@story MARCUS COKER
@images COURTESY OF JONATHAN KARRANT
The sun shines down on the patio at Sweet Bay Coffee shop in Fort Smith. Jonathan Karrant puts down a magazine, picks up his drink, and looks across the patio at the towering trees in Creekmore Park. “I still like climbing trees,” says the twenty-eight-year-old, “but maple trees are my favorite. When I’m high up above everything, I can see things differently.” Climbing trees may seem like an odd way for a professional jazz singer to spend his free time, but perhaps it’s Jonathan’s different perspective that’s brought him so much success.
Jonathan, who now lives in San Diego, grew up here. He’s a responsible adult but he’s been able to keep his childlike wonder. “The first time someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, ‘I want to be a tiger.’ But I quickly found out that wouldn’t work.” Fortunately, there was another option: Jonathan loved to sing. He spent his free time practicing and listening to jazz music’s greatest composers. “I played Irving Berlin like crazy. Then I got into Cole Porter. I liked that their songs told a story.”
Jonathan’s mother was a dance teacher at Fort Smith School of Ballet, and his uncle played saxophone for the Shoffey band. “My family was artsy, so I was always getting into things like that. When I was in school, I said, ‘I want to take choir, I want to take drama.’ My family was just a bunch of actors and actresses walking around without roles, so they were all pretty excited if I was in a play or something.”
However, when Jonathan graduated from Southside High School and decided to pursue singing and acting full time, not everyone was supportive. “A lot of people would say, ‘You’re great, you’re talented, but so is this guy. You need to have a fallback career.’” But Jonathan’s mom, Nancy, disagreed and gave him some good advice: don’t have a fallback career, because then you’ll fall back on it.
With that in mind, Jonathan moved to New York City a week after he graduated. He was seventeen. “While I was living in New York, I considered going to college for a music or theater degree. But no one seemed interested in a degree, only in what you had to offer.”
So Jonathan enrolled in the William Esper Acting Studio. Then, upon a friend’s suggestion, he auditioned as an actor at the Metropolitan Opera House. He was hired, filling mostly character parts. “It certainly wasn’t high school theater, but it felt comfortable. It was great to be on stage,” says Jonathan. “I was in a couple of ballets and an opera.” Jonathan neglects to mention one thing—the opera was Aida, starring Luciano Pavarotti.
After a few years in New York, Jonathan stepped away from theater. Rehearsals didn’t always pay, and Jonathan realized singers could get several gigs a week and have a somewhat reliable income. Wanting more experience performing, Jonathan moved back to Fort Smith and began singing with local jazz musician Don Bailey. “Don welcomed me with open arms, which I thought was great. I mean, he’s an accomplished musician, and I was just an obnoxious kid.”
By the time he was twenty-two, Jonathan’s personality and voice had matured. Often compared to Sinatra, he was encouraged to move to Las Vegas and find work as a lounge musician, which he did. For two years, Jonathan worked in supper clubs, lounges, and casinos, crooning jazz standards by such greats as Freddy Cole, Nancy Wilson, and Ella Fitzgerald. “It was the first time I got to start interacting with audiences. I love sharing a song that washes over you, a song that tells a story and has some meaning to it. I’ve had people come up to me in tears saying, ‘That was beautiful.’ And that’s what I love — being able to give something to another human being.”
After two years in Vegas, Jonathan was ready for a change. He moved to San Diego, despite the fact that he had no friends or connections there. He got a job waiting tables at a restaurant, which just happened to have a stage for entertainers. Jonathan convinced the owner to let him sing, and he began building a fan base. Four years later, Jonathan now has regular gigs singing at the US Grant and La Valencia Hotels. “Both have bars and lounges where the locals hang out. There are a lot of regulars, so I never stay with a set list of songs. I love it because every show is different.”
His voice is smooth, like a good wine. It’s strong enough to convey emotion, and gentle enough to not intrude. “As a singer at a hotel bar or restaurant, you can’t annoy people. People are there to be with their friends. So I want to add to their experience, not take away from it.”
Not surprisingly, Jonathan’s pipes beat out thousands of others when American Idol held auditions in San Diego in 2007. “There were 16,000 people and several rounds of tryouts. It was worse than going to the DMV, but I made it through to the main judges. Randy said I sounded great and had perfect pitch, but Simon said I sounded too much like Sinatra, and Paula said I wasn’t contemporary enough for the show. So I didn’t make it through. It was disappointing, but the next day I was over it.”
There were plenty of other things to focus on, and that hasn’t changed. Last year, Jonathan completed recording and producing his second album. (His first album was sold from the trunk of his car, and you’d be hard pressed to find a copy.) On and On features songs originally popularized by such diverse artists as Johnny Mercer, The Beatles, and James Taylor. “None of the songs are typical standards. Some have only been recorded one time, maybe five times, which isn’t many.”
Now that his album is finished, Jonathan plans to spend this year promoting it. One of his first stops will be at Second Street Live in Fort Smith on Saturday, April 28. Starting with a beer and wine reception at 6:30, the evening will feature Jonathan and the Don Bailey Jazz Combo. Chances are he’ll be in a suit and tie, looking relaxed and making his job seem easy, making life look fun. But maybe that’s the payoff for following your own star.
The life of an artist like Jonathan isn’t for most people. It doesn’t guarantee security, a steady paycheck, or a retirement plan. But that’s okay with Jonathan; he’s doing something he loves. And whether that means singing jazz or climbing trees, it’s no wonder he doesn’t need a fallback plan. When you stay true to yourself, there’s no such thing as failure.
For more information, or to purchase Jonathan’s CD, visit jonathankarrant.com.
Tickets to see Jonathan at Second Street Live are $25 and may be purchased in advance or at the door. For more information, call 479.719.8783 or visit secondstreetlive.com.