to have a career in the entertainment business.  My dad worked as an engineer and my mom was a full-time mom.  But, my mom did play the flute at a collegiate level, and my grandparents (as you know) are also pianists.  But I’m the first in that line to do it as a profession.  On the other side of my family, I do have a few cousins who perform professionally and tour, but what influenced me to pursue the business was really my passion to use my talents and gifts in a way I uniquely could to do good in the world.  We all have something that makes us unique, and for me, I’ve felt driven to use that to impact the world, ever since I was a teenager.

I started playing piano at age eight and then started trumpet around age 10.  I got to where I was playing both at a collegiate level but then decided to quit trumpet to focus exclusively on piano.  That was largely driven by my desire to really spend more time composing.  I didn’t really start performing a lot until college, though I would do a few performances for family and friends, but nothing on a large stage until college.”

You are a corporate entertainer. Do you also perform for schools? Your “How Far I’ll Go” video sends a powerful positive message that students of all ages, along with teachers, can benefit from watching. How did you select the three artists who are in the video? 

“My main activities as a performer are doing corporate events and then touring publicly, so like community theaters, ticketed shows at performing arts centers, etc.  I do school shows as the opportunity arises though, often in conjunction with a larger show that is bringing me into town.  I do love to speak as well (to school/corporate/community groups) and incorporate part of my message into my concerts.  You can see some of that in my videos!

As for the selection of that video, I put out a “casting call” for teenage pianists with Down syndrome, in the Salt Lake City area (where I was living at that time), and that led to the introductions to those girls, and thus began what was a very rewarding project.”

What was the first music you arranged for another artist? What is it like to hear your vision performed by someone else?

“So a lot of the arranging I have done has been for sheet music for piano—I’ve had the privilege to work with Hal Leonard for a couple years now (second full book is forthcoming very soon), so it’s been amazing to get to finally have the opportunity to share arrangements with the world of some of my favorite songs.  In my first Hal Leonard book, I had the chance to share some arrangements I had actually written many years earlier, of various pop hits. 

As for hearing others performing my music, I think one of the best experiences was working on my album, Piano Preludes, of original music, when we had all of the musicians in the studio to record there in Utah.  We had folks from the Utah Symphony, we had my friend and Grammy-nominated violinist Jenny Oaks Baker as a soloist, we had arranger Marshall McDonald who has an incredible list of instrumental and choral credits with global stars, and to hear them performing music I had written was a real treat. 

I still remember the feeling of first hearing my friend Austin Packer play the cello piece ‘Winter’s Passing‘ that I had composed for piano/cello duet.  It was surreal, as this was the very first piece I ever composed for piano and string.  And one critic called that song ‘worth the price of the whole album by itself!’”

How did the Frozen piano medley video lead to your first publishing contract? From concept to arranging, then recording, and releasing – were you in charge of it all? What was the inspiration for it? 

“The Frozen medley was a huge project, and yes I was basically over almost all of it.  I had some input on storyboarding and specific scenes, and of course we had an outside videographer who shot and edited it (my friends Dane Christensen and Eric Thayne), and then I was fortunate to have my friend Eric Thayne assist in media promotion with the video, which made a huge difference.  But I developed the concept and re-worked the story many times. 

The simpler the story on video, the harder it actually is to write—and you need something very basic, simple, and fun to be viral.  (UP and the Moana videos are also cases in point here—all were projects I personally spent many many months on).

The inspiration for Frozen was really two-fold—first, I was hoping to get the attention again of Ellen Degeneres (as I had been on her show previously), and I felt that doing a song that appealed to her viewer base would be a great idea (thus we settled on Frozen).  But the other inspiration was the girl, Sara Arkell, who I did that video with.  In all the years I have been playing piano behind my back, I’ve never met anybody else who actually plays that way also (and who can really do it), and she can, and so that, combined with the fact that we looked like we could be brother and sister, led to the idea of a ‘dueling siblings’ skit for YouTube.  And it really took off. 

We didn’t end up hearing from Ellen, but we got the attention of a Tokyo television producer and ended up flying out there for a show, which was a blast.

Oh and the publishing deal—that basically came about as a result of the virality of the Frozen video, and the fact that people all over the world were begging for the sheet music; that, combined with the fact that I’d been trying to access Hal Leonard for quite a few years, to be able to release some of my arrangements of famous songs—well the stars aligned and I suddenly got to know. Hal Leonard and had a publishing deal with them within days of the video going viral, and now I have a great relationship with them and have my second book coming out very soon (next month I expect).  It is a book of Disney medleys for piano—one of the first of its kind!”

