Sam Newsome

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

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Microtonal Improvisations: The 24TET Scale

The following are examples of free improvisation using notes from the 24TET scale,  also known as the quartertone chromatic scale. The performances feature Argentinian saxophonist Dario Dolce and myself. What's unique about this scale system is that the notes don't have a built-in timbral uniformity. Due to the cross-fingerings used to play the quartertones, some notes are dull, some are bright, and some have a certain timbrel ambiguity, which makes for a varied tonal palette. 

I've also included a fingering chart posted by Mark Charette on I've used a few of these fingerings in the past. As I've mentioned earlier, you can always use certain fingerings just to get in the tonal ballpark. Afterwhich you can tailor them to fit your own needs.

Record on June 24, 2020, this piece is titled "Soprano Sax (Melodic Microtonal)." It features Dario Dolce.

Premiered on June 27, 2020, this piece is titled "Microtonal Improvisation for Saxophone." It features Sam Newsome on soprano saxophone.

Quartertone fingering chart

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Microtonal Monk: Quartertone Variations on "Blue Monk"

During a 2014 interview with Stacy Momstellor on WSKG radio, saxophonist Branford Marsalis said the following: "In the western scale there are only twelve notes, and it is amazing how many sounds you can create with twelve notes." In many cases, this is true. But not always. Here, I will show two examples of how one can get beyond the 12 notes commonly used in the Western scale. Typically, the Westen scale is divided into twelve equal parts, also known as half steps or semitones. Many circles refer to these systems of note organization as the twelve tones of equal temperament, or12TET.  The pieces we'll examine today are built on a system in which the scale is divided into 24 equal parts or quartertones. This can be referred to at the 24 tones of equal temperament, or 24TET.  



Below are two examples of a microtonally altered "Blue Monk" by Thelonious Monk.  This tune is a good vehicle for quartertone alternations, being that the melody is already centered around semitones. 


Example 1 is my rendition. Here, I'm using the middle register of the instrument. The sound has more weight, but some of the quartertones are a lot more difficult finger and play in tune. Also, because I'm playing twice as many notes, the melody now has a double-time feel.


Example 2 is by Argentinian saxophonist Dario Dolci. In Dario's example, he's using the upper register of the instrument, which can make it slightly easier to play the quartertones with more clarity--not to negate the difficulty of what he's doing. As you'll hear, Dario has also slightly varied the melody.




I've also, included a few fingering charts for those of you looking to get your quartertone fingers wet. 


(1) This first chart is from a book titled Preliminary Exercises and Etudes in Contemporary Techniques for Saxophone by Ronald L Caravan. An amazing book!

(2) The second chart is by classical saxophonist Johan Vanderlinden.  He's doing a lot of great work!

If you decide to try these, here are a few pointers:

  • Use a chromatic tuner
  • Be prepared to make slight alterations more suitable for your own set-up
  • Be patient. You have to allow your fingers to get used to the newfound awkwardness and your ears a chance to get used to the quarter-steps.

Have fun!

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Is Virtue-Signaling the Latest Con on Black America?

Since the death of George Floyd, I think we all can agree that America has been on a virtue-signaling overdrive. All are proclaiming that they are not racist, but it's the other guy. White America is apologizing day and night for the current and past injustices inflicted on black America. And if their white colleagues are not, they're shamed all over social media, or fired from their jobs.


I've seen little evidence of virtue-signaling ever helping black America nor any group sympathizers proclaim to advocate on behalf of. These symbolic gestures only make the so-called privileged feel good and less guilty. If not, why else would Chic-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy get on his knees and shine the shoes of Lecrae, a black Christian rapper at the Passion City Church in Atlanta, GA? 

Of course, he's more concerned with not having Black Lives Matter come after him and his franchise than the welfare of poorer black America. If he was really serious, he'd donate a lot of his 7 billion dollar net worth to helping all of those folks attending that town hall meeting to send their kids to college, or start young entrepreneurship programs in their neighborhoods. Better yet, start music programs and/or give underprivileged communities access to musical instruments. This won’t happen. The reality is that he got in his expensive car or plane, and went back to his mansion, while those folks continued dealing with the challenges of their daily lives in black America, unaffected by his public shoe-shining ceremony. And to his credit, millions of dollars are awarded for Chic-fil-A employees who are in need of college tuition assistance. So he's not your typical profit-hungry CEO.

At the end of the day, virtue-signaling actually leaves black America worse off. Why? The problems that actually plague us don't get addressed. Virtue-signaling is like an aspirin. It only reprieves the symptoms, it doesn't address nor gets rid of what's causing the headache. 


It's hard to get the picture from my head of Nancy Pelosi and members of the House taking the knee while wearing kente cloth.  It's ludicrous and helps no one, long term. It's nothing more than a photo-op.


If they cared about black America they would stop voting against the DC voucher program, which gives $20 million to private schools in the District of Columbia, allowing bright kids stuck in failing schools to get a good education and have a fighting chance--just like your DC politicians. Many of whom, have gotten the best education that money can buy: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, you name it. In fact, many in Washington send their own children to the Sidwell Friends School, a prestigious private K-12 school that has been the home of the children of Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama. Unfortunately, their allegiance is to the teachers' unions, a loyally Democratic voting block. Sad, but true.

