If there’s one thing that’s true for Jason “Kobbler Jay” Henderson more than almost anybody else you’ll ever see, it’s that gravity sucks.
But for Niagara Falls’ — and likely Canada’s — most eccentric juggler, the fact that gravity always wins (eventually) makes it a force he must test and bend to his will. And, of course, having adoring crowds cheer his every success and cringe at his every mishap is all part of the fun.
And so it is that Jason, 33, and his bride Kaela, 23, live on the edge of insanity virtually every weekend, criss-crossing the globe to meet and delight new crowds with his knife juggling, fire eating, whip cracking, unicycle riding, barefoot broken glass walking and mind boggling balancing acts.
And when he does fall off a tower of rickety chairs or tumbles from a column of impossibly balanced crates and tables, his buoyant sense of humour softens the landing.
“I try to do it all,” he says.
So who is KobblerJay in “real” life? It turns out he’s just one of us; a regular guy who didn’t like the idea of working 9 to 5 who decided to do something about it. He’s completely self-taught, insatiably curious, absolutely dedicated to his evolving craft, and loves few things more than connecting with an audience.
The foundation for his burgeoning career was laid in high school, but not in the classroom.
To make a meandering story short, he started an Improv Club in one high school before transferring to a school with a drama program. Then, while learning the ropes as a set designer and technician and winning awards as an actor, he still craved the challenge of working up close with an audience. Why else would he dress as a clown for Halloween and spend a full day at school in character? To complete and commit to his clown persona, he learned to twist balloons “because I really like being prepared for stuff,” he says.
That experience, and a chance viewing of a DVD on the life of buskers, fanned a spark of showmanship that evolved into an interest in juggling by age 17. He’d been bitten by the busker bug.
“I got into it and kept practicing because I realized how fast you can teach yourself something. I could see myself learning and getting better, which was really cool.”
But no one, it seems, gets away without paying his dues. In order to navigate a steep learning curve, Jay poured his heart into practicing and booked gigs for the toughest audiences of all: kids parties.
“I hated it,” he laughs, but it motivated him to take his first “real” job.
“That was brutal, too” Jays says now. “It was summer, and I dressed up in this giant chili pepper costume and juggled outside a restaurant! It was crazy hot, I was in this giant foam costume, juggling until I couldn’t take it any more, so I quit.”
To his surprise, he got a call the very next day from the Fallsview Casino about a busker’s spot in their restaurant. “They said they’d heard about me, the juggling pepper!” Jay says.
It was a big step up. He shed the humiliating costume and was soon working alongside magicians and other artists. “I learned a lot of stuff from them,” Jay says, “so I started doing it for real.”
The restaurant’s consistent turnover of out-of-town diners meant he could constantly hone his skills, learn what to say and what not to say, and build a proper show.
Not longer after, Jay’s path to busker fame took a short-lived detour when he attended the University of Windsor for one semester, but he never stopped practicing.
“That’s actually when I taught myself how to juggle knives,” Jay says. “I went to Zeller’s and bought three big French carving knives and started practicing with them because I’m crazy that way! They had heavy handles and light blades, so the blades whipped around the handle. I didn’t know you could get big, weighted juggling knives, so I nicked my hands up a ton. But I’m not completely crazy, so I put hockey tape over the blades then gradually started taking it off so I was just juggling French carving knives.”
While the nicks and bruises added up when he added extravagant balancing stunts to his show, so did his bookings. He was soon working at festivals, performing in parades and travelling far and wide. While constantly adding new elements to his bruising repertoire, he’s performed across Canada, the U.S. and Europe, and even booked a month’s work at a resort in Malaysia in 2014.
These days, with Kaela by his side (she now pulls the behind-the-scenes strings as his booking agent, web manager and social media voice and chronicles his shows in photos and video), Jay looks to a future that includes creating a booking agency and organizing more busker festivals. He’s currently the Artistic Director for the P.E.I. Busker Fest, “and we’re working on making it bigger.” Together, they’ve already set a busker festival in motion for 2016 in Olde Walkerville in Windsor with a strategy to build on the model for other cities.
But don’t worry; KobblerJay isn’t hanging up his knives or clubs anytime soon. As long as the crowds turn up and as long as he can earn enough to pay his massage therapist, the desire to perform will burn as brightly as the flaming torches he tosses around.
“I’ll never stop doing my show,” he says. “It’s mostly about the interaction between myself and the crowd; joking around and having a good time. There’s a connection that I love when I’m performing on the street, because I’m right there, there’s no wall, and I try to make every show personal for the people who watch me. I love doing the shows as Kobbler Jay.”
(Biography written by Stephen Crampsie, 2015)