Lansing at Large: A Long and Winding Musical Road to Lansing


Last spring, Kyler Davis played Captain von Trapp in the Lansing High School musical “The Sound of Music.”

In the final act, Kyler played the guitar as the Family von Trapp sang “Do-Re-Mi” as an encore during the concert scene.

But it wasn’t Kyler playing the guitar; it was Bob Keefe in the pit orchestra, seamlessly accompanying the actors on stage as he has for the past 20 years.

Now, a few years back, I said “Hello” to Keefe and his student as they went into a guitar lesson at McNeil Music in Ithaca. I turned to the cool young tattooed rocker guys at the counter and said, “You know, that guy can really play the guitar.”

They smiled, said “Oh yeah, Bob’s awesome,” and showed me an old photo taped to the glass counter.

There was a young Keefe in a rock band, with a handlebar mustache, long sideburns, and hair down past his shoulders. The photo suggested a more interesting musical background than I had imagined for Keefe.

Keefe is from California. He was born in Los Angeles and his family moved to Fresno in the center of the state when he was 7 years old.

His Spanish teacher would go to Ecuador and import guitars to the U.S. so Keefe took his paper route money and bought his first guitar from him when he was 13.

One year later, he took more paper route money and bought himself a top-of-the-line Fender Stratocaster guitar and a Fender Super Reverb amplifier.
“I learned from friends, took some lessons, and played in a band,” Keefe said. “Getting out there and playing a live gig is worth 10 lessons.”

His band played surf music – The Ventures and Dick Dale. “A lot of guitar-driven stuff.”

In ninth grade, they played the junior high dance, opening up for a group of older kids.

“We were just a bunch of 15-year-olds and we blew them away.”

He grew older, grew his hair long, and played in more bands. He moved from surf music to the “San Francisco Sound,” learning to play songs by The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I went to junior college and took the minimum number of courses needed to keep my deferment. I moved to Sacramento and went to Sacramento State. I played in a band that wasn’t going anywhere at all. There were all these promises about albums and television appearances,” Keefe said. “A lot of my friends that I played with got on drugs or messed up. They couldn’t get a job and fell by the wayside. I didn’t do drugs and I decided that wasn’t going to happen to me.”

He moved back to Fresno to finish his music degree at Fresno State. He studied composition, music history, performing, and he played in the college jazz band.
“This was a different avenue. Jazz has a larger musical vocabulary.”

In 1975, Keefe took his Bachelors of Music degree to the University of Illinois where he studied to become a music librarian.

“Performing doesn’t pay that well and I didn’t want to play bars five nights a week. I figured that a library job was secure and would allow me to gig on the weekends.”

There was a stint in Switzerland and three years at The University of Virginia. There, his music was all jazz and no rock. He played with a trio and conducted the university’s jazz ensemble.

Finally, he moved to the University of North Texas’ College of Music. He spent seven years there, getting his doctorate in composition, and learning chording, voicing, and counterpoint from jazz guitar legend Jack Petersen.

“We had a big band – a 15-guitar big band. Five guitars played the trombone parts, five played the trumpet parts, and five the sax parts. It cooked. It was a phenomenal group.”

Finally, he moved to Lansing.

“I got married in 1987 and moved to Ithaca College to teach electronic music on a one-year appointment. I was at IC for a couple of years. My son was born and I took care of him for three years. Then I started teaching again.”

Keefe taught at Ithaca Guitar Works for 11 years, at McNeil Music for 11 years, and now he teaches about 38 students a week at Hickey’s Music Center. He is also an adjunct guitar instructor at Cornell University and at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

He still has that original Stratocaster guitar and he plays it in three groups: The Backtalk Band, a rock band: The Bob Keefe Trio, a jazz band: and, coming full circle, The Surf Renegades.

You can also find him in the parks in the summer, playing for the kids of “Lansing Loves to Read.”

“There’s a kid connection I wouldn’t have expected with my academic training,” he said.

And in the pit orchestra.

“You know, it’s all just guitar – jazz, rock, kids. There’s no delineation. It all blends in together and I love it all.”

Lions Host Wellness Fair
The Lansing Lions Club is hosting a Health and Wellness Fair Saturday, Oct. 20 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Lansing Community Center, 29 Auburn Road. Local health-related providers and services will have displays and people available to discuss health and wellness issues with the community.
Participants will include Cayuga Medical Center, Ithaca Podiatry, Gorges Dental, Tompkins County Health Dept., the YMCA, Suicide Prevention, the Lansing Fire Dept., as well as blood pressure screening, eye care/screening, and yoga. The Health Wellness Fair is free and open to the public.

Blood Drives
There will be blood drives on Oct. 1 at the Shops at Ithaca mall from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Oct. 8 at the Homewood Suite from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Hundreds of blood drives have been forced to cancel due to Hurricane Florence, resulting in over 6,000 uncollected blood and platelet donations. Donors of all blood types are needed to recover donations canceled by the storm. There is an especially critical need for platelet and type O blood donations right now.
Appointments can be made by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting or calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment