Jonathan Deas, also known as "Deas on Keys," has recently been on "Saturday Night Live," "Howard Stern" and "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" performing with Gary Clark Jr. to promote his new album, This Land. He’s receiving national notoriety now, but it wasn’t too long ago he was a student at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts.
Deas grew up on Buffalo’s East Side spending his time in mainly two places—school and church.
His grandfather was a pastor at Greater Emmanuel Temple Church on Buffalo’s West Side.
“I grew up playing the drums there,” Deas said. “Later on when I moved on to keyboards I did play keyboards there. My dad is a musician. My uncles are musicians/preachers. It’s in the family. It was always church…with a little football in between.”
That was his life growing up until he was 15 or 16. Deas notes that the musicianship he was around as a kid inspired him. Guest musicians were often brought in to school and he saw plenty more at church.
“Buffalo is like an untapped market for really great musicians and I don’t think enough of them get to see the world or get to get out and explore and see how big the world really is beyond Buffalo. I think that’s kind of sad,” he said.
Deas set out for Austin when he was 18 and said his eyes were opened as soon as he arrived.
“I didn’t know anything about what it meant to be a professional musician or what it meant to have a gig or any of those types of things. I just knew church and school as far as Buffalo goes.”
It didn’t take long for Deas to make a name for himself. He stacked his resume by playing with artists like George Clinton, Jon B, and Michelle Williams. He played prominent festivals like South by Southwest and Austin City Limits and while doing so, built up his own brand ‘Jon Keyz Music Group’.
LISTEN: Deas on Soundcloud
Now he’s playing on the Tonight Show with Gary Clark Jr. How did that happen?
Deas met Clark years ago at a spot in Austin, Texas called the Continental Club. You could spot Deas there often playing a B3 Organ with singer Tameca Jones.
“He would come in and sit in with the band sometimes. He would just pop up with his guitar and hop on stage and jam out,” Deas said. “So we live in the same city. We know a lot of the same people. A lot of the same musicians. Over the years we just kept telling each other we were going to do some kind of work and finally he called me to do some recording on the album that just came out, ‘This Land’. That was like the beginning of us actually working together. Just me coming in and recording with him, which turned in to him later asking me to hop on and come in tour with him and join the band.”
Deas said it has been quite the experience going from jamming on the stage to seeing Clark record in the studio.
“The passion he actually records with. How hard he records. It’s like watching him at a full concert. He plays the same way in the studio as he does when there’s 30,000 people watching,” Deas said. “And that inspired me to step my recording game up. Put the same effort and same energy in to the record as you do when you’re on stage performing in front of an audience.”
On ‘This Land’, Deas plays organ, string lines, bells, Rhodes, and additionally some talk box and vocoder work. One of his favorites to play is ‘Guitar Man.’
“Mainly because I got to do some vocoder work on there. So it made me feel like I was singing on the track even though I wasn’t,” he laughed.
Deas is playing on some of the world’s biggest stages now, but he still misses Buffalo from time to time.
Especially the food.
“Jim’s Steakout, man. You can’t get a sub like Jim’s anywhere,” he said as he let out a big sigh. “It’s so funny because Buffalo is getting all these franchise restaurants that have been in Texas for a long time [like] Chipotle. We didn’t even have Popeye’s in Buffalo for a really long time and now I’m hearing all these restaurants are moving to Buffalo.”
Deas was exposed to a wide range of music, including two years of studying with classical musician Henri Muhammad. But who did he see as role models growing up?
“I didn’t see a lot of black classical musicians. I saw a lot of African-American jazz musicians. I saw a lot of African-American funk and blues musicians, which is where I thought I would end up as a producer or a musician. Mainly doing something in the urban market. Something that I was used to,” he said.
“But coming down to Texas I’m doing something I wasn’t exposed to in Buffalo and I did not see that coming. Rock and roll, blues… I just didn’t see myself doing that. I thought I was going to do pop and urban and going on the road with Usher. All kinds of things that I was being exposed to. Leaving Buffalo allowed me to be exposed to other things that I didn’t even know were possibilities.”
And while he credits Austin for opening a lot of doors, he still takes a lot of pride in his roots at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts.
“I’m one of you guys. I was bred there,” he said. “I’m happy to be a part of that. I’m happy that the legacy continues and I hope they continue to breed wonderful artists in every form. Dancers, artists, communicators, musicians, actors, singers… all that stuff. Keep it coming.”