Derwyn Holder

Obituary of Derwyn Holder

Norman Horace Derwyn Holder, age 84, of Califon, NJ, passed away on October 26, 2022, at Care One at Somerset Valley in Bound Brook, NJ. Born May 13, 1938, in St. John New Brunswick, Canada, he was the son of the late Rev. Harold Wood Holder and the late Grace Mahony. When Derwyn was ten years old, his family immigrated to Milford, NH where his father served as Vicar at the Church of Our Saviour. 

Derwyn's love of music began as a toddler, he was drawn to his grandmother’s piano, and composed his first short song at age 4. A few years later, he stumbled across a Jazz radio station broadcasting from Boston, and that decided the direction his life would follow. When he was eight, his parents surprised him with a saxophone from the Sears Roebuck catalogue. He continued to seek out jazz recordings and broadcasts, as well as classical music, and developed an astute musical ‘ear’ beyond his years. In HS he began playing ‘gigs’ with a few like-minded friends and semi-professional adults. He saw his Jazz heroes if they performed in Boston, and attended the first few Newport Jazz Festivals.

His passion for music led Derwyn to pursue his Bachelor's degree in Music at Tufts University in 1960. He continued his education earning his Master's degree in Music Composition from the American University, in Washington DC. He began his career as an educator, teaching instrumental and choral music to Jr. High School students, as well as performing occasionally on the side, but soon realized he wanted to pursue a career as a full-time jazz musician and left teaching. He asked the people at the Musicians Union which instrument was most in demand and was told—bass. So, Derwyn sent aside his tenor sax and began studying bass. Within a few months he was playing bass steadily with some of the most notable jazz luminaries who performed in the DC area for almost twenty years. 
In 1983, he moved to NYC and eventually settled in nearby Weehawken, NJ. Although he was writing some Jazz and Classical pieces while still in DC, after moving north he was intentionally performing less, so he could devote more time to composing. At sixty, he shifted his focus again from bass to piano, perfecting his keyboard skills so he could hear his music played the way he wanted it to be played. He formed the Derwyn Holder Ensemble with Su Terry on winds, Ron Naspo on bass, and Derwyn on piano, with the intention of primarily playing his own work. They are noted for their CD, “Time Being”.

In 1999 he moved to a little house on the South Branch of the Raritan River in Lebanon Township, NJ. There, in his backyard ‘music shed’, he devoted even more of his time to composing. Throughout the years, Derwyn faced numerous challenges to his health. In 2012, to express his gratitude for all the medical care he’d received later in life, he wrote his Symphony No.1 – Medicare for full orchestra—an excerpt of which was premiered by the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra in 2015. Also in 2012, an updated version of his Guitar Concerto (originally written and performed years earlier in DC) was performed by guitarist Celil Rafik Kaya with the Baroque Orchestra of NJ, under the direction of Robert Butts. Derwyn played his last gig in celebration of his eightieth birthday, at the Deerhead Inn, Delaware Water Gap, PA, to a full house.

Among his goals as a musician, composer, orchestrator, was to “explore techniques used in jazz but not yet used in large orchestras and write beautiful music someone might want to listen to.” Listeners “hear jazz in my classical music and they hear classical music in my jazz writing and playing.” He summed up the ‘why’ at the core of his endeavors with a simple story,” At a picnic around 1978, Martha, the little 5-year-old daughter of a friend, came up to me and gave me a pretty little rock she had found. She put it in my hand and looked at me with a sweet smile and ran away. Like Martha, when I play or compose, I feel that I've found something nice and want to share it." For those who knew Derwyn and his music, he did just that.

He performed and recorded at some of the most renowned venues in and around Boston, Washington, D.C., New Jersey, the New York Metropolitan area, among other areas across the country. He has also performed in Canada, and Berlin, Germany. Accolades for his work, a more detailed bio listing venues and many of the Jazz greats he played with, a discography, as well as audio and video tracks of both his Jazz and Classical music can be found on his website at …Enjoy. He was a member of the American Federation of Musicians and Broadcast Music International (BMI).

Derwyn is missed by his beloved wife, Lia Di Stefano; cousins, David Mahony and his wife Virginia, their children, and grandchildren; cousin, Jane Cushing; dear friend, Richard Esterle; step-daughter, Susannah Shepherd and her husband John Powell; step-son, Tim Shepherd and his wife Kathy Lu, and their children, who brought him much joy—Charlie Powell, Margot Powell, and Evan Shepherd.
 A Celebration of Derwyn’s Life, will be announced at a later date. To honor Derwyn, please consider making a donation in his name to one of the following organizations:
• Spondylitis Association of America –
• World Wildlife Fund –

A Memorial Tree was planted for Derwyn
We are deeply sorry for your loss ~ the staff at Martin Funeral Home
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