Famed jazz musician and former College professor Tony DeNicola could never be called one-note. DeNicola, who died Saturday, Sept. 2 on his 79th birthday, instead leaves a multi-tonal legacy of music, scholarship and friendship behind.
A longtime resident of Pennington, he not only made his mark on his community, but the world of jazz, where as a percussionist he played with some of the greats of the big band era, including Harry James, Kenny Davern, Clark Terry and Freddie Martin. He remained popular among fans until his death, which shocked many who knew nothing of his ill condition and cancer diagnosis.
Perhaps even more impressive than his sterling reputation as a musician, which included his acceptance of New Jersey’s first “Jazz Musician of the Year” award, was his status as a beloved professor here at the College. He taught for many years before retiring in 1992, having amassed a devoted following of grateful students.
Keith Csolak, a former student, wrote in an online guestbook on the philly.com obituary page, “He is my mentor not only as a teacher but most importantly as a beautiful human being . I will never forget our times at (Trenton State).”
According to former students, DeNicola was a true professional who never let his career success overshadow his inherent modesty. He sought to introduce students to real-world musical challenges and experiences.
He often brought his own band to play with students in the Rathskeller, allowing his students to feel at ease playing with such seasoned professionals.
“We would play with big bands at the College’s student center on Monday nights, often with big names that Tony would bring down from New York to solo with us,” former student Bob Gravener said in a Times of Trenton article. “It was a great learning experience.”
DeNicola also created what is the College’s current Jazz Ensemble, devoting yet another chunk of his time to performing and instructing.
Many other former students have nothing but praise for the man who helped them hone their musical prowess and find careers.
Born in 1927, DeNicola was a lifelong lover of music. He played in his high school band, which was followed by a stint in the Korean War where he played in the U.S. Army band. Already considered a professional drummer of some esteem, he returned to the College – then Trenton State – to receive a master’s degree in music.
DeNicola got his big break when future game show host and singer Merv Griffin heard him in a Trenton jazz club. Griffin, a member of the Freddie Martin orchestra, was impressed by his drumming and convinced DeNicola to join the orchestra. He did and followed them out to Las Vegas, where he met and began his lifelong friendship and partnership with renowned trumpeter Harry James.
While playing in James’ band he met Kenny Davern, the leader of a popular jazz quartet, whom DeNicola came to play frequently with. With Davern’s band, he traveled worldwide to places like Europe and Japan, as well as more local venues in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia.
“He became the guy I would call first no matter where we were performing and was on every recording I made during the past 10 years,” Davern said in the Times article, noting that DeNicola was planning on joining the band for a small performance tour at the end of September.
DeNicola enjoyed numerous friendships with many of his fellow musicians, often appearing as a guest drummer with them at various performances.
A concert program for the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Florida, where he played on occasion, said, “He is known and appreciated among other musicians for his steady and supportive time,” one of the many compliments bestowed upon him by fellow jazz artists.
“DeNicola’s death, like that of all outstanding musicians, leaves a void that is unique, one that can be replaced but never really duplicated,” William Klug, professor of biology, said. “You cannot travel anywhere in the world of jazz musicians and mention that you know Tony without their immediate recognition. And we, at this institution, were lucky enough to have him with us for almost two decades.”