Sam Newsome

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

VIDEO FEATURE: Dorota Potrowska/Sam Newsome Quartet - 2017 Sopot Jazz Festival

Friday, March 16, 2018

Don't Wait on Perfection. Just Get it in the Mail

We often want to wait until something is perfect. Perfection is an illusion. You'll find Sant Claus faster. We can't wait until the optimal moment to act. Sometimes in life, you just have to put it in the mail. We often spend way too much time obsessing over the envelope stuffing process. 

And the same can be said of playing music. Don’t wait until you have something to say to play. Play so that you can figure out what you have to say. I say this to people who are ultimately waiting until their music becomes perfect before they feel compelled to release a recording or book a gig. 

Aiming for perfection and wanting to wait until we’re "ready" has become all-purpose excuses for not trying. The truth of the matter is that we never feel we’re 100% ready. There’s always something to do—a tweak here, an edit there...I once heard an executive from Pixar say that “ Pixar, we don’t finish movies, we just decide to release them.” Or as Leonardo da Vinci said, "Art is never finished, only abandoned."

This is why I’m a firm believer of just getting to the bandstand “by any means necessary.” And don’t worry about being outmatched. If you can’t keep up, musicians will let you know.

Look at professional sports. Ballplayers don’t wait until they’re ready to hit a home run to step up to the plate. Home runs are a byproduct of having stepped up to the plate several times.

If I thought this way, I’d still be tweaking Monk Abstractions, my first solo saxophone CD.

So my advice is:

Get it in the mail!
Hit send!
Press record!
Count off the tune!

Just start swinging, and let life take care of the rest!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Seek Heroes, Not Mentors

First, a quick story: In 1996, when I first began playing the soprano exclusively, I had no idea of what I was doing—musically, technically, and career-wise. So my first inclination was to get a teacher/mentor to help guide me through the process.

My first thought was Jane Ira Bloom since she lives in New York and has had the most experience playing the soprano exclusively than any other living person, other than Steve Lacy. I ultimately decided not ask her, because she did not strike me as the mentoring type. But I did attend a few of her gigs, and she was very gracious in answering some of my questions regarding embouchure building and sound control.

I then thought about Dave Liebman. He seemed perfect. He had developed the soprano to an unprecedented level, he was a dedicated educator and had traveled a similar path of having put down the tenor sax in pursuit of a new and more original voice on the soprano. However, during this stage of my straight horn path, he had already returned to the tenor—which did not exactly boost my confidence in my decision.

But ultimately I did not ask Jane nor Dave—for many reasons. Primarily because I did not want them as mentors, but as heroes.

What’s the difference? The difference is pretty significant.

Heroes inspire us to follow our own path. Mentors tell us which path to take. When you follow a mentor, you do what they do. When you follow a hero, you do as they do. And to bring the point home even further: One gives you a map to follow, the other allows you to create and revise your plan as you go along.

Having a mentor has its perks:

  • Easy access to information.
  • Access to their network of musicians. 
  • And most importantly, they offer you the excuse of being able to say that you were just doing what you were told. So if you don’t succeed you are not forced to bare total responsibility.

This is actually of the issues I have with jazz education, which is that we’re into the business of mentoring, while we should be more in the business of hero-ing. In music pedagogy, students are trained to follow orders, not their musical instincts. They're not trained to take risks, nor to problem solve,  unless it's a math problem. And I’m guilty as charged. I don’t have the answer. But one step in the right direction is to offer students both mentor-ship and hero-ship. Show them what a good map looks like, but then encourage them to go out and create their own.

But a special shout-out to all of mentors and heroes. Your influence us forever implanted.

Don’t Set Goals, Develop Good Habits

Don’t set goals, but develop good and productive habits. One enables you to reach that desired place, the other enables you to stay there.

Goal =  a quick fix solution
Good habits = a way of life

Many see the two as interchangeable. But I see them as being significantly different. 

Here are the issues I have with goals:

1. The effects of goals are often short-lived. We often move on to the next thing once we reach them.

2. We often neglect essential stuff in pursuit of goals. It does not pave the way to a balanced lifestyle.

3. Most goals are not attainable. Or least we tend to quit before attaining them.

Developing productive habits is different. It’s a longer, more patient path, which tends to produce more favorable outcomes over time. And there is a reason I used the word  “outcome” and not “aim.” An "outcome" is a byproduct of habit, whereas an "aim" implies desiring a more immediate result that does not require one to change his or her behavior.

