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Michael Jefry Stevens Composed a Life at the Piano to Voice His Loneliness

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Michael Jefry Stevens stuttered badly when he was young, nearly died 20 years ago in a mugging and once declared bankruptcy.

So it’s a little odd to hear Stevens say he believes he’s the beneficiary of good karma.

“Basically I have a spiritual philosophy that if you do the right things, the universe will help you at the appropriate time,” Stevens said. “So far in my life, that has happened.”

Stevens lives with his wife in Black Mountain. He has just released another album of his own music, but you’re forgiven if you can’t keep track. Stevens has so many projects in his musical orbit -- solos and collaborations, a handful of quartets, works for chamber groups and small orchestras. You can hear and see Stevens perform with his trio March 2 at Noble Kava.

On the eve of his 67th birthday, he has a spring tour lined up along the East Coast and another in November throughout Europe. You’d think his name would be one of legend. Stevens laughs at the suggestion.

“In the place where I am in the industry, I can get, you know, $1,000 to $3,000 a concert in Europe,” Stevens said. “Making a living (in Asheville) as a musician is really hard here because people are playing for nothing, and the places we play are paying nothing. People think you make a hundred dollars a night and that’s a good wage, but I was making $100 a night 30 years ago, and it wasn’t a good wage then.”

On a recent evening in the cozy upstairs lounge of Asheville’s Isis Music Hall, Stevens led his local quartet through tunes on his newest album, called “Red’s Blues.” Some are recent; others go back as far as 40 years. You might want to cast his style as a cross between cool and West Coast jazz, but Stevens will then point you to any of the dozens of other albums he’s produced and defy you to categorize him.

Through all his music, Stevens sees one connecting thread. He writes from loneliness.

“I’ve always been a loner. Music was my refuge,” he said. “When I was growing up, I had a stuttering problem, which is still there but not so marked anymore, so that sorta kept me away from verbal communication, so therefore music was a way of expressing myself always.”

Stevens grew up in New York and Florida and taught himself to play guitar and then the keyboard through early rock music. As a high school senior, he discovered John Coltrane and Mose Allison and the pianists McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans, and he never looked back from jazz.

He also quit college to focus on music, and his uncle paid for an apartment in Coconut Grove, Fla., to give Stevens the space to practice the piano.

“I think ‘OK, I’m 20, I’m not a kid anymore.’ The only thing I could thing I could think of to do was learn how to play this music,” Stevens said. “My father, he basically never recovered from it. He was so in despair.”

Hardship has sprinkled Stevens’ life. A sports accident at 12 left him with one kidney. During his 40s, a mugging off the New York City subway nearly killed him and left him with recurring nightmares. At the eve of the 21st century, he went into so much debt over making his recordings -- he estimates about $30,000 -- that he declared bankruptcy.

But Stevens credits his study of sufism for turning potentially ruinous events into positives for his career and his life.

“Once I was on the brink of death, I understood there was no tomorrow,” he recalled. “It made me more aggressive in my desire to attain my goals, just to play my music around the world.”

The songs he’d written from a life in loneliness gave way to softer inspirations once he met the woman he married.

“If I hadn’t met my wife when I did and hadn’t gotten married, I would have died from poverty and neglect and bad health,” he said.

Stevens and his wife most recently lived in Memphis, where Stevens saw a career upswing, but when his wife felt drawn to Black Mountain for health reasons, Stevens followed. He’s been here about six years and says he’s only recently found his artistic footing.

“I’m never content. I’m only content when I’m writing, or when I’m playing and the music is good. Then it doesn’t matter where,” he said. “I believe my writing is improving all the time. I’m applying for grants, eventually something has to break -- or I’ll break.”


Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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