From Jersey to 5th Avenue, Georgetown resident is the jazz man

GEORGETOWN — In his college days at Montclair State in upper New Jersey, Ken Cicerale was weaned on the clarinet.

“In my studies at Montclair, I was a clarinet major, focusing mainly on classical music,” said the 67-year-old Newark, New Jersey native. “I did play in some pop music bands, and then doubled a little bit on singing a little bit and playing a little saxophone and doing a few other things.”

Ken Cicerale

At that time Jazz wasn’t in the picture. It is now.

Mr. Cicerale, who escaped the state of Connecticut tax burden in “retiring” to Sussex County about four years ago with wife Josie, is the saxophonist in a jazz trio known as 5th Avenue.

He’s the sax. On drums is Ken Schleifer from Dagsboro. Acoustic bass player is Jeff Cooper, who splits time residing in Bethesda, Md. and Ocean View.

“The group has been around for four years. But it was with slightly different configuration. We had a keyboard player instead of a bass player. He left, and we replaced him with an acoustic bass player because we wanted to go on a more straight-ahead jazz direction rather than just like a nightclub-type of thing. This configuration has been around since the beginning of the year,” said Mr. Cicerale. “Now we are doing more of the jazz classics. Now, we are doing the original material in addition to the American Song book thing.”

“What we perform, our repertoire includes selections from the Greater American Song Book, some jazz classics and a number of original somewhat quirky works,” said Mr. Cicerale. “Most of them are mine.”

His passion for jazz was influenced by many in general, and the Chuck Mangione group and a former Mangione sax player even more particular.

“After a while somebody turned me on to the Chuck Mangione group. It was interesting because I got to see them a few times in New York. And a lot of times when we were on the road they might be playing in the same town and on a night off we’d go see them,” said Mr. Cicerale. “I was particularly impressed with their saxophonist, a guy named Jerry Niewood at the time. Jerry was a great influence.”

“So, I finally decided when I had come off the road that I was going to get serious about saxophone and serious about jazz. I had heard that Jerry had left the Chuck Mangione, so out of sheer luck and looking through some phone books I found him in New Jersey,” Mr. Cicerale said. “It was funny, I called him up and get his wife, ‘May speak to Jerry Niewood?’ ‘He’s not here right now.’ ‘Is this the Jerry Niewood, the saxophone player? ‘Yes.’ So, anyway, I was fortunate enough to get to study with Jerry for a couple of years.”

“That sort of put me on my way as it were,” said Mr. Cicerale. “That, plus listening, there was a lot more jazz radio in those days. I got to become familiar with who the key people in the genre were and their styles.”

He went on to meet other notables in the world of jazz.

“For a year I went up to Jazzmobile in Harlem and took some lessons from some great people there. It is actually something that was started many years ago by Dr. Billy Taylor, who was not only a great pianist and composer but probably one of the foremost spokesmen for jazz and jazz education. He started this program where we would introduce people to jazz and you could study jazz. One person in particular that I worked with there quite a bit was a guy named Frank Foster, who was a mainstay in the 50s and 60s with the Count Basie Band. And after Basie had died Frank had taken over leadership of the Basie Band.”

5th Avenue jazz trio, from left, Ken Cicerale on sax, Ken Schleifer and on drums Jeff Cooper on acoustic bass.

The first 21 years of his life was spent in Newark, N.J. He attended public schools there and went to a small college in northern Jersey.

“It was small-town state college. It had been before Montclair State Teachers College. I got my teaching degree there, and then I went on for a master’s there,” he said. “My major undergraduate was Music Education. As a graduate student it was Applied Music.”

Mr. Cicerale and his wife, Josie, will celebrate 39 years of marriage this August. They have one child, son Dominic, who lives in Florida.

He is a member of the American Federation of Musicians and a member of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). While not directly involved in any civic organizations, he frequently rides the coattails of wife, Josie, Lavender Fields’ events coordinator, in attending Greater Georgetown Chamber of Commerce functions.

In this week’s Person to Meet Spotlight: Ken Cicerale.

