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Arts Desk

Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Vibraphonist Tony Miceli

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Photo Courtesy of the Artist
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Tony Miceli

Tony Miceli is one of those characters who, if they didn’t exist, he would have had to create: a musician as deeply into big rock as he is intimate jazz, a man who built a funky foundation upon the least likely of soulful instruments—vibraphone and marimba, and a serious leader and sideman with a rich sense of humor whose finicky focus has jumped from Monk and Mingus to Mozart and Bach in the past, leaving room for so much more in the future.

“I actually grew up playing classical guitar and drums,” said Miceli. “When it was time for college, I did not want to go. I wanted to play in rock bands and get high.”

Recalling how, “back then”—“then” being his introduction to the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts after having moved here from Cincinnati, then New Jersey—one didn’t go to school for the drums (“Percussion being something you studied in college”), his dad got Miceli percussion lessons.

“As soon as I hit the marimba something switched on in my brain,” he exclaimed. “I decided at that moment that I would go to college and play mallets. And that was that. It’s a very hard life, however, but from that first lesson I immediately decided this is what I will do. I didn’t care where or how, but I wanted to spend my life around this instrument.”

Such single-minded dedication, skill and, frankly, the uniqueness of the man on the marimba, Miceli got gigs in Philly and beyond. It also made him something of an activist-expert-avatar in the field of vibraphonic display.

“You have to develop your wrists and your fingers to manipulate the mallets in order to play,” said Miceli. “I hold two in each hand so there’s a physical side to this. I learned about myelin and how that works in the brain and I realize now it’s absolutely necessary to practice thousands and thousands of hours to even get near greatness.”

Then there is Miceli’s creation and development of his Vibesworkshop.com.

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Built on a Gary Burton interview from the 1970s, claiming the instrument would be obsolete in 50 years, an upset Miceli decided to do something about it. Learning HTML in the early days of the web, along with additional website designing tools, built an online vibraphone school and discussion site with a $30,000 gift from his father, and the partnership of pit percussionist-programmer Stephen Hambright.

“I was glad I was doing my part to keep this instrument alive, a very fun and cool instrument, and the website has about 5000 members, all vibraphone players.”

Moving from the WorldWideWeb to closer landscapes, Miceli is quick to call Philadelphia and Chris’ Jazz Cafe his home. “Philly is a very traditional area where I fell in love with straight-ahead playing. So many great bass players and drummers have come from Philly. This is truly a wonderful place to spend your life playing jazz.”

When you ask him about his local heroes, Miceli is quick to say ’Larry McKenna,’ his longtime mentor and earliest jazz teacher. That McKenna still teaches Miceli says a lot about both artists.
“For the past 15 years, up until COVID, I travelled around the world, all based on my online presence. I would tell people about Larry McKenna and they would say they have a Larry McKenna in their town… I would go hear their Larry McKenna and think, “Nope that’s not a Larry McKenna. My Larry McKenna is a Philadelphia treasure.” Miceli is also quick to add his group, The Philly 5, as his pack: John Swana, Chris Farr, Madison Rast and Byron Landham, musicians he treasures for their skill and life-lessons beyond music.

Miceli is fond of discussing how similarly minded local players (“like pianist Tom Lawton”) like himself forever wanted to play the mad, magical music of Thelonious Monk, and did so through Monkadelphia, and albums such as Crepescule (2010), to say nothing of his own leader effort, Thelonious 4 Meets Tony Miceli (2013).

“This was the learning experience of all learning experiences,” said Miceli of commencing Monkadelphia’s live experience at Silk City on 5th and Spring Garden. “I went in and asked if we could play here on Sunday nights for no money. Just let us play. We will start when we want, take breaks when we want, and end when we want.” Together with Lawton, Swana, Chris Farr, Micah Jones, and Jim Miller, Miceli memorized every Monk tune, and mesmerized crowds, just as he had playing rock with The Rock Band and its leap into becoming The (Paul) J?st Project.

“These rock songs were my standards, the music I grew up with. I took “Inna Gadda Davida and just stripped it down to the baseline line and melody and it was like a jazz standard. I loved this music and wanted to play it like I play standards and that’s what I did with two other Philly musicians, Kevin MacConnell and Butch Reed—play Pink Floyd, Led Zep, Hendrix and more.”

Miceli could only have those sorts of adventures with Philly musicians, in his humble opinion, as Philly jazz is nothing but an adventure. Whether he is teaching (University of the Arts, Temple University, Settlement Music School), gigging, or releasing true solo albums (just Miceli and his vibes on, say, Invitation), he is an advocate for the Philly jazz community.

“Mainly, because I believe in it and believe in the music. To me, Philly is a no BS town. People are not fake in Philly, they are to the point. To play jazz you can’t be fake, you have to play honestly and work hard at the music.”

This self-proclaimed “mover and shaker,” comes with a solid-state credo and life-lessons to work by. “My personal motto is GIVE AND TAKE,” exclaimed Tony Miceli. “That’s what each of us should be doing. It’s not cool if you’re giving and not taking and it’s especially not cool if you’re taking and not giving.”