A deadly cancer diagnosis transformed this man from CEO to professional banjo player

A high-powered Wall Street CEO went from dealing with hedge funds to strumming banjos after being diagnosed with a deadly cancer.

Keith Alessi and his one-man show featured at Calgary's High Performance Rodeo

Keith Alessi quit his job, learned to play the banjo and wrote a one-man show called, Tomatoes Tried To Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life. (Erika Conway)

A high-powered CEO went from dealing with hedge funds to strumming banjos after being diagnosed with a deadly cancer.

Keith Alessi is the writer and performer of Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me but Banjos Saved My Life, which will be featured at Calgary's High Performance Rodeo this month.

In 2015, when Alessi was the CEO of Westmoreland Coal, a Denver-based company, he was described by the Financial Post as a rising star.

But four years ago, doctors told him he had less than two years to live.

"I had a 50 per cent chance to live in a year and a 15 per cent chance of surviving five years," Alessi told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday. "I beat the odds so far — knocking on wood."

Alessi says this prompted him to quit his job and learn to play the banjo — an instrument that has always fascinated him.

Keith Alessi says he never set out to become a performer, but doing so was both healing and gratifying. (Erika Conway)

"I had had a lifelong passion for the banjo since I was a kid … and over the years, I accumulated a world class banjo collection. I had 52 banjos and I hadn't learned to play them," said the 63-year-old.

Even though the tomatoes and banjos in his show are metaphorical, Alessi says his diagnosis of oesophageal cancer — which is caused by acid reflux from a life-time of eating tomatoes — as well as growing up an abusive Italian household, are symbolic of why tomatoes tried to "kill" him.

The banjos represent a life he wasn't born into, but a life he chose for himself, Alessi says.

"I made three promises to myself in the intensive care unit after surgery, and one was that I would get on stage and play my instrument," he said. "I'd learn to play and I'd get on stage solo because I needed that motivation and a goal to do it."

He says his goal to perform was supposed to be a one shot deal. But flash forward to 18 months later and Calgary will be his 100th performance.

"I wrote this show and started performing at Fringe festivals because that's a forum where people come from nontraditional backgrounds and get on the stage," he said.

The banjo player adds that switching his career has helped him find both emotional and physical healing.

"In the last 18 months, I've had more hugs, more tears, more embraces and more true connections with people through both a circle of musicians and now on the stage," he said. 

"It's been a true testimony to the healing power of the arts, so it's the most gratifying thing I've ever done."

He adds that when he was a CEO, doing his job right meant making shareholders money, but it would never touch his soul.

"When you get a diagnosis like that, you strip away all the things that don't really matter, and you realize that those human connections matter the most," he said. 

"Don't look back, look forward. It's never too late to pursue a passion."

Alessi says he's only an intermediate banjo player and that his show is a story that includes music.

His one-man show at Calgary's High Performance Rodeo debuts Saturday at the Lunchbox Theatre. It runs daily except Sundays. All proceeds will be given to charity.

High Performance Rodeo began Wednesday and runs to Jan. 26 in venues across Calgary. The festival features 27 shows at 13 venues downtown.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.