by Grant Moser
For Mt. Airy resident Keith DeStefano — leader, composer and bassist for the jazz band Puzzlebox — music came naturally. “I studied jazz with Tyrone Brown, a well-known bassist who played with Max Roach. I learned a lot from Odean Pope, but in terms of composition, I’m totally self-taught. I was just able to do it. Ever since I was a kid, I’d listen to stuff and hear how themes were developed.

Mt. Airy resident Keith De Stefano, bassist, composer and founder of Puzzlebox jazz ensemble, was awarded a Subito grant from the American Composers Forum in 2006 and again in 2009. (Photo by Katharine Gilbert)

“I never even thought about it. My mother was a classical pianist, not professionally but extremely talented. I used to sit on the piano bench while she played; those were my happiest memories. And I raided my father’s record collection. He had extremely eclectic tastes that have influenced me to this day.”

But when it came time for school, Keith choose to study visual art. “I never took music seriously because it came so easy to me. I wish I had. I went to The University of the Arts, and I got out hating painting. I became a critic. My philosophy is that good artists do more bad art than bad artists. Just crank it out; whatever comes out.”

It was his wife who pushed him  back to music. “Most women don’t want to put up with a musician, but she said she’d leave me if I ever quit music. She heard me playing and said, ‘Why aren’t you doing this?’ She got me going and has been pushing me ever since.”

DeStefano (when asked his age, he replied, “Let’s just say over 40”) founded Puzzlebox in 2005 as a sextet and then expanded the band into an octet in 2008. “I was frustrated with how small the band was. And then some members went on to do their own thing, and only my keyboardist was left. He is Anam-Owili Eger, an amazing piano player that no one knows about. We grew the band because I’m a composer primarily, and that allowed me to explore more textures. I would love to have a 100-piece orchestra, but I can’t afford to pay them,” he said slyly.

 

“It was when I played with Odean Pope and his Collective Voices that I really saw the possibility of a sax choir, a large horn section. You could develop a piece and the harmony. I’m a big admirer of Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, I love the big bands. Mingus did the little big band, the eight-piece band, and that’s where I drew a lot of inspiration from,” he said.

His role as composer and leader of the band is far from glamorous. “I’m everything. I’m the agent, the writer, the guy that makes sure everyone gets paid. I work at least four hours every day on the band (in addition to his full-time job). A lot of that time is spent trying to book gigs and get into festivals. It’s tough. The hardest thing in the world is to get someone to listen to your music.

“But there’s also writing and practicing, to keep my chops up. I write everyday. I don’t wait around for inspiration. I’ll get an idea with a melody that pops in my head and then I’ll see where it goes … I overwrite enormously.”

DeStefano does all of this work for the band for one simple reason. “It gives voice to my music. I write a lot of music, so I may as well give it some kind of life. Everyone in my band is doing it for the love of it. 99% of the people who play jazz do it because of that love.”

Keith’s love of jazz started at an early age while taking electric bass lessons from a jazz guitarist in Red Bank. “He turned me on to [John] Coltrane and Charlie Parker, and I was like ‘Wow, this stuff is incredible,’ and I fell in love with it. I really loved improvisation, which is spontaneous composing. Wayne Shorter said composing is improvisation in slow motion, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

“A lot of people have stereotypical ideas about jazz. Some people think of it as cocktail background, and a lot of musicians have to make a living doing that. Some hear it as living, vital music, which is how I think about it.

“In my music I try to find a balance. There are parts that are free jazz but no one would know it because there are destinations written in. It’s controlled creativity. I had to find the balance between what was arranged and what wasn’t — what was free — to give the musicians as much freedom as I can.”

As for getting people to sit down and take the time to listen to his music (as well as jazz in general), DeStefano thinks it’s all in perception. “Jazz has become art music; it’s the same thing that happened to classical music. There’s a lot of misunderstanding, a certain pretentiousness that can be around it. I think there’s a lot of prejudice against it, because people don’t understand it. They think it’s either going to be so esoteric or cacophonous that they can’t relate to it, or it’s going to be background music.

“But if you do really take time to listen to Billie Holiday, for example, your life will be better. That stuff is profound. The state of jazz is that it’s always going to keep going on. Jazz is evolving all the time, but it’s an underground music. You have to go out and find it.

“I want people to give my music (and jazz) a chance and listen to it and then decide. I know there’s people who aren’t really going to like it, but at least listen to it before you decide. You have to keep your mind open so you don’t get a hardening of the attitudes. There’s nothing wrong with shaking your hips and having a good time, but why can’t you do that and also listen to ‘Giant Steps’ or ‘A Love Supreme’ (by John Coltrane)? They’re masterpieces. Why can’t you do both?”

More information on Puzzlebox, their music, their CDs and their shows can be found at www.puzzleboxjazz.com.