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Music for Life

Tony DeBlois was born blind, mentally retarded, and autistic, but he was also born a jazz savant. Today, he plays 20 instruments, knows 8,000 songs, and is forging a career in the music industry.

It was Sunday morning at the jazz brunch at Skipjack's on Clarendon Street, and even the staff was groovin' to the Winiker Band and a spirited rendition of "All the Things You Are." Bill Winiker recalls that he was snaring drums and that his brother, Bo, with his sweet trumpet, was trading fours with a blind guy at the keyboard whose chord changes and rolling improvisations were so imaginative that when he finished with a flourish that included a snippet from "Rhapsody in Blue," folks stopped eating their eggs Benedict to applaud with gusto. Rising awkwardly and turning toward an audience he could not see, the young man rocked back and forth, his hands twitching nervously, and then he smiled, raised his arms, and said in a voice loud enough to be heard above the applause: "Aren't I good?"

Meet Tony DeBlois of Randolph, the best jazz pianist you probably never heard of and a one-man band who plays 19 instruments -- no, make that 20, because he took up the saxophone last December and plays it now, along with the keyboard, when he jams with the Winikers at Skipjack's.

In El Paso, on a January morning 29 years ago, an auto speeds to the hospital in a race with death. Inside, Janice DeBlois is six months pregnant and in labor. Although this is her ninth pregnancy, she has no children, and as she arrives at the hospital, she whispers a prayer: "Please, God, save this baby."

To the surprise of doctors at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center, Anthony DeBlois is born alive. He weighs 1 pound, and he's blind. Tony's survival is doubtful, a doctor says. He may be blind forever, possibly profoundly mentally retarded. He offers Janice an option: Let the boy die.

"No," she says adamantly. "He's a gift from God."

In 12 days, Tony will need a colostomy. Eventually, he will be diagnosed as mentally retarded and autistic. Tony remains in the hospital for 15 weeks. Photographs show his arm to be the size of one of his mother's fingers. So small is his mouth that he is unable to nourish by nipple and must be fed by means of a hollow coffee stirrer.

Within days after he is sent home, Tony ceases breathing. His heart stops. He turns black. While his father calls an ambulance, his mother sweeps away dishes and sets Tony on the kitchen table. She taps his chest to trigger his heart, and she breathes into his mouth until he breathes on his own. After his discharge from the hospital, Tony lives for months on oxygen. He is so tiny that for a year his mother dresses him in doll clothes.

With a son so needy, Janice DeBlois gives up a career in law enforcement and goes back to college to study childhood development. Tony is now 4, and he has a new brother, Ray, just 6 months old and himself disabled. Janice is putting away the laundry one day when she opens a bureau drawer and is startled to see that her husband's clothes are gone. He has abandoned the family.

Despite Tony's disabilities, within his mysterious mind, a seed must have been planted by the Muse of Music. When he was 2, Tony's mother invested $10 in a toy piano in hopes of getting him to sit up. It was a steep price to pay, given the days of dissonance that followed.

Within weeks, though, she heard a few notes from "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," rushed to his side to play the rest, and as she now says, "Boom! He got it right away."

At 3, he played harmony to Lawrence Welk. At 5, the year he began piano lessons and was diagnosed as autistic, his mother would use music to influence behavior. When Tony answered a question correctly, she'd play his favorite song, "Dueling Banjos."

When it was time to enroll him in a school for the blind, Janice DeBlois was relieved to learn there was a school nearby, in New Mexico, only 17 miles away. The state of Texas insisted, however, that Tony be enrolled in a school there, the nearest of which was a 12-hour drive. Instead, Tony was schooled at home for several years, then was enrolled for a year in the Texas school.

In 1983, the year Janice moved to Massachusetts and enrolled Tony at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, he made his professional debut as a pianist, earning $35 for a performance at the Sunshine Nursing Home. At age 9, having earned more than $400, he filed his first federal income tax form.

Adept as he was at music, motor skills were another matter.

Tony was given lessons in violin, because the motion would teach him how to brush his teeth. He was given lessons on the drum, because the motion helped him learn to brush his hair. It was not until he was 26 that he mastered big buttons on his pajamas and, a year later, small buttons on his tuxedo.

He was slow in verbal skills and at 16 unable to converse.

"You never knew," says his mother, "whether he was talking about something now, five years ago, or the future. Unless you knew his life, you had no clue what he was talking about. And he could not answer simple questions. Ask if this is a cup, and maybe he'd say `Yes,' maybe `No.' He just didn't know."

How is it that a boy so lacking in verbal skills gained admission to Boston's Berklee College of Music? Once again, the Muse may have intervened.

