Sam Newsome

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Letters to a Young Soprano Saxophonist: Part 3


Dear Jesse,

Let me begin this email by saying “Welcome!” I’m happy to see that you’ve made the plunge, as they say. Moving to New York is a big decision. I commend you for that alone. It often signifies a moment in ones life at which he or she is about to embark upon a very special journey. Let me add that coming here to go to grad school is a smart and practical way of transitioning from North Carolinian music student to New York jazz musician. Grad school is the perfect conduit: One, it places you in the city; two, you’re here as a student, so much of your time is spent learning and going to school instead of trying to make it; and three, being in school allows you to form a network of personal and musical friends and mentors.  The friends and professors that you play and study with over the next few years or so, will prove to be invaluable resources and a solid support system on whom you can rely for the reminder of your life.

And I do apologize for taking some time to get back to you. As a full time professor, the beginning of September and the end of December are my busiest times of the fall. I’m now in my eighth year and it feels great to have tenure.  When I was your age, I never have imagined having a job for life--which is basically what tenure means. Unless they can prove “gross negligence.” I’d basically have to shoot one if my colleagues or engage in improper conduct with one of my students. Both scenarios are highly unlikely.  My situation is so ironic because when I first moved to New York, I couldn’t even get a sax student, never mind co-running a music program at a university. So I guess this can be a lesson to you: You never know.

In your last email, I sensed that you were having difficulty navigating the turbulent political waters of the New York jazz scene—as they say. Hanging out in New York jazz clubs as the new guy in town can feel as lonely and isolating as being the new kid in junior high. Even if you’re tall, the unfamiliarity with which people see and greet you makes you feel small. Everyone seems to know each other. No one cares that you’re there.  Your life seems like an uphill climb. But it’s OK. It does get easier.

When I first got to New York, musicians who were new in town used to hang out at the Blue Note jazz club in the West Village. During the early nineties, they hosted jam sessions from Tuesday to Sunday from midnight – 3:00 AM. And it was packed. There were hanger-ons from the early show, which featured everybody from Bob James to Herbie Hancock. Established musicians would come there on their nights off or sometimes just to hang out and listen after an earlier gig. And then there were those like me: The green-eyed, wet behind the ear, fresh off the cucumber truck, jazz star wannabes, hoping to find a place in the sea of endless saxophonists known as the New York jazz scene.

When trying to get your feet wet in New York, it helps to approach it with as open a mind with which you play jazz—be prepared for and embrace the unexpected. You have roll with the punches. Have a plan, but understand that you might have to revised that plan in a moments notice--no pun intended. Otherwise you might miss out on an opportunity, simply because you were too blinded by preconceived notions. 

And let me leave you with these last words: Enjoy the process. Enjoy the city.

The bandstand is just where you share your experiences through your instruments. It’s what you do when you’re off the bandstand and away from the club that gives you and your music depth.  Inhale. Now exhale.

Talk to you soon!

- Sam Newsome


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