Sleight-of-hand artist Jamy Ian Swiss has performed magic throughout the United States and 13 countries, as well as on numerous television specials.
This interview was originally published in September 2003 on my old magic website and likely contains some information that is out of date.
He is also a highly regarded writer, with a regular column in “Genii” Magazine, along with a host of other literary achievements, not to mention his many other magical accomplishments to date. As busy as magic leaves him, Jamy Ian Swiss has graciously agreed to share some of his history, accomplishments, projects and wisdom. He even shares some of his sleight-of-hand practice tips, learning techniques and thoughts on what should be mastered above all else.
Michael Guerra: First off, I’d like to thank you for taking a moment to chat a little. I have to say, I’m a sucker for sleight-of-hand magic, and watching you perform is about as good as it gets. I’m curious to know what influenced you to start thinking about magic originally and what kind of path you’ve taken to get to where you are now?
Jamy Ian Swiss: Thanks for inviting me, and for the kind words. I was an extremely introverted child—I’ve since outgrown that phase—given to spending time by myself in artistic and intellectual pursuits like music, reading, writing and the like, from a very early age. I was therefore a natural—I had all the qualifications to achieve excellence in magic, I was a fat four-eyed kid with a speech impediment.
My dad gave me my first trick when I was seven years old. My folks had a friend who was an amateur magician, and he fooled my dad pretty badly one day with the venerable Color Vision Box. My dad asked about where you could get such a thing, and the friend directed him to Tannen’s, where he purchased a Color Vision Box from Lou himself. Lou, as he always did, didn’t just sell the trick to my dad, but taught it to him as well. He came home and did it for me—and that was a notion of special genius. He got to be the magician every time he brought me home a new trick—I was his only audience—but the wonderful part of this was that as I was learning that trick (and each subsequent one as well), whenever my confidence in the simple methods would falter, he would remind me what it had felt like when he had first performed the trick for me, and that inspiration sustained me through the hard effort of learning to perform magic tricks, making mistakes, getting caught, and then getting better.
I recounted this story in some detail in an essay entitled “Real Secrets” which first ran in “Genii” in 1993, and has since been reprinted in my book of essays, “Shattering Illusions“. Perhaps I should mention that the book, which sold out its first printing, has only just been reprinted by Hermetic Press and is now readily available again.
Finally, I adapted that essay into a live performance piece, which was part of my one-man theater show, “The Honest Liar”, in the 2000 New York International Fringe Festival.
I had many important influences in those early years, but none more so than Lou Tannen, who taught me my first sleight-of-hand techniques, and Earl “Presto” Johnson. Lou taught me sponge balls, Chop Cup, dice stacking, and much more. Presto taught me my first coin work, including the palm-to-palm transfer that he invented and is a standard move today. And then of course I got to see lots of good magic in New York, including Harry Lorayne, Frank Garcia, Slydini, Derek Dingle, and especially, Albert Goshman. These men were all profound influences and inspirations.
So much for how I began, however. The path since then has been long and circuitous and quite literally unpredictable. I had several other successful careers before I became a professional magician. First I was in retail for ten years, mostly in the pet and aquarium trade. It’s interesting to look back now and realize that I began writing for a national trade journal even back then, when I was perhaps 20 or 22, and achieved some notoriety as well. I was also a wildlife activist during those years, especially handling wolves in appearances about wolf conservation. My real motivation was not in the retail business, although I was good at it, but rather in the science and natural history education areas. I was largely self-educated, however, so when I closely missed getting a position as the first Curator of Education at the Staten Island Zoo, that was sort of the beginning of the end of all that for me, and eventually I left the field.
Then I was a partner in a private telephone company that sold, installed, and serviced business telephone systems in the very early days of that industry, known as the Interconnect industry at the time. During this period I got very involved with magic. It had always been a presence in my life; I consistently attended the Tannen’s Jubilees in my teens and twenties. And at the 1976 Jubilee I met Peter Samelson who, I guess it’s accurate to say, changed my life. I was fascinated by his theatrical and intelligent approach to magic, unlike anything I had ever seen. It took me a year of chasing him, seeing him perform at the Magic Towne House in Manhattan and other places, but eventually he came to the house for dinner and that began an intense and long-lived friendship and association—he’s now one of my partners in Monday Night Magic in New York City.
Anyway, he became a profound influence, and I suppose it went both ways, because I got involved in his work, first as sort of a magic consultant, then as a business advisor, and eventually as a co-writer and director of his stage show for a time; it was an across-the-board creative collaboration. I also edited his book, “Theatrical Close-up.” None of this was for profit, it was for the artistic education and challenge. I spent my days at the office and then much of my evenings and weekends working with Peter. It was also the first time I ever saw a contemporary, full-time magician up close and personal, as it were, making a living at magic. So when I got out of the phone business, and it was time for a new career, magic came to mind.
I should also mention that at about the same time, or actually just a couple of years after meeting Peter, I also became close friends with Geoff Latta, who has become something of an underground legend, and deservedly so. He also became an important influence in this period and as I was changing careers. Whereas Peter Samelson influenced me significantly in my thinking about theater, Geoff became a lasting influence on my approach to technique. Geoff is simply the best technician with both cards and coins I’ve ever known, and is an equally inventive originator with both, creating many original tricks as well as sleights. I spent an intense period of several years with him, and he’s really the guy who turned me into a technician, which I was certainly not until he came into my life.
Anyway, I elected to change careers, and while my very first job in life had been performing, it hadn’t been magic – it had been as a musician, back in my teens. I began playing guitar at about the same time I began in magic, and in mid-high school I was in a rock band, and we played clubs and dances and such, and also did “society” dates as well, the wedding and bar mitzvah circuit.
But I never did any kind of magic for money, never did kids shows or any of that. When I decided to make the leap into professional magic, I was about 29, and had never taken a dime for magic. With the help and encouragement of my first wife, I took a year off and pretty much locked myself in the room and practiced. A year later, I did my first two gigs—both corporate Christmas parties—and I guess it could be said that I never looked back. But it was a few years more before I could pay the bills with magic, so at first I went to bartender’s school. I’d heard about Magic Bartending, didn’t know much about it, but I liked hanging out in bars and often did magic for people in them socially. So now I was bartending in New York City, and doing some magic when I could, which was a difficult but very useful period, as it got me some experience with real people.
In 1985 I was hired by Bob Sheets to be the Magic Bartender at the Inn of Magic in the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C. That was my first full-time magic gig, and it was really the crucible that made me a performer. I performed there for about a year-and-a-half, five nights a week. Magic Bartending is like street magic—you survive or you die, that’s it. I survived, and learned a lot. Bob had learned Magic Bar from the original guy, “Heba Haba Al” Andrucci, and I became part of that tradition. It’s been a lasting influence. The place was filled with high-caliber magic, too, and I met a lot of great magicians and saw them perform. I first met Gaetan Bloom there, for example, in 1985. So, although it was some four years or so after I’d officially made the plunge, in some ways I sort of date my career from that period.