Your recent YouTube posts include “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art” – what role has faith-based music played in your life and career? Listening to “Morning Prayer” is a great way to start the day. 

“Thank you!  Faith is a huge aspect of my career.  I am an active Christian and believe in using music to bring light into the world.  For me, I see my role as bringing people closer to God in whatever way that may be. 

In some cases, that may actually mean sharing my own religious beliefs (as I’ve had the opportunity to do, both within my own faith circles and in other Christian groups). But in other cases, that can mean just sharing an uplifting, positive message that resonates with people regardless of their religiosity or belief system. I believe that all of these things ultimately bring people closer to God, and that is a very real source of satisfaction and purpose for me as an artist. 

Ultimately, my purpose as an artist is to ‘put a smile on people’s faces.’  I came to understand and articulate that purpose a few years ago and have stuck with it ever since.

The benefit of my album Piano Preludes is that the album, at the end of the day, is really spiritual.  Meaning, I think that someone who uses meditation and yoga as a form of spiritual connection can be blessed by that music just as much as someone for whom the Bible or another book of scripture is a major source of their inspiration.  And that is really our record label’s goal (to provide music that soothes and heals hearts).”

For fans who may not be familiar with your music, how would you describe it? What song represents you best? Why?

“For my more serious side, I love the song ‘Champs-Élysées.’  That to me is the crowning jewel of the album.  I feel ‘Evening Prayer‘ is the most emotional and spiritual.  That song has a connection to my sister who passed away from cancer and to her faith and example to me.

On the more comedic side, I think my ‘Song on the Spot‘ in my concerts (also viewable on my YouTube channel). ‘The Wedding Pianist‘ probably capture my personality in a nutshell.  I love creating the show with the audience’s input, and a lot of the comedy I do onstage just comes from actual real-life experience of having found ways to entertain myself.”

What has been the greatest challenge in your career to date? 

“Oh boy.  I don’t think we have hours to go into all of the challenges of a career in music.  I released an album in high school of original compositions (that I actually think were quite good, if I may say so), and then released three more albums in college.  But none of those ever went anywhere.  I didn’t really know what to do to market them or to market myself.  So that led me to be discouraged, doing four albums and feeling I had nothing to show.

It is hard too when you see others who seem to find success ‘so quickly”'(so it appears), and to tell the truth, I was very discouraged by the time I graduated college, so I decided to pursue a different career and basically retired my music hat. 

A few years later, I couldn’t get away from it though, so I eventually quit my corporate career, and then fast forward and now I make a full-time living in music.  But ultimately, looking back over the years since that first album I recorded at home in 2004, to finally making a living, I think that the greatest challenge has been having the faith to overcome discouragement.  I am grateful to finally be at a place where those challenges have been replaced by confidence in my vision.  There are still challenges constantly, but they don’t affect my confidence in what’s to come.  And I have great mentors to thank for that, who’ve played a huge role in my career.” 

The most rewarding career experience to date has been what?

“Well, artistically, it’s been my album, Piano Preludes (which I should add is streamable 24/7 on Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, etc. all the platforms).  I am so thrilled with that album and look forward to future recordings.  And my forthcoming Disney book—Disney Medleys for Piano Solo—still makes me pinch myself, the fact that I got to arrange some of the greatest classics ever, and that there are honestly very few people who ever get the opportunity to put their name on a book, released officially by Disney, of piano arrangements.  That’s such a huge, huge honor. 

At the end of the day though, I just love putting a smile on people’s faces.  My favorite experience as an artist is performing onstage.  I love having a full auditorium of a diverse, high-energy audience.  I love surprising them with the unexpected in a show and having people leave blown away by having had so much variety and fun in one concert. Also, having experienced so many emotions ranging from the comedic to the deep and inspiring.  That’s what I love. 

Often I hear comments of people saying that the concert was so much more fun and varied than what they imagined (even knowing that I do comedy onstage).  And that’s always my goal—to surprise with the show and to create an experience that appeals more widely than any other piano concert they’ve attended.”

What are your future plans?

“Within the next five years, goals include selling out a national tour in performing arts centers, more viral videos in the ‘millions’ range, collaborating with industry stars, and more album releases.  I’m humbled by the amazing relationships I’ve built already from just having been in Nashville a very short time. 

There’s a special spirit to this community, and I’m thrilled to be part of it and hope to contribute in a meaningful way.  I also want to be able to really encourage other artists who may feel trapped in not seeing results—I want to help them to find the encouragement, confidence, and success that really is possible.  Here’s to living the dream!” 

Author: Donna Block

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