For the past three decades, weekend dinner guests at Celebrity Restaurant have enjoyed the sounds of Mark Bryan playing the lounge piano. Bryan says many of the regulars often request songs he has written, like “Just Want to Watch a TV.”
Bryan, 59, enjoys playing his own music because it’s something he says he has been doing since he first plugged in a toy organ in his bedroom when he was 4 years old.
“The reason I started playing is because I couldn’t keep up with the kids around me,” he says.
Bryan was born on Valentine’s Day 1961 in Port Angeles, Washington, where his family farmed on the reservation of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. At 9 months old, Bryan’s father shook him, and then Bryan says his father threw him against the wall. It was then he began losing his vision. By 4 it was gone.
Bryan says other kids spent their time riding horses bareback and shooting squirrels, neither of which he could take part in, so he started playing the toy organ, teaching himself songs and writing his own.
Bryan says he latched onto jazz because it’s all about improvisation. He never got into famous blind pianists Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder. He loved Oscar Peterson because it was the only record he owned. He says the first time he heard Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” Bryan, then around 11, knew he wanted to play piano for people in intimate settings, plus, “I like knowing where the bathrooms are,” he jokes.
At 14, while attending the Missouri School for the Blind, Bryan got his first regular gigs making about $100 a month to play piano in various St. Louis restaurants each weekend. He says that was big money for a teenager, especially when his mom was making $140 a month driving a school bus.
In 1977, he and his mother relocated to Stillwater. He continued to live there until 1991, when a man told Bryan he had eaten at what was then Celebrity Club and said they were looking for someone to play piano. That Friday Bryan showed up ready to play.
“They weren’t really looking for anyone, but I played anyway,” Bryan says. “At the end of the night (then-owner Mike Samara) goes, ‘Well, why don’t you come back tomorrow night and we’ll see what happens.’ I’ve since always said at the end of sets, ‘We’ll come back tomorrow night and see what happens.’”
Bryan not only plays weekends at Celebrity, but he also helps music artists record in his home studio when he’s not recording his own music. He has helped create songs for hundreds of local hip-hop artists, who he says were the first to call after he bought a Yellow Pages ad in 2000.
It’s that work in the studio that has led Bryan to his next big project. He says for the past four years he has invested all the money he makes at Celebrity into developing cross-platform software to assist those who are blind in doing things like song mixing and video editing. Think Siri or Alexa, but to operate sound mixers or correct colors in video.
He says he’s within a year of seeking investors to take the project to the next level of marketing and distribution.
“Everything I do uses computers, whether it’s at church, in my studio or at Celebrity,” says Bryan, who is also music director at Unity Center of Tulsa. “I am going to create this because your life as a blind person is just dependent on it. You have to be fluid with computers.
“This software will go far beyond just blind use. It’s a profoundly incredible way to automate many, many things.”