Sam Newsome

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

Now available of Bandcamp!

Now available on Bandcamp!

Now available on Bandcamp!

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Political Correctness: The Creative Artist's Kryptonite

Folks often ask me why I insist on pushing the envelope--especially with regards to the sonic realm of the soprano. My answer: Because I can. More accurately: Because I can without the fear of public backlash. 

As creators of instrumental music, we are immune to the kind of scrutiny that folks who work in mediums like television or print media have to deal with. Their careers can end with one racially charged tweet, an offensive YouTube video, or just saying something insensitive while the cameras are running. We’re living in an age where even stand-up comics are having to apologize for doing what people have always paid them to do: take us to an uncomfortable place, and then make us laugh. 

In our line of work, if people don’t like what we do, they just leave--or don’t bother showing up at all. I’d much rather this than having to apologize for being an artist.  

As musicians, particularly in the realm of experimental music, we can unapologetically go to the dark and uncomfortable places that people in most fields can't. I don't want to come off as one of these people who attach an over-inflated sense of importance to what they do. But we really are in a unique position. We are immune to the creative curse of political correctness. At this moment in time, that's saying a lot. Let's face it: PC-culture is kryptonite to creativity, thinking differently, and pushing the envelope. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Don Rickles, and many other great comedic minds would never be given a platform to thrive in this culture of not offending. Not without the social justice warriors trying to shut them down at every opportune moment. 

We have an amazing opportunity as artists--especially sound artists. For the next few decades, the world might look to us as being the ones who can offer a view unhampered by identity politics and fear of offending--sort of like it used to be. In fact, back in the early 1900s, the jazz culture was thirty years ahead of the rest of the nation as far as race relations and redefining what it meant to be an American, particularly a black American. Maybe that time has returned. We no longer have to follow the neo-conservative musical behaviors of the 1990s. Those gatekeepers who made us jump through hoops just to have an opportunity to play music, no longer exist. It's actually funny that many musicians are still propping these people up, and are begging to be picked by them, even though they have absolutely no relevance in this era of abundance. 

I'll say this: Thank goodness I’m not a writer, a radio talk-show host, a TV news commentator, a politician, or a stand-up comic, for that matter, but a creative artist working in the medium of sound. My career won’t end on one bad note. And if it does, that note will be sure to make history!

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

What's Wrong with the Word Jazz?

Many see the label "jazz" as some institutional relic no longer representing today’s improvising musician. To me, it symbolizes a rich and vibrant musical culture of which I’m proud to be a member. And I realize this is not for everybody.

Here’s what I think: The problem most folks have with the term “jazz” is that it doesn’t accurately reflect what they do. This I understand. Jazz is unique in that it underwent numerous transformations since it’s early 1900s inception. Consequently, the jazz of 1920s New Orleans sounds nothing like the Miles Davis electric jazz of the 1960s. The term simply does not provide us with much aesthetical clarity. This is very different from other idioms like blues and rock music. Blues, for example, except for moving from acoustic to electric instruments, and sometimes the implementation of background singers and horn sections has experienced few aesthetical overhauls. For this reason alone, referring oneself as a “blues artist” will spawn few philosophical debates. Jazz is a different story.

Bigger question: Is this reason enough to disassociate ourselves with the word altogether and just call ourselves improvisers? I’m not convinced. Being classified as a "jazz artist" might not be an accurate depiction of what many of us do.  However, calling ourselves improvisers,  or folks who just “play music," is even more unclear. Not to mention ambiguous and non-committal. 

“Jazz artist” at least gives an understanding of the genesis of our music--provided it is rooted in the music's history. It may not describe exactly what one does, but at least it gives insight as to where the music comes from.

Envelope-pushing musicians like Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, and Anthony Braxton, may not prefer the J-word, but I feel it more accurately describes what they do than "composer" and "improviser."  And I'm speaking more of their small group work. European players like Evan Parker, John Butcher, and John Surman don’t display the same obvious ties to jazz’s African American history, especially to the blues. So improviser might be better suited for them. They are more avant-gardists. However, Mitchell, Threadgill, Braxton, fall more in the realm of what guitarist Bern Nix refers to as “avant-traditionalists."

Which raises another point: you don’t always have to fit in.