So I’m not suggesting having no standards, only that your positive outcomes result from who you are, not what you set out to do.

Don’t be the kind of person who’s practicing 4 hours a day, getting ready for the big gig. Be the type of person who practices regularly.

Don’t be the kind of person planning a big release in the fall. Be the kind of person who releases recordings.

Look at people who like to go on diets. Guilty as charged!  Rather than being the person trying to lose five pounds, be the person who eats healthy and regularly exercises. You’ll never have to worry about your weight again.

One of my frustrations as a younger musician was that I was always trying to get better, rather than being a person who practices in all 12 keys. Or the kind of person who learns tunes, or transcribes, or merely the person who enjoys expressing himself through his instrument. The latter gets rid of the “tick tock” effect.  When you’re not so goal oriented, you permit yourself to get lost in the process; consequently, internalizing things on a deeper level.

So become a creature of habit, not a goal-oriented creature. It’s a much calmer and more fruitful path.

Solo Saxophone Performance - Saturday, March 17, 2018


Monday, March 12, 2018

Four Ps to Successful Music Branding

Below are for Ps that can serve as an excellent guide to successful music branding.

1. Passion: Find something you’re good at and are committed to. No one is more charismatic than the person showing great commitment and passion for something. This makes others want to follow in your footsteps. And this also the first step towards leadership. People don’t just support those who speak loudly, but those who talk passionately.

2. Participation: Seek out like-minded folks with whom to share and exchange ideas with. No matter how brilliant you might think you are, your one brain is not better than five minds working collectively. Great art rises out of a community of people, not a single soul working in isolation.

3. Presentation: Constantly produce work and present work. Having passion and sharing your passion is great, none of that will amount to anything if you don’t produce work to present. And this is two-fold. The more you present, the more people become familiar with what you do. And frequently presenting enables you to get better at what you do.

4. Purity: Be genuine and be consistent. This is how you gain trust and how you keep your focus. Self-authenticity is unbreakable. It can withstand the harshest criticisms and the test of time.

Branding is much deeper than a fancy logo and a catchy slogan. It’s not just about the music we share, but the humanity we share.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Straight Horn of Oliver Nelson

In this post, I'd like to take a look at the Oliver Nelson composition "I Hope in Time Change Will Come," from his 1970 recording Black, Brown, and Beautiful, which has been referred to as a "stirring tribute to Martin Luther King."

Since it's release on the Flying Dutchman label almost 40 years ago, this piece has become somewhat of a staple amongst big band soprano saxophone features. In my opinion, this is right up there with other classic soprano features such as "Afro Blue" and "My Favorite Things."

The Composition: "I Hope in Time Change Will Come"  is a mournful and bluesy slow swing tune built on the standard 32-bar, AB form. The A section is in G minor, and the B section modulates to the parallel major in G, but then bounces back and forth between the parallel major and parallel minor. This piece utilizes the similar hocketing  compositional technique—where a melodic figure is split between a single lower instrument and harmonizing horns—that’s heard in Nelson's classic "Stolen Moments." This is just one of many of Nelson's signature compositional and arranging techniques


The Soprano Saxophone: Nelson, like many saxophonists during the 1960s,  became intrigued by the soprano after becoming popularized by John Coltrane--Nelson, probably more than others. In fact, his 1966 release Sound Pieces on Impulse, features Nelson exclusively on the soprano saxophone, soaring over top a beautifully orchestrated 20-piece big band on three of the pieces. This is one of the first albums I bought after switching to the soprano exclusively. In fact, when I started playing with trumpeter Donald Byrd as a soprano player he used to always say to me,”You need to check out Oliver Nelson.” And I did. But like many who don't play the instrument exclusively, Nelson at times struggled with the instrument's tuning challenges.  But his distinctive and soulful voice still comes through, nonetheless.

Different Versions: (1) This version is arranged by Nelson, conducted by Stanley Wilson, and features the following:

Oliver Nelson, soprano saxophone
Bobby Bryant, trumpet
Frank Strozier,  alto saxophone
John Gross, tenor saxophone
John Klemmer, tenor saxophone
Pearl Kaufman or Roger Kellaway, piano
Chuck Domanico, bass
John Guerin or  Roy Haynes, drums

* There are other instruments heard on the recording such as the trombone, baritone sax, for which players are not listed. So I apologize for not having these details.

