Jazzing it Up with Zenith City Sharps

Paul Whyte

While the jazz band Zenith City Sharps hasn’t been around for very long, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of talent and skill that goes into their music. I didn’t really have a CD to review this week, so when vocalist, Paul Lemenager, of the Sharps hit me up to tell me about the band, I was more than happy to hear about what they’re doing. I appreciate when new groups make themselves known. 

The band formed back in April of 2017 and consists of Jonno Sickerdick on drums, Matt Tessier on bass, Peter Brown on keys, and Lemenager handling the vocals. While Lemenager is in his 50s, the other three members are Jazz Studies students in their 20s. The band takes on jazz standards and crooner type music such as Frank Sinatra. They occasionally gig in the Twin Ports and they hope to continue sharing their take on jazz with the Northland. We had a chance to speak with Lemenager about the band. 

Reader: How does a guy in his 50s end up working with some jazz students from UMD?

PL: I was asked to sing in another band, and there’s been kind of a resurgence of soft jazz and crooner type music. I contacted the head of jazz studies at UMD and ask if they had any piano players that have interest in this kind of music. He said he actually had a piano student and a bassist who were really into that type of music and they’re very good at it. He put them in contact with me and we had a couple of practices. They asked their friend Jonno from Australia to play drums. Jonno graduated last year, Matt and Peter are both graduating this year. 

Reader: Tell me a little bit about your background as far as jazz music goes. Jazz seems to be held with some obscurity as a genre, perhaps even more so than blues. 

PL: Jazz music is very wide encompassing.  What we do is more of the standards and crooner music, but that spans over into other elements of jazz. This goes over into the big band era of the 40s and 50s, which were the glory days. Frank Sinatra was probably the biggest of them all. He made soft jazz not only acceptable, but a popular form of music. Of course many others popped up like Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday. When you see this performed by great musicians like Peter, Matt, and Jonno, the older crowd is attracted to it because it’s great music. 

Reader: Can you go more personally into music for you? You said your grandfather was a musician himself?

PL: Yeah, my great grandfather played over a dozen instruments. He played strings, woodwinds and brass. I do play some instruments, but I’m the vocalist for the band. How that transfers is that I have a long history of music in my family. My dad was a vocal music teacher for close to 30 years. He’s in his 80s and he still sings and teaches music to kids. This made an impression on me when I was younger, he taught me how to breathe properly, how to use my diaphragm, I think learning brass instruments also teaches breath control. 

Reader: When you started this group, what did you want to add to the music of the Twin Ports?

PL: That’s a great question. I really went into it because I wanted to get some young people involved. To help them understand that it’s great music to listen to. The level of the three member’s talent is phenomenal. They could play three hours with just instrumentals. I’m not really the leader of the band, I just sing, but everyone contributes. In the end, I wanted them to gain more experience and I hope to bring great music to the area and push the envelope. 

There’s a glut of great musicians in this town and it’s difficult for these musicians to make money playing. I’ve seen these guys from Ashland at a local place and they were excellent, but there was only four or five people to see them. 

Reader: Well, with that, who’s really responsible?  The venue, the band, or the people who go out?

PL: I really think it’s a combination of all three. There’s young people trying to break into the music scene, they’re getting jobs and also doing what they’re passionate about. We’ve been very fortunate that the places that we’ve been playing have been paying us what people say is a higher than average amount for this area. They recognize the talents that are in the band, and people are having a great time at our gigs. When you look at places like the Red Herring to the Spirit Room, they both have fantastic artists that are playing there. Places like Luce’, Carmody, Dubh Linn’s, you name it, it’s a very music-centric town and what happens is the scene is kind of diluted because of it. If musicians wanted to put more effort into promoting themselves to make sure establishments make money, it’s a cooperation between all people involved. A lot of young guys don’t know how to go out and get gigs. 

Reader: Do you have an upcoming gig anytime soon?

PL: We have a three hour gig at Blacklist on Saturday (September 2), we’ll be playing a Owl’s Club, and Fosters soon. We’ve played at Pier B recently.


Paul Whyte

A South Shore native and University of Wisconsin-Superior journalism graduate. Lifelong musician, and former open mic host. Passionate about the music scene and politics.

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