Let’s say you have a group of musicians playing on stage together improvising. They might have common goals as far as desired performance outcomes, but they’re not coming from the same place. You can have Peter Brötzmann and David Murray playing together, but their musical and cultural genesis will lead you down two different paths. If you asked Murray what he’s working on, you would not be surprised if he said “Lush Life.” I’m not sure if the same can be said about Brötzmann. Not to name one as better than the other. Only the musical DNA is different. 

At the end of the day, you might say I’m a subscriber to what George Lewis refers to as the “one-drop" rule of jazz--something he discusses in his book A Power Stronger Than Itself. Lewis speaks of it as something negative--a way to box African American composers into a cultural and aesthetic corner.  I totally get it. For the record, I would never tell anyone how to self-identify. Definitely not my call. But I like the term jazz musician. As Popeye used to say, “I am what I am.” And proud of it!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Is Piracy a 1990s Kind of Worry?

Many musicians and industry folks alike feel piracy is our biggest worry. I'm here to beg to differ.

In this era of musical abundance, obscurity should be our biggest concern. Seeing how consumers have access to as much music as their precious little ears can consume, we should be honored that someone would want to steal something we've created. It means that we have somehow figured out how to cut through the clutter. According to an article in Time Health, the average internet user has the attention span of a goldfish, which amounts to eight staggering seconds!

Not only is piracy improbable, but getting folks to know and care that we exist after discovering us, is equally challenging. 

If this sounds harsh, consider what we have to compete with:

- According to an article in Tubular Insights, 500 hours of YouTube video are uploaded, not every day, or every hour, but every minute. And this was back in 2015.

- In an article in Internet Live Stats, 6,000 tweets are tweeted on Twitter every second.

- And in an article in GeekWire, 95 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram daily.

Get the point?

Looking at these stats, worrying about someone even noticing our music seems overly optimistic--never mind, actually taking the time to figure out how to steal it. I'm not saying that it can't happen. It happens all the time, especially with sampling. But in all honesty, how often does a big-name rapper illegally sample our music, making millions, while giving us nothing? Rarely. And if they do, what is the likelihood that they would get away with it?

So you get my point. Casing the room for folks making audio and video recordings of our performances is counter-productive. I used to play with a bass player who would stop playing if he saw someone recording--even if it wasn't his gig. Needless to say, I don't use him anymore. In this age of abundance, we should be thankful that someone is willing to record our performances and share it with their friends and followers on social media. Some might see it as stealing; some might see it as exploitation. I see it as free publicity. That person and their Samsung might give exposure to a few thousand folks that I ordinarily wouldn't reach. 

If someone illegally records your music and makes a commercial recording of it, or steals your tune and claim it as their own, that's a different story. Again. How often does this happen?

Look. I know we want to protect our precious tunes and performances of them. But trust me when I say that most stuff written and performed is not even exploitable by the musicians who've created it. Never mind a couple of drunken millennials with smartphones. Not to say a lot of music is not good. Just the opposite. This is one of the most creatively fertile periods I've experienced in my lifetime. But being good and being exploitable for commercial gain are two different conversations. 

Let me say this. Yes, copyright your music. Make sure your publishing is in order. But when you encounter folks out here doing free publicity for you, don't fight them, embrace them. Hell, maybe even thank them. Realistically, most of the people exposed to our work on social media will give us eight seconds of their precious time, at best, before moving on to the next tweet, Instagram post, Facebook post, Snapchat post, or controversial YouTuber-of-the-month. I don't know about you? But I'll take it. Every little bit helps.

In this era of musical abundance, our only recourse is generosity and sharing, not selfishness, suspicion, and hoarding. 

Friday, October 5, 2018

Remembering Hamiet Bluiett: Big Horn, Big Heart

I first met Hamiet Bluiett back in 1989, when I first moved to New York. I was fresh out of Berklee and green as the cucumber fields of Fruitland, Maryland. Back then I counted on friends and colleagues who had already moved to New York a year or two earlier to be buffers between folks and me I wanted to work with. 

On this particular day, I was hanging with guitarist Mark Whitfield, who had left Berklee a year or two earlier to play with a renowned R&B band. After we had finished playing a jam session, Mark told me that he was playing that night with this baritone saxophonist named Hamiet Bluiett, whom I had never heard of, at a spot in Greenwich Village, and that I should bring my horn--at the time would have been my vintage Mark VI tenor saxophone Back then, showing up at other people’s gigs with your instrument was how you found work. It was an informal type of audition and casting call that was never-ending. Much to my surprise, it was one of Hamiet’s large ensembles, that at the time featured Troy Davis on drums, Reginald Veal on trombone (not bass), Steve Wilson on saxophone, Bruce "Bud" Revels on saxophone and clarinet, James Genus on bass, and many others whose names are escaping me. 

