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Meet Jack Sirica

Meet Jack Sirica

Courtesy Jack Sirica

Art Blakey gets to me in a very visceral way. It almost seems as if anyone in the audience—or the band—were to dare to drift off, Blakey would fire off a series of sharp rim shots to snap everyone back to attention.
Self-raised on rock and roll, Jack Sirica's connection to music always comes back to rhythm. Sure, there was that teenage flirtation with a Fender Mustang electric guitar (which ended when his dad, worried about slipping grades, intervened), but Sirica credits Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts' swing feel on the ride cymbal for opening up his ears to jazz. Through the years of attending concerts and listening to recordings, Sirica's appreciation of rhythm has grown to the point that he's been learning to play drums, studying with jazz drummer Billy Drummond..

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born and grew up in Washington, DC, and I now live with my wife in Northport, NY, on Long Island. I work as one of two political editors at Newsday, a daily newspaper that circulates on Long Island. My boss and I assign and edit stories about New York State government and politics, and the same subject matter in Nassau and Suffolk counties, and Washington, DC. I feel very lucky to have a wife and two great children who actually enjoy being around me after all this time. And I'm a huge fan of dumb comedy—the Farrelly Brothers, Mel Brooks, Family Guy, South Park, and on and on.

Besides Washington—where I grew up and returned to later as a news reporter—I've lived in Denver, CO; Santa Cruz, CA; Nashville, TN; New York City ; Durham, NC (attending college at Duke); and Florence, Italy, during a semester abroad. I majored in English Literature, where I was exposed to books I don't think I'd ever have tackled on my own, including James Joyce's Ulysses, and John Milton's Paradise Lost. Although I didn't major in journalism, I worked periodically for the student newspaper, The Duke Chronicle, and started in journalism right after graduating, as a general assignment and police reporter at The Tennessean, in Nashville.

What's your earliest memory of music?

Lying on the floor in our living room as a kid in Washington, watching my mother work the pedals on the baby grand piano she had inherited from her family. I think I picked up a sense of rhythm from connecting how the pedals affected the pulse of the music she played. She was a good enough singer to have been accepted at Julliard, only to turn her place down, because she didn't want to leave home! I was exposed to a good dose of tunes from My Fair Lady, South Pacific, and other shows from listening to her.

I'm embarrassed to reveal that when my mother encouraged me to take piano lessons, I replied that it was for "sissies." I'm sorry she let me off the hook, because I clearly knew nothing. I did take guitar lessons when I was about 14, after talking my father into buying me a powder blue Fender Mustang electric guitar and a small Fender amp. Soon after, I began to fail at math in school, and I guess in Dad's mind that was the result of the focus on the guitar. So back we went to Chuck Levin's music store in Washington, and returned everything. My father was a great dad, but having been born to first generation Italian parents in 1904, he was very old school and very conscious of moving up in the world in a paying profession. He certainly succeeded, becoming a trial lawyer, a federal prosecutor, and then a federal judge in Washington. At the end of his career, he presided over pretty much all the Watergate cases, including those of the burglars who broke into the Democratic National Committee offices, the conspiracy trial of President Nixon's senior staff and the constitutional battle over the White House tapes. But I suspect he saw a musician's career basically as a likely ticket to poverty, and hence did his best to steer me in a different direction. I've become a very good journalist, but always wished I'd taken up music as well. So now I'm having my revenge at age 68 learning how to play drum set!

How old were you when you got your first record?

Probably about 12 or 13 years old, when I somehow came up with the money for Meet the Beatles, their first big LP in the United States. We lived in Northwest Washington, near the Maryland line, and my friend Joe Bradley and I would get the D-4 bus on Saturdays, to F Street, near the White House, where there were a couple of blocks with a lot of record stores. I'd play my purchases on our Zenith record player, which played a stack of records automatically, and pumped out the hits through a self-contained tube amplifier and one big speaker. None of those records survive.

What was the first concert you ever attended?

It had to have been in early high school, when we were bused to DAR Constitution Hall for concerts by the National Symphony. I am embarrassed now by the lack of attention to the music that was characteristic of most of us, me included. So, I'm afraid my sharpest memory of these concerts was the time I felt a tap on my left forearm, and the guy next to me handed me a wooden armrest from one of the seats along the row. Hopefully, someone reattached it when the piece made its way back down the line.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?

In my recollection of my LP collection are several Ahmad Jamal records that I must have bought in the early '70s, when I was still in high school. I don't know how I came across him, or across jazz in general, at that age. Every time I look at the "J" section of my jazz LP collection, I sort of marvel at how I discovered Ahmad Jamal in the first place. But I know I was attracted to his emphatic left hand on the keyboard, which created a rhythm that makes me sort of sit up and pay attention, still. So here's a guess about the one album: Ahmad Jamal with Voices: Cry Young, on Cadet Records from Chicago, which ends with his take on "C'est Si Bon," a song my mother used to sing while playing the piano.

I really have no idea how the person described above came to discover jazz. Having raised myself on rock 'n roll, perhaps I was primed to like jazz without knowing it, by listening to the drumming of Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. I know now that he brought a swing feel to many of their songs, which is one reason they sound so distinctive. I still can listen to the studio version of "19th Nervous Breakdown," released in 1966, over and over and have a great time! When I started to learn to play the drums myself, I figured out why: In that song, he plays jazz time on the ride cymbal throughout, broken up by lively little fills on the tom-toms. I've never heard anything like it from other rock drummers.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?

Since I was a teenager.

How often do you go out to hear live music?

Pre-pandemic, at least once a month.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?

It's that live music, particularly jazz, gets to me on a deep, spiritual level. For an hour, I'm pretty much in the moment, which has never been an easy place for me to get to for any length of time.

