Tony DeFontes, 40, musician 'born with a bass in his hands'

September 14, 1997|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Tony DeFontes was the kind of musician most bands wanted. A bassist, he could easily groove a jazz or blues number, then go immediately into a rock 'n' roll or western swing set.

Mr. DeFontes seemed to have "been born with a bass in his hands," for he played each chord for all it was worth, friends and former band colleagues said.

Mr. DeFontes, 40, a resident of Roland Park, died Sept. 3 of undetermined causes at his North Baltimore home. He was a popular local musician who played throughout the region with several Baltimore bands.

Tall, lanky and seemingly never worried about anything, Mr. DeFontes was most relaxed when performing, plucking his bass with one hand while the other skillfully moved up and down the barrel.

"He had the ability to find tasteful bass lines to play," said Marc Wexler, who often played the mandolin in bands with Mr. DeFontes. "Tony was able to spin in some incredible melodies in his bass lines."

As recently as a month ago, Mr. DeFontes played with the local bands Section 8, the Patti Sullivan Band, Mambo Combo and Gypsy Dawg in clubs such as the Owl Bar, Cafe Tattoo, Cat's Eye and the 15 Mile House.

He played styles varying from rock 'n' roll to jazz to Latin to classical. And he played them all well.

"For those of us who played with him, Tony was the player we judged all other bass players by -- not that he was flashy or anything, but he just felt so right, so good," said Mookie Siegel, one of Mr. DeFontes' former band members.

A Baltimore native, Mr. DeFontes graduated from Northwestern High School in 1974 and played in local groups for several years before studying jazz and music composition at the renowned Berklee School of Music in Boston from 1985 to 1987.

Although he played with numerous bands, Mr. DeFontes supported himself mostly as a house painter in recent years. He liked painting, friends said, and could set his work hours around his music.

"He was always low-key and laid-back," said Patti Sullivan, a longtime friend and a singer in the band bearing her name, in which Mr. DeFontes performed. "He loved all types of music. He could be creative and expressive through his music."

Mr. DeFontes admired and had been compared to famous bassists such as Phil Less of the Grateful Dead.

"He was sometimes in another world, but he was a complete person when he was playing his music," Mr. Wexler said. "I felt absolutely privileged to play with him."

One of Mr. DeFontes' assets as a musician was his timing when performing with a band, Mr. Wexler said. But he was a poor manager of his time when offstage and often came dangerously close to being late for performances.

"He had an exquisite sense of timing with the bass," Mr. Wexler said, "but he had no sense of time."

Services were held yesterday. A memorial concert is being planned for next month.

Mr. DeFontes, who was divorced, is survived by a son, Eric DeFontes of Baltimore; a brother, Michael DeFontes of Baltimore; and his mother, Lila DeFontes of Essex.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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