Sam Newsome: ‘Some things just are’

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Soprano Saxophonist Sam Newsome

(Blog post by Chris Maskell)

On Wednesday, February 8, 2017, saxophonist Sam Newsome will be performing with pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, McGill Jazz Orchestra I and other guests at 7:30 p.m. in Pollack Hall. In anticipation of this concert, Schulich graduate student Chris Maskell spoke to Newsome to learn more about his life and music.

In a recent discussion about the definition of jazz, an interesting point was raised: is it against the true nature of the music to play in an “old” style like hard-bop? Must one constantly innovate to play “true” jazz? Certainly a divisive topic, many of today’s jazz artists sit firmly on either side of the issue.

A glance at the career of Sam Newsome offers another view on the puzzle. Coming into jazz with the wave of “young lions” in the 1980’s, Newsome began as a tenor saxophonist playing more straight-ahead music with the likes of trumpeters Donald Byrd and Terence Blanchard. Although he was enjoying success, he eventually made a dramatic shift towards more open music when he switched to playing soprano saxophone exclusively. As a result, Newsome’s path reminds us of another (and maybe more important) value at the core of jazz – the need for self-expression, regardless of the style.

In a recent interview with Newsome, this idea continued to re-appear as he provided further insight into the evolution of his career, how he applies his artistic approach to teaching and his plans for his visit to Schulich.

What initially inspired you to pursue music as a career, and later study at Berklee in the 1980s?

I knew very early on that I wanted to be a professional musician. Even while in junior high, the very idea of the musician seemed cool. Carrying the gig bag, being on the big stage, traveling from country to country, going into the recording studio, appearing on television. It all seemed very glamorous. Back then, I’m not sure if I had a tangible idea of what it would take to build a career. I was just attracted to what I perceived as being the musician’s lifestyle.  However, when I discovered improvisation, the kind of musician I actually wanted to become began to take shape. I was one of the few students in my junior high jazz ensemble who had the courage to stand up and take an improvised solo. Improvising, which was terrifying to the other students, ironically, became my safe space. And as they say, “It was all down hill from there!”

By the time I got to high school, I was already getting bored with being a teenager and being in school. All I wanted to do was play. And this was one of my attractions to Berklee. It was a conservatory, but contemporary. I knew I would be able to spend my time studying things that I wanted to learn. And besides, Berklee seemed to be a feeder school for working bands—Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. These bands were pulling Berklee students out of school left and right. So I knew if I wanted to make some worthwhile connections, Berklee was the place to be. Just during my first couple of years, my classmates were people like Danilo Perez, Donny McCaslin, Mark Whitfield, Mark Turner and Julian Josephs. And Tommy Smith was really scary. He was only 16 years old and was blowing everybody away. Berklee was a serious 1980s talent hub.

In addition to your performing career, it seems like you’re very involved in music education, having published a book, teaching at Long Island University and more. Was teaching something you had in mind from the beginning, or how did you come to it? What do you enjoy the most about it now?

It really wasn't until the mid-1990s, after I had switched to the soprano that I taught with any regularity. And as you can imagine it was more out of financial need than the need to share my knowledge and wisdom with the youth of tomorrow. I wished I had a few soprano students. That would have been fun. At the time, I don't think I played it well enough that other sax players felt that they could learn something from studying with me. But most of what I did was teach little kids beginner saxophone at the Brooklyn College Preparatory Center. And that had its benefits, too. Since I was newly discovering the soprano, I was also dealing a lot with the basics of playing the instrument. So I was able to relate to them in a way that I wouldn't have had I not recently started over myself.

In 2004, saxophonist Pete Yellin, the director of the jazz studies program at LIU Brooklyn at the time, contacted me about taking over his classes as well as directing the jazz ensemble. He was about to go on a well-deserved sabbatical and needed someone to teach his classes. And I had almost refused his offer.  I would have been teaching in an adjunct faculty capacity, and I only had a bachelor's degree. So the pay rate for someone in my position was very low. I wasn't sure if all of the work and preparation that the job would have required would have been worth it. However, with my wife's insistence, I agreed to take it.

During that time, I was actually doing a lot of classroom teaching. Back in 2003, I started working as a teaching artist for this organization called 144 Music and Art. They used to send out-of-work musicians and artists like myself to elementary and middle schools throughout the five boroughs to teach everything from beginner recorder classes to beginner band. 

But besides from the steady money, one of the best things that came out of this experience was that they required all of the teachers to attend their monthly classroom teaching seminars, where they would instruct you on everything from developing lesson plans to classroom management. So after having spent a year or so teaching at two schools a day (at times) and attending monthly teaching seminars, I had some serious teaching chops by the time Pete Yellin contacted me.

And since these were college students and I didn't have to tell them to sit down and shut up every five minutes, I was really able to put to use all of the techniques I had learned through my experience as a teaching artist. And as a result I was really able to hit it off with the students, personally and pedagogically.

