Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Letters to a Young Soprano Saxophonist: Part 2

Dear Jesse,

I was very excited to read in your last email that you’re planning to move to New York in the fall. Living in New York is an experience unlike anything you can experience anywhere else.  Even though I went to school in Boston, not exactly a small town, I still was not prepared for the daily hustle and bustle that came with being a first-time New Yorker. But it was worth it.

First of all, I made the tragic mistake of coming here with only two months rent and change. Huge mistake! Like I said, I was totally unprepared. Typically I shy away from blaming things on extenuating circumstances, but I’ll make an exception this time.

So here's my explanation for my dearth of cash.

A month or so after I’d graduated from Berklee, I started playing in the band of trumpeter Donald Byrd. Playing with him had looked like it was going to be my ticket to making a name for myself in New York as well paying the bills.  The gig with Byrd seemed to be the answer to the three questions that dominates the thoughts of most college music students about to graduate with a degree in jazz studies: Where will I play? With whom will I play? And how will I make money doing it? Like most curve balls thrown by life, I was not prepared for the unexpected. Many people did not know this, but Donald Byrd was a diabetic and his health was not good. He should not have been on the road, at least not without someone at his side to monitor his health. Long story short, a few weeks after our European tour he was hospitalized due to complications related to diabetes. I didn’t get a chance to see him in the hospital, but it was pretty serious. They didn’t know if was going to pull through. But miraculously he did. He was a pretty strong dude. In fact, a lot of musicians from his era were. Those cats were cut from a different cloth. Needless to say, all of the things we had lined up that fall were cancelled.

And what can I say? So the struggle began!

But I did survive, as most do. As I’m sure you will too.   

You mentioned that you were worried about having to work a day job and not have enough time to practice and play music. And those are legitimate concerns.  During my first year in New York, trying to practice and stay on top of my game proved more difficult than I ever imagined. It was hard. The irony was that I had moved to New York to show people what I could do; however, due to extenuating circumstances,  I was only able to show a poor representation. But I did figure it out. As jazz musicians, just as we’re resourceful with musical language, we eventually learn how to be equally as resourceful in trying to figure out how to survive.

Back to your question.

As far as sustaining yourself financially, while pursuing “the dream,” there are a few ways I’ve seen musicians go about it. One, is to move here with enough savings to hold you over for about a year or so until you get enough things happening musically. Which can be difficult, especially if you’ve just graduated from college. Chances are that most of your and your parent’s resources went into paying for your college education. Two, have a steady gig playing somebody’s band before you get here or soon after. Back in the eighties and early nineties the sought after gigs were with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, Tony Williams, Art Taylor and Taylor’s Wailers, Nat Adderely, Wynton Marsalis. These were bandleaders who’d had a history of hiring young players on the scene, giving them enough exposure and experience that they were eventually able to start their own bands--and this happened with Wynton Marsalis to a lesser extent.  Consequently, these players would go on hire young players on the scene, who’d eventually step out on their own--thus creating an environment of passing the torch. However, in today’s musical climate, there aren’t that many musicians who have enough steady work where someone could make a living only playing with them. And the third way that aspiring musicians have sustained themselves financially is by getting a day job—which is what I had to do. 

Unfortunately, I had a degree in jazz studies. So that and a Metro-card got me on the subway. Back then it was a subway token. And I would be lying if I said that trying to do both is not extremely difficult. It will challenge you to contemplate whether not this is really what you want to do. And I’ve seen a few to fall by the wayside. My situation was especially rough. One, I was living in Rego Park, Queens, which might as well have been New Jersey; two, I couldn’t practice in the apartment that I was sharing with a friend that I had moved down from Boston with. It was a luxury coop building that his father owned an apartment in. Mostly irritable seniors lived in the building. So they had zero tolerance for musicians making noise; and three, the temp job that I had paid minimum wage, as it should have, being that I had no skill sets on than playing changes--even that was shaky at times.

But I think in some ways, you’re more fortunate, since musicians from your generation tend to be a lot more resourceful.  One, you don’t need to jump through the hoops of an A & R guy to have the opportunity to make a record. I can't begin to count the number of cassette tapes I tried to get into the hands of people who held the title of "gatekeeper."  Two, you can be more entrepreneurial with teaching. You're not confined to doing it out of a music shop. You can teach via SKYPE, sell books, or even form your own collective.  And three,  it’s a lot easier to network and get the know other musicians. We had to pay money to go inside of a jazz club just to be able to meet other players. Unless you were fortunate enough to get on the coveted guest list. Nowadays, you can make a lot of worthwhile connections on Facebook and Twitter.

Jesse, I will say this. If you do end up coming to New York, just make sure you’re equipped with these three things: thick skin, lots of musical ability, and a nice little financial nest egg to nurse on. If you’re deficient in any of these areas, your time here will be very, very difficult. So practice your horn and save your money.

Keep me posted.


Sam Newsome

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