From the beginning of June to halfway through July, Iggy Azalea had a stranglehold on the Billboard Hot 100. For a few weeks, Azalea also appeared in the second spot, with her collaboration on Ariana Grande’s “Problem.”
Local jazz guitarist Jacob Deaton, a musician steeped in jazz and blues, had likely heard at least one of these omnipresent songs, but he couldn’t have told you how popular they were. Deaton, as he will readily admit, had devoted his career to music that was popular at least a generation or two before he was born; he didn’t bother keeping up with the Pitbulls and the Ke$has of the world.
Then he met singer and pianist Jonah Smith. When Deaton performed with Smith’s group on America’s Got Talent, making it to the semifinal round, Deaton began hearing things differently. The guitarist’s approach is much the same, but the presentation changed.
Deaton and Smith will perform a stripped-down duo set at Eddie’s Attic Saturday at 9:45 p.m.
In a supporting role, Deaton played to a broadcast audience of 14 million each night from New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. He got tips from top executives at Sony and the show’s producers, and he had access to a stylist. The experience underlined how he should craft himself as an artist of today.
“It is important to keep up with popular music and what’s trending because that’s the heartbeat, generally speaking, of what America is listening to,” he says. “I’m not saying that you always have to tailor that to what you do, but as a musician, I feel like it’s your responsibility to be aware.”
Deaton first met Smith a few years ago at the 55 Bar in New York City. The guitarist was in town to play some gigs, and he went to the bar to hear a friend perform with Smith. The two met briefly, and then Deaton started listening intently to Smith’s music. Wanting to hear him live, he asked after a southern tour, and the two fleshed out a few Southeast dates last November. Smith already had a guitarist in his band, so they parted ways after the concerts. Then the call came.
Five days after Smith rang Deaton to see if he was available to perform with his group for America’s Got Talent, the guitarist was up in New York City, playing for a spot in the million-dollar competition. The band made it past the two audition rounds, securing a spot in the live shows at Radio City Music Hall, and Deaton was soon playing 90-second songs on the same revolving-door concerts as groups like the One-Voice Children’s Choir and the Bad Boys of Ballet.
After the auditions, where judges select the artists that will perform in the live shows, the four-judge panel functions as cheerleaders, leaving the ultimate game-show decision to a nation of online and phone-in voters. Of the four judges, Deaton said Howard Stern acted as the group’s biggest fan, but during the broadcasts, the evaluations all leaned toward the effusively positive.
“Looking back on it, it was a wonderful learning experience about what is required to be an artist in today’s music culture,” Deaton says.
While that education came from the judges during the broadcasts, the band also received constant feedback from a host of music executives from Sony and producers from the show. These officials offered encouragement, but they also floated suggestions by the band, pushing each musician to become an of-the-moment artist.
“The producers were definitely experts on what is happening today. The idea of the show is to present you as an artist that is today so that people relate to it,” Deaton says. “I thought that they did a great job, and once everyone understood each others’ roles and how it was going to all come together, we got a lot of things done really quickly.”
Deaton will be performing with Smith a lot more in the future, as the guitarist is now a full-time member of the band. In fact, he’ll be back up in New York this fall for a short tour, and Smith has mentioned the possibility of some West Coast dates toward the end of the year.
“Working with somebody like Jonah, who is such an established writer and such an established vocalist — two things that I hope to improve upon very soon in my own life — it was great for me,” he says, adding Smith has the “penmanship of John Prine and the soulfulness of Sam Cooke.”
For the time being, though, his association with Smith isn’t a full-time gig. In between teaching private lessons, Deaton still performs around town with his own band and the Indie Revenge. He’s still trying to get his name out there more as an artist, as well. He’ll be going to Ireland later in the year to play a few jazz trio concerts, and he’ll return to Eddie’s Attic October 11 to play with Adam Levy.
Deaton’s growing success certainly isn’t all due to America’s Got Talent — there’s a lot of hard, grueling work involved — but the lessons learned during the show will certainly stay with him for a long time.
“It showed me holes in my game,” he says, “areas in which I need to improve to become a more 21st-century musician.”