The only music that Perkins taught was classical. In order to study jazz piano, Tony was permitted to enroll in jazz classes at the Rivers School, a private preparatory school in Weston. Berklee had granted Rivers the opportunity to select one of its students for a $1,000 scholarship to Berklee, and Rivers chose Tony.

To find Tony's house in Randolph, it's better to avoid squinting at numbers and instead to follow the sound of music that guides you to the ranch at the end of a cul-de-sac, where Tony is already at work on "Moonlight in Vermont" on alto sax.

Seated at a Baldwin piano, teacher Ed Fiorenza taps out an intro, and Tony jumps in with Sonny Rollins thunder.

"What was the name of that song?" asks Janice DeBlois, plucking lint from her son's shirt.

Tony answers: "It was 'This Masquerade,' Mommy."

"Make sure Tony knows the name of each song," she tells Fiorenza. "If someone requests a song, Tony might know the tune, but if he doesn't know the title, he doesn't have a way to call it up."

Doctors say Tony has savant syndrome, a condition in which a mentally retarded person has a highly developed talent in a specific discipline, often math or music.

"Among savants, Tony is remarkable," says Dr. Darold Treffert of Wisconsin, author of Extraordinary People, a book about savant syndrome.

"Most savants are expert at replication," the psychiatrist says. "That is, they have the sensational ability to duplicate what they hear, but it tends to be literal. What distinguishes Tony is his capacity to improvise, and that's what you hear when he plays jazz. Also, most savants are limited to a specific instrument, usually keyboard," Treffert says, "and Tony is rare in his ability to learn so many instruments and to play them so well."

At the Dexter School in Brookline one day, Tony is playing piano in the auditorium, and music teacher Tim Watrows is explaining how Tony was hired as pianist for the private boys' school's spring production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. "When Tony came to interview, he knew the entire show, which is amazing," Watrows says. "And because he plays by ear, he can change key to accommodate voices. That's just advanced musicianship."

Years ago, Tony's mother began to catalog the songs he knows but gave up when she estimated the number at 8,000. He has performed on national television, in venues across the United States, and in Saigon, Singapore, and Japan. He can sing in German, French, and Spanish, among other languages, and to demonstrate dexterity, he sits at his kitchen table and sings "Tears of a Lover" in Taiwanese.

It was a Sunday morning 10 years ago, and the Winiker brothers were playing their usual gig at Skipjack's. Bill Winiker was whistling along with the music, and, to his surprise, a young man at a front-row table, Tony DeBlois, was whistling, too.

"Everything I whistled, he whistled," recalls Bill, "and he did it in harmony. I thought, 'Geez, he's talented.' "

At the break, Winiker introduced himself and, learning that DeBlois was a pianist, invited him to sit in at keyboard.

"I didn't expect much, but when Tony sat at the keyboard, he yelled out 'Nica's Dream,' which is a Horace Silver tune so complicated only musicians know it," Winiker says. "Well, he reminded me of Herbie Hancock, and with chords and improvisation, he blew us away, tune after tune, 45 minutes, and the audience went wild."

How is it that an admired jazz pianist who plays 20 instruments and sings in several languages, with ballads, jazz, hymns, classical, and even scat among his repertoire, is virtually unheard of? One reason may be that, in an era when popular images are often the result not of talent but of high-powered media campaigns, Tony's marketing strategies are developed by his mother at the kitchen table of their home in Randolph.

When Tony does draw public attention, often it's the result of fortune. One day, for example, he was singing for the butcher at a Shaw's supermarket when he was overheard by a man so impressed by his talent that he persuaded radio host Jordan Rich to invite Tony as a guest on his Boston talk show.

"I'd like him to become more widely known," says his mother, "maybe a recording star with a big company."

Then why not hire professional management?

"I've thought about it, but from everything I've heard," Janice DeBlois says, "the stars with big record contracts, they're lucky if they get a buck for every CD they sell. When we produce a CD ourselves, Tony gets everything after expenses."

Last year, Tony grossed $20,000 in music fees to supplement his $700 monthly Social Security income, his mother says. He would have earned more, except that his travel was limited after his brother was injured in a fall that left him a paraplegic. Ray, now 25, lives next door to his mother and brother.

Tony's CD Beyond Words, a collection of jazz standards with the Winikers, is a gem few people have heard. Janice invested $3,500 in the production of 1,000 copies, but there are only two ways to buy the CD, one through a website (www.cdfreedom.com). "The other is to call us at home," she says. "The Internet takes $2 and gives us $13. If we sell it, Tony gets the $15."

Musically and technically superb, the CD has sold 500 copies, which is not bad for a CD unreviewed, unadvertised, and unavailable in record stores.

Tony rises daily at 7:15 a.m., heats coffee, and delivers it to his mother. "I say, 'Here, Mommy. This is to get your attitude going.' And then I give her a kiss, a hug, and a snuggle."

