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  • Writer's pictureErin McCallum

Behind The Curtain: Jack de Keyzer

Photo Credit: Adrian Armstrong.

            Since its inception, the purpose of “Behind The Curtain” has always been to provide readers with more than the regular press release and bio offers about the artists at the core of the Canadian Blues Collective.  The method remains the same; having a strong foundational knowledge of the featured artist and going ‘straight to the source’ is what paves the way for enterprising information.  In many cases, years of study are at the epicenter of the unanswered curiosities that are quelled in each edition – this is why it is always encouraged for readers of this column to seek more information about the featured artists via other resources.  There is much to know and learn about the artists under investigation in this forum, and this month’s edition comes with the same encouragement.  Although recognizable as one of the premier Blues guitarists in Canada for a generation (or two) – and with plenty of information available about his professional career - there is more to put on the record with singer, songwriter, producer and master guitarist, Jack de Keyzer. 


            There isn’t much need to justify why de Keyzer is an appropriate person to investigate – his professional record is well-known (his full-time professional career started in the 1970s, and remains active to date), and his accomplishments (13 album releases, by my own count, two JUNO awards – alongside other JUNO nominations -, Jazz Report Awards, International Songwriting Award titleship, and working alongside notable artists such as Etta James, Bo Diddley, Otis Rush and Ronnie Hawkins, to name several that come to mind) certainly lend credibility to the conversation.  It is also a fair statement that de Keyzer has been performing live extensively throughout the course of his career. The aforementioned is by no means a full description of his professional portfolio, however, it does provide enough evidence that having a direct conversation with de Keyzer will offer insight for readers who are looking for it.  It’s always a tall order investigating an artist who is both well documented and longevous in their career.  After years of study, the curiosities that have yet to be extinguished on the record are ones that are centred around de Keyzer’s personal perspective – by objectively taking this approach, readers can gain additional insight into both Jack de Keyzer’s career and the Canadian Blues Collective.


            One fact that offers a solid starting point in this investigation is the longevity of his career; for those who identify de Keyzer strictly via his contributions to the Blues Collective, it makes sense to mention that his earlier professional record also includes Rock (notably, Ronnie Hawkins, The Rock Angels), Rockabilly (The Bopcats, which released two albums via Attic Records in the 1980s), and, it’s worth mentioning that de Keyzer’s guitar stylings have been included on hundreds of recordings during his work as a session guitarist.  Understanding that de Keyzer’s career includes experience that reaches the “Blues derivative” market, commercially, might offer a more expansive perspective when it comes to his thoughts about being a professional musician for approximately half a century.  In other words, looking within his bio, the first question posed to Jack de Keyzer was: As a full-time professional musician, what has changed and what has stayed the same in the past 50 years?  His answer:


            “When I started, there were 6 night residency gigs – Monday to Saturday, sometimes with a Saturday matinee.  It was great training for a musician, and it was a time when you could make a viable living being a musician.  Over time, by the 1990s, the gigs had mainly become one night performances.  What’s different?  Everything is different.  Everything has changed since I started – some for the good, and some, not so much.  For example, when I first started out, it was a lot more difficult and really expensive to record and release an album; today, it’s a lot more accessible and affordable for people who do that.  The “Do It Yourself” era we find ourselves in today makes putting your music out there a lot more affordable and accessible, which is good, and yet, at the same time, the market is also super saturated with music, because it’s so accessible.  I would say that the only thing that has really stayed the same, from my perspective is the love of music.”


            Knowing that de Keyzer has, by his own account, witnessed many changes in the music landscape over the duration of his career, he was asked what he thinks is the biggest lesson he’s learned to date.  His answer perhaps provides some insight into the longevity of his career:


            “I kinda lucked out when I was playing with the Bopcats; that’s where I learned to put marketing value on music as a profession.  It was a great lesson for me because I was able to learn that the way you market your music can have a significant positive impact on what you’re doing musically.  The value of being able to market the music you are playing – and the value of being marketable - is something I was fortunate enough to learn back then, and it’s something that’s important to people who are playing music on a professional level.  At the time I was playing with the Bopcats, there were a lot of musicians who were simply playing the gigs they had, without doing any kind of marketing beyond the fact that they were playing; I was lucky to learn, through being in the Bopcats, that there’s advantage in being able to market what you’re doing as a professional musician in a way that puts more value on it.  You obviously have to have a good product and make good music, but learning about putting a marketing value on it is the biggest lesson I’ve learned as a professional musician.”


