J’lan Stewart brought the house down at The Palladium last July when he performed “The Impossible Dream” in the final concert concluding the Songbook Academy® in late July. Sitting in the house was Carmel Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Anne Marie Chastain. She was so impressed with Stewart’s talent that she later reached out to the aspiring singer and invited him to reprise his show stopping performance at CSO’s “Masterworks 2: Veteran’s Salute” concert at the Palladium at the Center for The Performing Arts, Nov. 11. at 7:30 p.m.
Now in its 15th year, the Songbook Academy® summer intensive is an acclaimed preprofessional music program for young singers interested in the classic Broadway tunes, jazz standards and popular songs known as the American Songbook. Hosted annually in Carmel, the Songbook Academy is the flagship education initiative of the Great American Songbook Foundation, providing an opportunity for talented high school performers to experience a life-changing week of classes, workshops and performances under the guidance of arts and entertainment professionals and leading university educators. Stewart was one of forty students from sixteen states to participate in the 2023 Songbook Academy.
Stewart is featured in “Masterworks 2: Veteran’s Salute” that is billed as “A celebration of unity and cultural richness that weaves together intricate melodies and rhythms inspired by African and African American musical traditions.” Included in the concert, led by guest conductor David Commanday, is Valarie Coleman’s “Umoja, Anthem of Unity,” Maurice Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin,” Charles Ives’ “Variations on America” and William Grant Still’s “Afro American Symphony, No. 1.”
18-year-old Stewart is currently a student at Ivy Tech Community College where he is studying human services. However, next year he plans to transfer to either the University of Memphis or Indiana University to major in musical theatre. Recently, I reached out to Stewart in a Zoom call from his Kokomo home.
Although I missed seeing Stewart perform in front of a full house at the July concert, I did see him earlier that week in a showcase of participating Songbook Academy All Stars. The first question I asked him was “How was it you applied for and were accepted as a Songbook Academy participant?” to which he replied, “My high school choir teacher, Cheeresa Lawson, strongly encouraged me to apply.” “How did it feel performing on the stage of the 1,600-seat Palladium?” I inquired. “I was excited. At first, I felt nervous and was shaking, but once I was in front of the microphone I felt completely relaxed. I loved the thought that I might inspire people with my music.” When I asked him why he chose “The Impossible Dream” he said, “The song connected with me on so many different levels and I felt I could express that no matter how many times someone tries to beat your down and no matter how many times you feel discouraged, you can still move forward and know it is possible to achieve your dream.” he emphasized.
Stewart, who fell in love with musicals while in high school where he performed in such shows as “The Little Shop of Horrors, ““Elf the Musical,” and “Matilda,” hopes to pursue a career as a singer and an actor. Songbook Academy founder Michael Feinstein believes he shows promise. “J’lan is a gifted singer and performer. His talent is only matched by his passion and authenticity, all of which make him a unique storyteller. I know he will do great things.” he stated.
As far as his major influences Stewart, who has two younger sisters said, “My mother who is one of the strongest women I know and my teacher Miss Lawson, are my greatest influences.”
Stewart said that his goal is to “become someone who inspires others. I aspire to become an advocate for people who believe their talent isn’t special enough because of what someone may have told them. I want encourage others and be a positive role model.”