The music was very eclectic, a mixture of written parts, musical cues, and free improvisation. What you’d expect from Hamiet Bluiett. In fact, this was my introduction to free improvisation. Coming straight out of the conservatory setting, I was used to following a musical map telling me the tempo, the meter, what chord changes to play on, and how many choruses to play. What Hamiet introduced me to that night was how to follow a musical compass—learning to listen to my musical instincts and not just regurgitate pre-rehearsed vocabularies. 

Long story short, I sat in and did my little thing and everyone seemed to dig it, especially Hamiet. 

Here’s the funny part.

After the first set, Hamiet, looking a little perturbed, asked the band to convene upstairs for a band meeting—including me, even though I had only played on one or two pieces.
All of the band huddled around Hamiet in this very small and cramped green room. We were all sitting, while he stood, occasionally prancing from left to right, as he began tearing the band a new one!

His tirade went something like this: “What the hell are you guys doing out there?! What the HELL are you doing?! Why the hell are you trying to swing? If you want to swing, go play with Miles Davis or Jimmy McGriff, or one of those motherfuckers! Don’t bring that shit to my bandstand. If I play in C, don’t you play in C. Play in B or Db. If I play in 4/4, don’t you play in 4/4. Do something different. Use your imaginations.”

And much to my surprise, he pointed at me and said, “Now this man. He’s going in the same direction as me.” To say that I felt more uncomfortable than flattered would be a gross understatement. During those days I was very much influenced by 1960s John Coltrane and Joe Henderson. So playing in that freer,  experimental setting felt very scary, yet, liberating—something I only learned to appreciate years later.

That night made a significant impact on me. Going to Berklee taught me to be a musician, that night with Hamiet taught me what it’s like to be an artist. A path I’m proud to say that I’m still pursuing passionately.

Mr. Bluiett’s music and generosity of spirit will be missed. He formally and informally mentored many young musicians who had the good fortune of crossing his path. Brooklyn, Illinois, would be proud to know that one of their own represented them well. He left the world in a much better place--an endeavor to which most can only aspire.  R.I.P.

Check out this 2010 performance of Hamiet playing at "Giant Steps" at a rehearsal for the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival. Recorded February 4, 2010.

This trio features the Kahil El'Zabar Ritual Trio

Kahil El'Zabar -- drums

Hamiet Bluiett -- baritone saxophone

Junius Paul -- contrabass

I really like the way Hamiet opens up this tune. Not an easy task. As most know who've played it, it's difficult not to fall into a patternistic approach when playing this tune. Hamiet's performance is devoid of all cliches. 


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Awards and Accolades: They’re Only Half the Picture

Being musicians and artists, we often aspire to get awards and accolades under our belts. Whether it's getting a sizable grant, the Guggenheim fellowship, the NYFA fellowship, or the Pulitzer Prize, these kinds of awards are considered the highest of honors in the arts and entertainment--nothing to turn up our noses at. Being recognized, however, by these types of organizations will not act as a surrogate for what really matters: having your music or work become better and more impactful. Or better yet: Doing work that matters.

As creative people, how we’re perceived is not always based on past accomplishments, but on what we’re currently doing or might be doing in the future. Past accomplishments usually gain notoriety-equity only after we’re gone. A sad truth.

Regarding awards, I’ve known many musicians whose music actually became less interesting, or simply not as good, after receiving this type of establishment anointment. My theory is that before, they were hungry, but then they became full of themselves. 

This is one of the dangers of the ego and how it can become a barricade between us and where greatness lies. It’s one thing to create because you’re inspired, it’s another to create with concerns on how your creation will be perceived in comparison to previous work, especially if that work catapulted you to a higher level of fame and recognition. The latter tends to work more against you, than being a new starting place for greater things.

As I see it, receiving grants and awards are great things, for no other reason that they open up opportunities, enabling you to grow your audience, and at times grow your bank account. But at the end of the day, what you most want to be excited about is doing work that which makes you a better musician and more impactful as an artist. In other words, doing work that would be missed if you didn't show up to do it. No plaque, trophy, or paycheck could ever replace this.