His personal attendant, Chaniell Tylerlbest, arrives at 7:30, and while Tony showers, she reaches in to soap his hair. He shaves, although she touches up what he misses and trims his mustache.

His mother is juggling his music lessons, choir practice, rehearsals for the Dexter play, and public appearances. Tuesday nights are reserved for dinner and jamming with his girlfriend, pianist Cydnie Breazeale-Davis of Watertown, also blind and hearing impaired.

Thursday afternoons he spends with a friend, retired postal worker Bill Conroy, with whom he sings in the choir at St. Mary's Catholic church in Randolph. They practice sacred music, harmonize show tunes, or simply walk the woods to trade observations about life.

In June, Tony and his mother toured Ireland, where he performed in Dublin and Limerick in conjunction with a group that promotes art among people with special needs.

"I remember the day Tony showed up at choir practice and said, 'Hello, folks. How are you?' " says Conroy. "I was taken by him, and I hold him in awe. When my wife died in February, Tony sang at her funeral. He said he never sang so sweetly. It was 'Peaceful Nights.' "

Sitting at the kitchen table, Janice DeBlois shouts toward his room: "Tony, come out here and sing 'Mama.'"

He emerges, greets his guest, and then, standing next to the refrigerator and rocking back and forth, his forearms parallel to the floor, he launches obediently into "Mama," in Italian, ending in a long falsetto. He smiles at the applause.

A conversation with Tony and his mother is a conversation with two people, one mind. She guides his responses and sometimes answers for him. Tony addresses answers to her and often repeats what his mother says.

What does he hope to accomplish?

"Well, this morning I was busy being pianist for the play You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and it was so much fun. I'd like to go on Broadway and be in other plays, Mommy. It's so much fun. I think about going to Carnegie Hall, Mommy. My teacher says Carnegie is the biggest concert hall in the world, Mommy. And, hopefully, performing for President Clinton."

"He's not there anymore," Janice says.

"Performing, hopefully, for Mayor Menino of Boston," Tony says.

Butterflies? He doesn't get 'em.

"Never," he says. "I just feel excited, Mommy. I'm never nervous onstage; I just feel really joyful and great."

Janice: "He listens intently to what's going on . . ."

Tony: "I listen to what's going on."

Janice: ". . . because he doesn't have the visual cues we have, like when the kids in the musical mix up the order of what they're doing."

Tony: "I have to play the order on the piano. Like, for me, my mom, she does my scoring. She reads me through musical scores."

Asked where his creativity comes from, he answers at once.

"The heart." And then, in a play on words, he says: "All the heart work I put into it, and yes, I am blessed, by God, actually, and I do like to work hard."

Many people not blind and not mentally retarded are not happy. They worry and sometimes cannot sleep. Tony, blind and autistic, says he is very happy, worries about nothing, and sleeps easily.

Does he believe in God?

"Yes," says Tony, rocking, "and I believe in the Christian faith. I was at the grocery store yesterday with Chaniell. She was having problems with the car, so I said, 'Hail, Mary, full of grace.' I prayed for her, Mommy. I folded my hands to pray."

How does a blind man interpret lyrics? How does he sing about snow or rain or the beauty of a woman's face?

"I use music to teach language, language to teach music," says Janice. "In the fall, we play in leaves, and we sing 'Autumn Leaves' together. So if someone requests that song, he plays it with a memory of the crinkle and smell of leaves. It's not a blank thing."

Tony reaches across the table and touches her arm. "I love you, Mommy," he says.

"And he is very much a man-child," she says to explain his gesture. "Sometimes he's fully grown, sometimes a little boy."

"What do you think about when you play something like 'My Funny Valentine'?" Tony is asked.

"I think about my girlfriend."

"What do you think about when you sing 'Blue Skies'? Because after all, you've never seen a blue sky."

"I think about sunshine," he says.

"But you've never seen sunshine."

"Yes, but my mom teaches me the words. We walk in the sunshine, and we sing 'Sunshine on My Shoulder,' and when I walk in the sunshine with my mom, I can feel the sunshine."

Jack Thomas is a member of the Globe staff.

Tony DeBlois at the keyboard during Sunday brunch at
Skipjack's in Boston. Tony DeBlois at the keyboard during Sunday brunch at Skipjack's in Boston. (Globe Staff Photo / Tom Herde)
DeBlois with his mother and manager, Janice DeBlois. DeBlois with his mother and manager, Janice DeBlois. (Globe Staff Photo / Tom Herde)
Audio clips
Listen to samples from Tony DeBlois's album, "Beyond Words." (Clips require RealPlayer)

"Tony's Blues"
"Twin Tune"
"Round Midnight"

Clips from cdfreedom.com. To buy DeBlois's CD, click here.
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