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

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

Embracing Authentic Confidence, Beyond the Illusion of Perfection

My struggles with confidence has been a constant companion throughout my life's journey, with and without my horn. I certainly have my g...