Antonio Ciacca and jazz: That’s amore
‘I met Mr. Marsalis when I was 19, and that
For Antonio Ciacca, the journey from a small town of 1,000 people in Foggia, Italy, to artist-in-residence status at the luxury Setai Hotel happened because of one thing: jazz. Ciacca, 43, began booking concerts at the Bar on Fifth at the five-star boutique hotel in midtown in April 2011. The pianist and composer himself will lead an ensemble at the Setai Hotel’s Bar on Fifth for a six-day engagement starting Monday night.
The Setai is only his latest professional home. The move there came after he served a four-year term as the director of programming and concert administration for Jazz at Lincoln Center. He’s also been a professor, teaching the business of jazz at Juilliard.
Ciacca began studying the European classical literature at the age of 10. He dropped the piano at 13 to pursue dreams of a soccer career, and resumed his piano studies at the Conservatory of Bologna as an undergraduate music student.
Hearing Wynton Marsalis changed his life.
“I met Mr. Marsalis when I was 19, and that was it,” Ciacca says. “I knew I want to play a different piano.”
After Ciacca went backstage and said: “I want to do what you do,” Marsalis had a quick response: “Okay, get the best teacher you can.”
“Right at that moment,” Ciacca says, “the god of jazz was watching, and he made sure that one of the greatest tenor saxophone players in jazz moved from New York City to Bologna — next door to where I was living.”
Steve Grossman had replaced Wayne Shorter in Miles Davis’ band when he was a teenager. Over three years of working together, Grossman, who also plays piano, immersed Ciacca in the art and science of jazz improvisation.
But to go deeper, “he told me to go to the States to learn the sociological environment that produces jazz,” Ciacca says. “He’d say jazz is the surface, but if you don’t know what is beneath that, you don’t really understand.”
So Ciacca visited a friend in Detroit and stayed for three months. He had what he calls “a born-again experience at the age of 24,” one that featured some serious culture shock.
“The first night I walked into a jazz club, there was a group of AfricanAmerican people. I was the only white person in a completely black neighborhood of Detroit,” he says. “They were playing black music. The first word that came out of their mouth was: ‘Do you want to play?’”
Ciacca was shocked by the openness and sharing.“So at that exact moment in Detroit,” he says, “I understood why I liked jazz more than classical. Why I felt something that I never felt in any other kind of music.”
Ciacca now lives in Pelham in Westchester with his wife, Josephine Magri Ciacca, and their five children. They met in Bologna while he was studying for his master’s in African-American Musicology.
After his experience in Detroit, Ciacca booked jazz and gospel tours in Italy for 15 years to re-create the communal vibe he needed to nurture an immersion in jazz culture. He’s studied privately with Barry Harris, Kenny Barron and Jaki Byard. Ciacca found Byard in Hollis, Queens, and studied with him for an intensive week, right before Byard was shot and killed in 1999. “He made me fall in love with pre-bebop piano playing,” Ciacca says.
As a composer, Ciacca writes catchy, feel-good tunes, à la Horace Silver and Cedar Walton. He’s also influenced by Benny Golson’s approach.
The focus for his run at Bar on Fifth will be on the music of Charlie Parker. On Aug. 29, the bebop pioneer of jazz improvisation would have been 92.
Ciacca emphasizes the importance of live jazz, especially now when so much music is piped in. At Bar on Fifth, he says, there’s always acoustic jazz being played, with no cover and a one-drink minimum.
“People should be proud of hearing their own music,” Ciacca says, “in a beautiful place, acoustically, live.” Antonio Ciacca reflects on keys to his career. YOU SHOULD KNOW
Antonio Ciacca at Bar on Fifth, 400 Fifth Ave., at 36th St.
Aug. 20-25, 8-11 p.m., (212) 695-4005.