What are the elements of an amazing concert?

The intimacy and sound of the room, and the attentiveness and passion of the audience help create the atmosphere for a good jazz show. And when you have musicians who not only are experts at their craft, but feed off each other creatively and enjoy playing with each other you'll likely be rewarded with a great show. I've been lucky living near New York for almost 30 years to have seen many great performers live, including: saxophonists Charles McPherson; Billy Harper, Charles Lloyd, and George Coleman; drummers Roy Haynes, Victor Lewis, Louis Hayes, Lenny White, Billy Drummond, Lewis Nash and Allison Miller; pianists Cedar Walton, Randy Weston and George Cables; and guitarists Pat Martino and Mary Halvorson. For much of the pandemic, I made do with live-streamed shows. Initially, I saw them as opportunities to support musicians through ticket purchases and "tips" via online banking.

But as the situation dragged on, I saw some excellent shows as well. Smalls Jazz Club in Manhattan, streamed shows at 4: 45 p.m. each day for a good part of 2020, and I remember one in particular featuring Frank Lacy, the trombonist and singer. I ran the audio through a good stereo system, but the video I could muster wasn't the sharpest. Also, the lack of a live audience was disconcerting, given how reliant even the best-known jazz artists are on income from club gigs. Nonetheless, I was touched by Lacy's performance with an ensemble of younger musicians—in particular, by their rendition of "The Spirit Monitor," a Lacy song that's on his 2013 album, Frank Lacy & the Smalls Legacy Band—Live at Smalls. The song is built on a horn and piano refrain that's moved along on the record by the graceful drum and cymbal work of Kush Abadey. The song affects me somewhat like John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," or Pharoah Sanders' "The Creator Has a Master Plan," with their incantations. During the streamed show, and as I played it today on my tiny phone speakers as I tried to write this bit, the song left me feeling hopeful and light— basically, in a spiritual place.

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?

I would liked to have seen the The Rolling Stones, with Charlie Watts, in a smallish venue. They played the Beacon Theater in Manhattan in about 2006 or 2007, when Martin Scorcese filmed them for his movie, Shine a Light. I vaguely remember thinking about trying to get tickets, but didn't go. I wish I had.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?

Art Blakey, who gets to me in a very visceral way. I guess it's the same sort of thing that's always attracted me to Ahmad Jamal's commanding rhythm. It almost seems as if anyone in the audience—or the band—were to dare to drift off, Blakey would fire off a series of sharp rim shots to snap everyone back to attention. He seems to practically command the listener to pay attention to him. I love the loud rolls he plays on the toms in the song "One By One" on probably my favorite record of his, Ugetsu. He plays with a propulsive swing that grabs me.

What makes a great jazz club?

I'd say an acoustically great sounding room, a good staff, and a generally relaxed atmosphere. To me, anyway, it's easy to feel almost an intimacy with musicians in rooms that generally aren't terribly large. My wife and I have had many nice conversations with the musicians after shows. She is much more outgoing than I, and has no problem running the performers down in the dressing rooms, if necessary, to sign CD's. She also was the one to strike up a conversation at the bar of the Jazz Standard with the great jazz drummer Billy Drummond, who's taken me on as a student, even though the best I can offer him at the moment is persistence and checks that don't bounce.

Which clubs are you most regularly to be found at?

Before the pandemic, we were a couple-times-a-month regulars at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan, with less frequent visits to other New York City clubs such as Smoke Jazz & Supper Club and Dizzy's Club Coca Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Is there a club that's no longer around that you miss the most?

The Jazz Standard, which closed during the pandemic, but hopefully will be back in some other location. I found it a very welcoming, accessible place that catered to everyone from jazz nuts to foreign tourists who most likely were visiting for their first and last time. The room sounded good—I noticed it had floors made of butcher block—and it was great to be able to say a few words to the musicians before or after the shows. I talked briefly there with a lot of people I admire. Among them were Jimmy Cobb who, when I buttonholed him and asked him how to deal with aching shoulders, was kind enough to advise me pointedly that use of the shoulders has no place in good drumming; Kenny Washington, a fine drummer and a very good writer who recalled how Jamal had put the arm on him to write the 19-page liner notes for The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo sessions on Mosaic Records; James Cotton, whom I had the chance to introduce my 20-some-year-old daughter to while he sat by himself at one of the outdoor tables on the sidewalk on a hot summer evening; and drummer Lenny White, who was nice enough to give me a minute, even though he was at a table with his family.

How do you discover new artists?

Primarily I read reviews in the rear of the several hi-fi magazines I subscribe to. On Fridays, I preview new stuff on iTunes.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s?, streaming?

CD's, vinyl, and streaming.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?

Drums. I love the combination of sounds you can get from cymbals, toms, snares, etc. This is no new insight, but drums along with the bass really give structure to a band, and can sort of provide a home to come back to for the soloists as a song progresses. And I'm hoping that once I get more of the basics down—playing with the wrists, rather than the shoulders, and letting the bounce from the drum heads do more of the work—it'll actually be fun a lot of the time. Still, there is enjoyment in improving my basic skills, as I'm finding out...slowly.

What's your desert island disc?

Kind of Blue. That ethereal intro to the famous opening song, "So What," as Bill Evans and Paul Chambers start together on piano and bass and Jimmy Cobb comes in quietly on the ride cymbal and hi-hat before Chambers introduces the song's melody, both grabs my attention and touches me deeply pretty much every time I hear it. Usually then, I'm off, listening to the entire album. I don't listen to it more than once at a sitting, but I'm sure I will never tire of it.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...

Monochrome. Less joyful.

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