(2) This version is arranged by Bob Curnow and features me with the UW-River Fall Jazz Ensemble, directed by saxophonist Dr. David Milne. The concert was part of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls annual RADD Jazz Series. Curnow's arrangement included more space for improvisation, so you get to hear me stretch out more, something I would have loved to have heard Nelson do. But he set the vibe of soulfulness and spirituality, regardless.

Anyway, thanks to Oliver Nelson for his great music, unwavering vision, and courage to delve deeply into the sonic realm of the soprano. And thanks to David Milne for his great musicianship and generous spirit.


Version 1: Oliver Nelson from the recording Black, Brown, and Beautiful. 

Version 2: Sam Newsome with the UW-River Falls Jazz Ensemble, directed by Dr. David Milne

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Marketing Through Story

When we purchase things or align ourselves with people and causes, our decisions are usually influenced by the stories we tell ourselves for the reason behind our choices.

Here’s an example: I was out of town doing a residency with the UW-River Falls Music Department. On my way back to New York, I was walking through the MSP Airport looking for a souvenir for my wife. I came across this chocolate specialty store that looked like it could have been a local business. So I asked the lady working there if these were local chocolates. She told me that the store was based in Colorado and that the chocolates were not local. At that point, I became disinterested since chocolates from Colorado did not fit my story. Nor the story my wife would tell every time she ate them—which is that “my husband went to Wisconsin and brought me back some Wisconsin chocolates.” Mind you, the chocolates from Colorado could have been far superior to anything found in Wisconsin. But it did not matter. It did not fit my narrative.

How does this apply to how we sell our music?

Well, it’s the same principle. People purchase music typically because of the story they tell themselves—meaning why they chose one artist over the other.

A few examples: 

Story 1: “This musician plays classic jazz, and I am the kind of person who rejects popular culture and trends. “

Sotry 2: “I heard this piano player on Oprah, and I’ve been watching Oprah since I was I college. She provides a voice for women like me.”

Wynton Marsalis was able to create a tribe during the eighties and nineties because he represented a new counter-culture for black conservatives and white liberal conservatives. And I mean conservative not in political affiliations, but in cultural and musical values.

Remember that this was during the height of smooth jazz, hip-hop, and MTV culture. It was all about flash and getting paid. He was the first charismatic figure to come along and say, “Fuck money. Fuck fame. It’s about excellence.” His mantra was: “Don’t worry about getting paid. First, learn how to play, and the money will come.” This message was compelling. It resonated with whites losing out to MTV culture and blacks having to play second fiddle to the glorification of thuggery and the misogynistic treatment of women found in hip-hop.

Not to mention that he always publicly exclaimed that he would never abandon real jazz for the watered down, more lucrative strains of jazz. He was not like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chic Corea, and all the others who followed.

So to align yourself with Wynton was to reject the cultural ills of mainstream society. You were part of that select group who bore the truth. Oh yeah, and he was a badass trumpet player. Again, this was very powerful.

So if you were a trumpet player at that time and all that you were bringing to the table was excellent playing and well-written tunes, you did not stand a chance in hell next to someone who could play, compose and lead a tribe ushering in a different value system. You offered good music. He was offering a fantastic story.

Now, what is YOUR story? If you don’t have an answer, you are not alone. But I guarantee you have one.

We are taught to ignore it in our effort to fit in. Most people are fascinating and have equally fascinating stories. Whether you are a surgeon or hospital orderly; a pilot or bag handler; the owner of the restaurant or the dishwasher. You probably have a great story to tell.

And your story is usually stuffed down somewhere next to your passion and your value system. Another thing to remember about stories is that they have to be authentic. This is the only way it can stand up to criticism and the test of time.

Your story can also change—or least be revised. Things happen to us and take us to unexpected places. This too is a part of one's story. And in no way do I want you to think that I’m suggesting that you attach something jive to what you do. In fact, I’m suggesting the opposite. I want you to be more honest. I’ve known so many who hide fascinating aspects about their lives to appear normal. Which to me is more jive, because they’re hiding an essential part of who they are.

 So do tell your story, because chances are it’s the story of others too. This will enable you and your music to connect with audiences on a more human level. And there is no shortage of people craving humanity. People don’t gravitate towards things because it’s about the person offering it, but because it’s about them.