Music passion?

“Just a love of music particularly from my father’s side, but the passion just to pursue it at all costs is kind of my own thing. I worked at it full-time for a few years when I was younger. Even when I was doing everything else, I still kept it up and still kept playing in some capacity, in some way, shape or form.”

What were the early days like?

“After I left college and got my master’s degree, I sort of freelanced as a musician for a while with some pop groups. I went on the road for a couple years with self-contained show bands. This was a tough schedule. We’d play like a cocktail set to begin with. Then we’d go upstairs to the hotel and change clothes and put on a floor show. Then we’d go upstairs and change clothes and do a dance set. Then we’d go upstairs and change clothes and put on another floor show. Then we’d go upstairs and change clothes and do one more dance set. We did that on the road for a couple years. It was a little nuts. It was fun. I wouldn’t do it again, but it was fun in its day.

“I got a little tired of doing a little bit of everything but not feeling like I was doing anything particularly well. I had been always a little bit afraid to get into jazz because it was something that I was really not that familiar with.”

The trio’s name: 5th Avenue?

“I actually came up with the name because I thought it kind of branded us. We try to project an air of elegance in our sound and presentation. For example, we always wear jackets and ties — and most often suits — when we perform.  I thought the name 5th Avenue might be reflective of that.”

Other musical influences?

“It’s so hard to pick out. I am a big fan of Thelonious Monk, a big fan of Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Miles Davis. The list could go on …”

Work history?

“In order to make a living, I taught school for a few years, instrumental music in New Jersey. Then I started working for ASCAP, the performing rights organization. I worked for them for 24 years. After that I was downsized out, and I was living in Connecticut at the time. As a result of that, that is how we really ended up in Delaware. I had some friends who had moved here, and you really couldn’t afford to retire and pay a mortgage without a job in Connecticut. We sort of like threw our funds together, sold the house and bought a place down here. We’ve been here about four years now.

“Like when I was living in Connecticut I was working in Manhattan. So, it would be 2 ¼ hours on the train going in, working the day, 2 ¼ hours coming back. At 5 o’clock in the morning I am up, home at 7 o’clock at night, have something to eat and then I still go out to practice. If you want to do this that’s how you have to do it. It wasn’t a chore, it was just something; this is what I do.”

Some of 5th Avenue’s venues?

“We did a showcase in Bethany Beach at the Marriott. We did our first show at the Milton Theater at the end of February. We just played the Culture Pearl in Rehoboth … an Easter jazz brunch at Mulligan’s Pointe. We’ve got a few other things on the book, including in May are going to be making a New York City appearance at a place called Upstairs at the Duplex. In September we’re going to be at the Smyrna Opera House.

“We realize that we are not dealing with an audience either locally or even in some of the other venues where it is necessarily filled with nothing but jazz aficionados. So, we try to make what we do accessible to a wider public. If a jazz aficionado comes to hear the group, they will find enough in what we do to satisfy them musically. But if someone is not necessarily familiar with jazz or that knowledgeable about it or doesn’t know anything about it I think they’ll find something that they can like. We’re trying to present it in a way that everybody can get something. When you listen to a jazz group like ours … we are kind of asking the listener to bring a little something to the table.

“We are willing to play out of the area. If the situation is right and affordable, we don’t mind. We’re too old to be up and coming stars and not all of the parts work as well as they used to. Having said that I am not opposed to going a little bit out of the area — if the price is right.”

Leisure time?

“I guess the only other thing that I do is read. And I spend a lot of time trying to hustle for gigs. I spend time practicing, and I do arrange sets for the group and do a lot of preparation for each performance. But this is what I love to do. It comes with its own problems. Everything has problems, but you choose your problems and you deal with them.”

Closing thoughts

“I’m very happy with this group. I just hope people who may not be that familiar with jazz or who were scared of it like I was as a kid or maybe as a listener, or instantly think that they don’t like something because they don’t know anything about it, if you can listen with open ears and an open mind I think you’ll find something there that will be an enriching experience. That’s what try to do.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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