10 Questions With… Jim Brickman

1. You started piano lessons as a young boy. Whose choice was that?

My family wasn’t musical, and they weren’t sure what to do with me. They thought, well, he seems musical. Let’s sign him up for lessons. So, I found my own way, but I was drawn to it from the beginning.

2. When did you have an inkling that music would be more than a hobby?

I don’t think most creative people think about a future; they just do what they love to do. I didn’t think I was special at it, and neither did my teachers. Most of them had trouble with me because I didn’t follow the rules. Essentially, I’m a songwriter more than a pianist, but that’s not something you know when you’re 10. I eventually learned that my talent is songwriting, not being a classical pianist. I just had music going around in my head all the time. I was drawn to improvisation and creating my own style.

3. When did you start exploring the writing aspect?

When I was a teenager, I was enamored with singer-songwriters of the ’70s and started to play from songbooks by pop artists. I was also enamored with jingles. I loved them — they were happy and had great melodies. So when I was in my late teens, I made a tape of five or six jingles, took them to ad agencies and started a jingle business when I was 19 or 20. 

4. How did that lead to performing?

In the ’80s and early ’90s, I started to do national things, like for McDonald’s. It was a really fun job, and it honed my craft. I would go to New York and hire singers. I was also on the speaking circuit, doing motivational speaking for ad agencies like the Phoenix Ad Club. That’s when I started thinking, gosh, I’m totally comfortable in front of people. I’m basically riffing, and people think it’s entertaining. I didn’t plan to have the career that I have now.

5. Today, you’re well-known for your holiday albums. Why is Christmas music special to you? 

The style of music I do is very emotional and lends itself to celebration, inspiration and familiarity. What makes it unusual is that most of the time, when you hear, say, “The Christmas Song,” it’s somebody singing — there aren’t a lot of unusual instrumental interpretations. When you hear my Christmas album, there are a couple of vocals here and there, but for the most part, it’s interpretations of traditional songs. You can put it on while you’re trimming the tree, and it’s not the 100th version of somebody singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

6. You’re coming to the Musical Instrument Museum for six shows in December and have been playing there since its inaugural year. Why do you like performing at MIM?

It is, without a doubt, my favorite place to play for a variety of reasons. One, the multiple shows in an intimate setting is a completely different experience from the rest of my tour. My Christmas tour is very theatrical, but these shows are intimate. Plus, the sound in there is unbelievable. It’s become a tradition because it’s very conversational. Christmas is over, so it’s more of a New Year’s vibe.

7. You’ve supported causes like music education and food banks. Can you talk about your charitable work?

One big one that I have been working with is the Entertainment Community Fund. It exists to support entertainment workers who might be struggling. Not just actors; it can be stagehands, lighting designers, anybody in the theater or concert community. I’ve done two albums with Broadway stars singing my songs, and all the proceeds go to them. The other big one recently is Playhouse Square Foundation, which is the big theater complex in my hometown, Cleveland. It’s one of the biggest theater complexes outside of Broadway, but they had a hard time during COVID. I also do things with the Berklee School of Music. They have a campus in Valencia, Spain, that’s more of an international community. I do some coaching and speaking to raise money for them.

8. What is something that surprises you about your work?

I think I’m constantly forgetting about the reach of music and what it’s done. A lot of time, you’re just creating and don’t realize the impact of it. It’s one of the reasons that I love to perform so much.

9. What would people be surprised to learn about you? 

Contrary to the stage persona, I am extremely shy. I’m not comfortable in groups of people. I often do meet-and-greets before a show, and I’m very quiet and mild-mannered. But on stage, it’s completely different. I feel like that’s where I belong.

10. Looking ahead to the holiday season, which songs are you most excited to play? 

I actually like the winter songs the best. Like “Winter Wonderland,” “Sleigh Ride” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” Many people say, “Oh, Holy Night,” and that’s beautiful. But I like the happy ones.  

Jim Brickman will perform Dec. 29-31 at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. For information and tickets, go to mim.org.  

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