One year later, Pete Yellin decided to retire after having given over 20 years of service, and I was hired in his place and have been at LIU ever since.

What I enjoy the most about teaching is being able to share with students, music and musical ideas that I’m passionate about. I figure if I’m excited by what I’m teaching, I’m more likely to be able to convey that passion to the students.

And I was fortunate to be able to document many of my ideas about music and teaching in my book, Life Lessons from the Horn: Essays on Jazz, Creativity and Being a Working Musician. It’s all inter-connected. My music fuels my teaching and my teaching fuels my music, and they both fuel my writing. None of my creative efforts are wasted.

As you’re such a creative musician, do you try to pass that exploratory attitude towards music onto your students? Do you feel like jazz education has the potential to limit creativity, as many have recently suggested?

It’s funny you should ask that. I struggle with integrity issues as a college professor. On one hand I understand the importance of teaching what has become the educational teaching standards of higher education. But then I also know that a lot of that stuff students learn in “jazz school” doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the real world. The educational paradigm is only designed to support linear thinking—information and theories that can be easily codified. These things are great for helping you navigate juries, recitals and proficiency exams, but they don’t necessarily equip you to be competitive in the “real world.”

The deepest and most profound aspect of a player’s concept doesn’t always have to be explained. Some things just are. To try to explain them is to strip them of their genius. We are not always meant to understand things so deeply that we can easily imitate them. Piano players are not supposed to be able to play like Monk. Sax players are not supposed to be able to play like John Coltrane. These guys are conveying their life experiences, very personal musical visions. This is jazz music, not classical. In our effort to make jazz more legit, we’ve imposed on it a European classical teaching and learning model.

Jazz education teaches students not only to travel the artistic paths of the jazz greats, but also to imitate their every musical step. When I used to play with trumpeter Donald Byrd, he used to tell me, “Don’t do what we did. Do as we did.” What’s funny is that many jazz greats probably couldn’t pass the audition to attend many of today’s top music schools.

The fact of the matter is this: If we want to have any longevity as jazz musicians, we have to think like artists. We can’t always hide behind the ii-V-I(s), cycles of 5ths, and the tried and tested vocabularies of people we admire. These things are a means to an end, not the end. We have to reach deep inside and connect with that which is in our inner most being. And this is scary. Most would rather play it safe. Many times, so do I.  When students graduate from college and move to talent hubs like New York, they’re usually in for a rude awakening because everybody sounds great. So that’s when you’re confronted with asking that difficult question: Why should anybody care about me? This is when you start thinking about distinguishing yourself. This is where the real learning begins. It’s during this process that you go from being a student to an adult.

Since you’re just visiting McGill for a single master-class and concert, are there some main ideas you hope to communicate to the students?

My main goal will be to share the musical and life lessons learned while traveling my artistic path. I feel that this is more important than just laying out technical knowledge. Students get lectured on what notes to play on which scale all the time. I’d like to leave them with insights into new perspectives. It’s important for college students to understand that there are more options out there than what’s being presented. And this kind of relates to your earlier question, regarding the harmful effects of jazz education. I conducted a master class at City College of New York a few semesters ago where I discussed the music from my CD, The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation. Afterwards one of the students in the class came up to me in private and told me that he liked what I’m doing and that he also has some ideas that are experimental. And what he said next really blew me over. He said, “Do you think it would be OK if I try out some of my ideas sometimes?”

At that moment, I felt that this is what is wrong with jazz education. Students are not always encouraged to travel their own path, especially if their vision is not aligned with the current educational paradigm. Not everyone can play chord changes. Not everyone has great rhythm. Not everyone has flawless technique. But everyone has a unique perspective on the world. And this is what we should be nurturing. We don’t need the 2017 model of Chris Potter or the Dave Douglas TPT- 4000. What we need are people to come along to help us see the world in a way that we haven’t thought about before. And a new way of seeing things is one of the greatest gifts that we as artists can give.

Finally, how long have you been playing with Jean-Michel Pilc and how did this musical relationship begin?

I first met Jean-Michel in the mid-1990s through a French vocalist named Elisabeth Kontomanou. It was one big musical family. Jean-Michel played in Elisabeth’s band, she played in mine, sometimes I played in his, and sometimes we both played in hers. We managed to always stay connected musically. Jean-Michel and I really got to know each other musically when I became a regular member of his group Cardinal Points with Ari Hoenig and Thomas Brammerie. We recorded one CD for Dreyfus records in 2003 and did a short tour of Europe. And before that he played on my 2001 CD for Palmetto Records called Global Unity.

However, we really started to connect musically when we began playing duo. This is probably the most musically liberating setting I’ve ever played in. I can play any note or any sound and he can play something to complement it. It’s pretty amazing! Few people in the world can do what he does. I’m really looking forward to playing duo with him when I visit McGill.

Tickets to Newsome’s Feb. 8 performance can be purchased here. The saxophonist will also be giving a free masterclass at 11:30am on Feb. 8 in Tanna Schulich Hall.