            In learning de Keyzer’s greatest lesson as a professional musician – and in knowing that he has utilized it effectively for subsequent decades – the opportunity presented itself to take a step further behind the curtain.  There’s merit in asking de Keyzer if he thinks it’s a greater challenge to ‘get to the top’ or ‘stay on top’ when it comes to professional success as a musician.  It’s a challenging question in many ways, however, asking de Keyzer (who has managed both positions very effectively, by industry standards) has the potential to provide a general insight, without that inquiry being considered provocative or inflammatory.  His response:


            “I think all you can do is stay true to yourself and do what you do, the best you can.  Nobody knows how it’s going to work out, so you just keep practicing and working hard to try and be the best at your craft.  It doesn’t matter if someone is starting out, or considered to be ‘at the top’ – working hard and always continuing trying to be the best at your craft is something that everyone can be doing.  It’s something I’ve always done, and still do, regardless of where I’m at with respect to professional success.” 


            After learning his philosophy on how he approaches any successes in the music business, there was room in the conversation to discover more.  Credibly answered questions typically come when asking someone who has been accepted as a credible expert at their craft; Jack de Keyzer meets the standard.  The question: how does one who is considered a master at their craft continue to progress/develop their skills?


            “I feel like with music, the possibilities are infinite.  I never get tired of practicing, writing, listening, singing, playing guitar, or learning songs.  That is a main component of ongoing development.  Having that interest and inspiration – and doing it – will undoubtedly add to your skillset and continue to develop the skills you have.  For example, listening to, or learning, a new song can inspire you in a different way as a songwriter.  The possibilities in music are never ending, so there’s always something more to discover, and I never get tired of working on any aspect of it.”


            The intent of this column is to gather exclusive and enterprising information about the featured artist. Although the objective has already been met, this particular investigation provided an opportunity to step away from the usual tact of looking within the documented biography to answer remaining curiosities. Without examining any specific aspect of his professional record, de Keyzer was asked to offer readers something about himself that has yet to be officially put ‘on the record’.  His reply includes part of his personal story – one that offered him insight that he can apply to his professional story as well:


            “One thing that people might not know about me – I didn’t even know it about me until I was forty – is that I’m adopted, and although I always believed my ancestry to be Dutch (my adoptive family and my upbringing was always rooted in Dutch heritage), I discovered that my DNA was Irish.  This was very musically validating to me; there is a lot of musical history in Irish culture, and it made a lot of sense, and gave me a better understanding of who I am.  There wasn’t a lot of musical influence in my adoptive family, so learning that music is a prevalent part of Irish culture made a lot of sense to me because music is something that I’ve always gravitated toward, and I now have a better understanding of where that love of music comes from in knowing my ancestry.”

            As the conversation came to its conclusion, de Keyzer was asked what it is he wants readers, listeners and fans to know about him.  Without hesitation, the answer is concise:


            “I never forget that I am extremely grateful to play music for a living.  No matter the challenges that arise, the thing at the forefront of my mind is always that gratitude.”


As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires further investigation outside of the confines of this column.  Every artist featured in this article has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates the credibility in these conversations.  In Jack de Keyzer’s case, he’s offered exclusive information that can be substantiated through his professional record, as well as part of his personal story that offers insight into his lifelong commitment to music.  There’s a lot more that can be discovered via independent research, or attending a live performance.  This article can be found each month as a regular contribution via the Sound Café with the intention of providing a deeper and exclusive insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective. 

Photo Credit: Judi Willrich.

Photo Credit: Prashant Rawate.

Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres. 

Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound.

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