Brian Holland feels that his career as a professional musician was preordained. His music existence began at the age of 3. Blessed with perfect pitch and an aptitude for improvisation, he learned his way around an organ keyboard and had a repertoire of old standards – all before the age of 6. He was playing four nights a week at a local inn between the ages of 12 and 14. He was the youngest person to win the World Old-Time Piano-Playing Championship, not once but three times, with the third title coming at age 27.
Classically trained, Brian has been performing jazz, ragtime and stride piano for 35 years. His approach to the piano is marked by a dynamic, driving style that has been described as “clear as Waterford crystal.” Constantly developing new and exciting styles of performance, he continues to enthrall audiences by combining impressively dexterous pyrotechnics with a laid-back approach, seemingly with little or no effort.
But Brian is not willing to rest on past laurels. “What is most important in music is to never stop learning, to always be open to experiencing and absorbing new things, to always work to improve what you are doing. It’s continual on-the-job training.”
Growing Up in Indiana
Brian’s father was in the Air Force and therefore constantly on the move. So young Brian was raised by his grandparents who lived in Indianapolis, Indiana. They taught him to appreciate all kinds of music, especially styles from the turn of the 20th century. His grandfather had an electric Lowrey organ, so by the age of 3, Brian was picking out notes and eventually playing simple jingles he heard on television.
Brian loves to tell the story about the time when he was still hardly able to reach the pedals of the organ that his mother called her mother and could hear the organ being played in the background. The grandmother asked, “Do you know who that is?” Brian’s mother responded, “Oh, yes. That’s Dad,” to which Grandma replied, “No, that’s your son!”
By age 6, he was taking lessons on the organ and practicing four hours a day, which became his regiment for the next dozen years. It was at about this time in his life that it became apparent that music was his overriding interest. “Music was always there, so there was no question as to the direction in which I was headed,” he recalled.
He had his first professional gig at age 7 when his grandfather took him to a local music store that sold organs. The store had brought in two traveling artists to demonstrate a brand-new organ and put on a concert. As Brian recounts the story, “Naturally they were trying to sell the new organ and talked about how easy it was to play. They had me in the audience as a plant. As they were making their pitch, they motioned to me and said, ‘You in the front row, you, little kid. Why don’t you come up and show everybody how easy it is to play this organ? So I got up and played a song on the organ. They paid me 50 bucks.”
Paid Gigs at age 12
He first studied with Gerta Fisher-Klay (his German teacher who had moved to Indianapolis to be with her family) until he was 16, and then with Dorothy Munger, who was the resident pianist and harpsichordist for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. He joined the Musicians Union at the age of 12 and was hired to play four nights a week at the famed Boggstown Inn & Cabaret, which is located 20 miles southeast of downtown Indianapolis.
Brian describes the Inn as “being in the middle of a cornfield” in a community that had a population of around 400 at the time. The town’s most famous resident was Marjorie Main (1890-1975), who appeared in 82 films and is best remembered as Ma Kettle. The building that houses the Cabaret (now known as the BC Supper Club) was built in 1873 and housed the first Red Man’s Lodge in Indiana. It was situated next to the Seventh Day Adventist Home for Unwed Mothers and for many years was Boggstown’s general store and barber shop. From its opening in 1984, the Cabaret was the site of many Hoosier Ragtime Society gatherings and provided musicians the opportunity to tell stories and jokes in a down-home setting that had a burlap-covered backdrop and picnic-style seating and to play their favorite ragtime tunes.
In high school, Brian played the saxophone in school bands and orchestras, after which he spent a period of time playing majestic pipe organs in pizza parlors. Needing to earn some money between gigs, he entered the field of retail store management in the early 1990s, which became his primary livelihood for the next 22 years. But music was always there. As spare-time bookings and recordings picked up, he realized he was only truly happy when he was seated at the piano. It was at the urging of his wife that he decided to become a full-time musician on January 15, 2015 at the age of 42.
The Barnhart Collaboration
In 1997, Brian met Jeff Barnhart at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri. At an after-hours session, Brian and Jeff decided to try a couple of well-received piano duets, which led to an all-night jam session that didn’t end until 8 a.m. the next morning. It was obvious that they were on to something special in how their styles meshed, with Jeff’s take-no-prisoners approach, and Brian’s more laid-back classical take on ragtime and jazz. The two have recorded three CDs. (Brian has since served as artistic director of the Joplin Festival beginning in 2015.)
Even as a part-time musician, Brian had an off-season job in Atlantic City at the Showboat Casino, garnered a Grammy nomination for his work with Bud Dresser (trombone-tuba-vocals) on their album, Ragtime-Goodtime-Jazz, and taken his unique styling to the International Stride Summit in Zurich, Switzerland in 2007. He calls the 2010 opportunity to play in Rwanda, Africa and tour the countryside with drummer Danny Coots “a life-changing experience.” The two performed before sold-out crowds at the first Buenos Aires, Argentina Ragtime Festival in 2014.
The Coots-Holland musical partnership has resulted in eight recordings, festival bookings and annual tours in the United States. As a record company executive explained, “Holland and Coots take you on a musical journey that radiates joyful ebullience one moment and wistful lyricism the next.” A faculty member at the Eastman School of Music observed, “They should come with seat belts and a warning about excessive amounts of white-knuckle, adrenaline-charge, exuberant effervescence.”
The Piano-Drums Relationship
Danny Coots gives his take on the relationship, writing: “I started a project some years ago to study how, as a drummer and accompanist, my playing would have to adjust and change depending on the people with whom I was playing. I found that the opportunity to play with just piano players was not only musically very interesting, but was a blast.”
“When Brian Holland and I first played together, I realized we were onto something very special. His background in classical music and years of a solid work ethic led technique way beyond the crowd. His interest in many styles and ability to create in the moment was right down my alley. I’ve learned that a musician plays who he is. His music is always open, creative and generous. The Holland/Coots Duo is one of the highlights of my career.”
Brian was scheduled to be part of a group of 20 musicians going to Thailand January 7-17, 2017 for a series of concerts, but the trip was cancelled due to the death of King Bhumibol Adulydej, the jazz-loving monarch, this past September. However, Brian is hopeful of being part of a similar trip to China in January of 2018.
In his 44 years, Brian Holland has covered a lot of ground, played a lot of notes, and had some great experiences in playing the music he loves. He concluded our conversation observing, “A friend of mine once said that the only way to become a millionaire playing the kind of music that I do is to start off with two million dollars and work your way backwards. We don’t do it for money; we do it because we love it.”