Jason Irvin makes the jump from classical music to classic rock look easy. One of several out-of-town entertainers who perform at Wichita's Ernie Biggs dueling piano bar on a regular basis, the Houston native started piano lessons at the age of six. But he was playing Beethoven rather than the Beatles.
"I went to the University of Houston for classical piano performance," Irvin said. "Then shortly after I got my degree, I walked into a piano bar and liked it. I weighed my options as far as making a living, and I decided that playing in a piano bar was probably more beneficial as far as the hours you work versus the pay." And, he added, "It seemed a lot more fun than spending hours upon hours in a practice room to play classical music."
Certainly it's a lot of fun for audiences. Irvin is known for big, show-stopping songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen or "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" by Charlie Daniels. In terms of difficulty, they're about as close to classical music as popular music gets.
"Myself, I'm actually a huge Billy Joel fan," he said. "I can pull off pretty much any Billy Joel song there is."
And if you don't like what he's playing one minute, don't worry. He's got more than 900 songs in his repertoire, at last count.
Irvin, who nows lives in Kansas City with his actress wife and three children, ages 10, 8 and 1, has spent a decade on the dueling piano bar circuit. He plays in the Westport Ernie Biggs along with locations in Wichita, Branson and Springfield, Missouri.
"We all know each other pretty well," he said of his fellow Ernie Biggs musicians, "so it's pretty easy to sit across from each other and pull off a show." The most requested song? "Without a doubt, 'Don't Stop Believin'’ by Journey," he said. New songs being asked for frequently include "Closer" by the Chainsmokers, "Shut Up and Dance" by Walk the Moon and "24K Magic" by Bruno Mars.
"And usually at least two or three times a week, you have a customer who will sit at their table and try to stump us — throw up a B-side by Jim Croce or some random Eminem song," Irvin said. That's when the EB band's collective musical memory kicks into high gear. "Obviously, we can't play every song ever written, but you'd be surprised."
The entertainers are also experts at getting the crowd involved, calling people celebrating their birthday or upcoming wedding to the stage to sing, dance "or do something crazy."
It's a far cry from classical music, and Irvin is fine with that. "I enjoy what classical music has allowed me to be able to do technically with my fingers and musical knowledge, but I definitely would not trade the job I have not to play classic music. I love what I do."