A Little Something About the Herb Alpert Foundation

It was a pleasure when I returned home and found this in the mail from the Herb Alpert Foundation. I received one of the residency prizes as one the HAAIA nominated artists. If you're not familiar with it, let me explain how it all works.

Each year, 50 artists and art professionals each nominate 2 artists. Then these 100 nominated artsits are invited to submit work samples. Then (5) three-person panels--in Dance, Film/Video, Music, Theater and Visual Arts--each select one artist for the Award.

Now, when you are submitting your application, they ask if you'd like to be considered for one of their four residency prizes. This is what I received.

Of course, I wanted to win the big "shebang," but I really was honored to have received the Alpert/Ragdale Prize in Music Composition--especially after discovering how heavy the other recipients are. And besides, I've become comfortable with the idea of not getting recognized for my work until after I'm gone. So everything I receive now is gravy!  This is the path that I have chosen.

On the application, they ask us to discuss five vital experiences that have impacted us as creative artists. I thought I'd share those with you.

Vital experience 1:
Back in 1979, when I was in junior high, I  took my first improvised solo during our winter concert. Afterward, I was on a natural high for three days, from the joy I felt from having connected with an audience for the first time. It was at the moment I experienced the real joy of playing music and the true pleasure one experiences when making a personal statement.

Vital experience 2:
In 1983, I began attending the Berklee College of Music. It was the first time I was ever in the company of an abundance of like-minded people--all of whom were much more skilled than myself. Being at Berklee taught me not only the importance of excellence but the importance of surrounding yourself with like-minded people. It's because of this experience that I just surround myself with people who inspire me. I'm a firm believer that Inspiration is the match that keeps the creative light of artists' lit.

Vital experience 3:
In 1996, I had an epiphany and decided to switch from being a tenor saxophonist to a soprano saxophonist--an instrument on which I was very inexperienced at playing. My decision disappointed many. It was at this moment I understood what it meant to have any artistic vision. When you have one, you will drop everything that gets in the way of you pursuing it. I lost many friends and colleagues with this decision. But it was at this moment that I transformed from being a musician to being an artist.

Vital experience 4:
In 1999, I was signed by Columbia/Sony, and like many who think outside of the box, I was soon dropped from the label. This experience taught me the importance of not caring about having mainstream success. Being in that toxic environment, I saw the sacrifice that artists have to make if they want to survive in that sea of greed. From that moment on, releasing recordings was just a means of documenting my work--comparable to a visual artist putting his or her vision on a canvas. This way of thinking has actually granted me even more success.

Vital experience 5:
 In 2001, when my working band at the time Global Unity disbanded, I saw the fallacy of having an artistic vision that was so heavily reliant on others. I vowed from that moment that if I ever developed another musical concept or musical vision, it would be all about my innovations and skill sets, not my ability to bring disparate visionaries together. Hence, a 15-year vision devoted to my body of work playing solo-saxophone.

Some might find these words inspirational, or least insight into a different perspective.

Anyway, thanks to the Herb Alpert Foundation, and congrats to all the winners and nominees.

Onward and upward!

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Two Types of Practice: Different Roads to Success

There are two types of practice: Point A to Point B practice and then there’s just Point A practice.

Point A to Point B practice is the most common. This is when we’ve identified a problem that needs to be solved, and we take the necessary steps to conquer those challenges. This could be working through a difficult fingering, sound control, navigating our way through a set of chord changes, or simply trying to find that perfect ending to a new song we’re writing. It’s a systematic approach whereby we methodically move from step to step toward our goal until we have succeeded.

Point A practice is much more elusive. This is the practice of simply arriving. It either works or it doesn’t. Unlike Point A to Point B practice, which is an accumulation of small successes that result in one big success, Point A is comprised mostly of failures until you reach a breakthrough. Trial and error is at the heart of this approach.

Most of my successes come from Point A practice. There are countless amounts of recorded material on my iPhone that simply sound horrible. But it’s through those numerous experiments I’ve been able to enjoy many creative breakthroughs and musical successes

Originality can be honed. It’s not this intuitive gift bestowed only on the select few by the merciful gods. It’s there for the taking for all to have. We just have to give ourselves the permission to receive it. More importantly, we have to become comfortable with failing. The truth of the matter is that failure is the surest path to success and innovation.


Print Friendly and PDF

Search This Blog

Blog Archive