One of the boldest displays of virtue-signaling came from DC. Mayor Muriel D. Bowser, who had a huge Black Lives Matter mural painted on the street, that takes up two blocks on 16th Street NW, leading directly to the White House. This virtue-signaling gesture would have been more impressive if it was in response to the 79 homicides that had already been committed in 2020. This would have been courageous and would have shown real compassion and concern for her constituents. Unfortunately, these homicides did not dominate the news cycles, so no one really cares about these black lives. 

Rioters Destroy More of America's History, This Time They Tear ...

Soon after, news stories began championing acts of vandalism in which angry Americans are tearing down statues of historical figures who were slave owners or who lived blatantly racist lives, and sometimes just because they’re white. Again, this is all symbolic and does absolutely nothing to move black America forward. If they actually cared about black America they would not be silent about the 104 shootings in Chicago on Father's Day weekend, which left 14 dead; five were children, including a three-year-old boy who was killed when someone opened fire at his father while they were cruising down the street. This is one driving-while-black story you won’t see in a constant loop on news stations.

And I could go on all day with the examples, but here’s my point: we don't need more symbolism. What we need are tangibles.


For starters:

  • more scholarship money or forgivable loans for private schools for K - 12 grades
  • increased opportunities for home ownership
  • low interest or forgivable small business loans
  • lowered college tuition costs
  • increased opportunities for technical training
  • bigger tax breaks

We need tangibles that allows us to build wealth. What all of these things have in common is that they help us while we're helping ourselves. Some would argue that one solution is to take money from the police department budget. Here's the irony: very few of these people actually live in poor black neighborhoods that depend heavily on the police to defend and protect them. Again, another example of liberal thinking that ultimately hurts the black community. Mayor Bill De Blasio is looking to cut the NYPD by one billion dollars. I propose this: If he's going to do that, he should move his family out of Gracie Mansion and into the Drew-Hamilton Houses, near where I live on Fredrick Douglas Avenue. He should have to deal with the consequences of his decisions, face-to-face. 

Back to my original point. Having resources tends to have a positive domino effect on most. It can inspire us a group to make the cultural reforms in the areas of health and nutritioncrime rates, and the diminished presence of the black father in the home. Unfortunately, the mere mention of these things gets one labeled as a racist or a coon. So important issues just keep getting swept under the rug. 

On a personal note, I've noticed significant changes in my value system since experiencing a more financially stable lifestyle. I'm more giving, more concerned about my physical and mental health, and I've learned to appreciate the simpler things in life. My day is not consumed with only trying to figure out ways to hustle people. I think more about sharing my music than selling it. My thoughts are more concerned with how I can make a difference than making a buck. Twenty years ago, I viewed every personal encounter as a potential gig, a potential addition to my mailing list,  or a potential CD sale. I thought this way simply because I was broke, desperate, and had no resources.

But I do know this: taking the knee, tearing down statues, hashtagging #BlackLivesMatter, defunding the police, and denouncing your privilege does nothing to aid that black family without the means to send their kid to a good K-12 private school or college, the aspiring black entrepreneur looking to start a business, or the musician looking to book a tour for his or her band. As I've said, virtue-signaling only gives us the illusion that change is on the way, and protects white America from the stigma of racism. The reality is that after identifying whatever privilege one has over black America, they're not going to give up any of their resources. And they shouldn't. Black America does not need anyone else's stuff, we need our own.

Booker T Washington often argued that for black Americans to advance, they must to first improve themselves through education, industrial training, and business ownership. Address these three areas, and everything else would fall into place. Of course, it's a bit more complicated than this. With any type of reform, there are always numerous false starts and mishaps. Economist Walter E. Williams argues that a more simple solution towards economic stability is this:

  • complete high school;
  • get a job, any kind of a job;
  • get married before having children;
  • and be a law-abiding citizen.
It seems so simple. But many are far from achieving it. Sort of like leaving space during your improvised solo.

But the central tenet of Washington's beliefs is this: leave us alone. We don't need our situation to be socially-engineered. And we certainly don't need rich, white politicians taking the knee on our behalf. Look at the gains made by black America during the Reconstruction period, in the height of racist America. Many pretend like this period never existed. No other group in history ever made such socio-economic strides in such a short period. In fact, many subsequent oppressive laws were put into place because many white Americans could not compete with this new free class of people.

Contrary to the popular narrative, culture is not inherently stagnant. The surest way, however, to stagnate a group of people is to tell them that their situation can not be changed simply by changing their actions. That power lies not in their hands, but in the hands of others.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

So Many People: A Micro Story About Race



The Jones family gazed compassionately at the television set as CNN showed the third funeral of George Floyd. “So many people,” says Herman Jones. “He was loved by so many people.” The Jones family was moved by the maskless hugs of comradery, the affectionate kisses on the cheek, the celebratory joining of hands by members of the congregation. “So many people.” Shania thinks her dad must be sad. They couldn’t even have one funeral for his mother. She lived just on the other side of town. ”I’m going to miss Granny Ester,” says Shania, quietly, and sadly as they watched the choir sing “Amazing Grace.” “I guess this is different,” she begins to wonder silently. She tried to control her anger as she remembers how Granny Ester was the pillar of the community: she was a principal at Glendale High for 20 years, she donated to a whole host of charities, and taught piano to underprivileged kids in her spare time. "Too bad we couldn't give HER a proper send-off," she utters even louder, unsuccessfully trying to hide her tone of disappointment. Apparently, this is different. “So many people. So many people.”


Monday, June 15, 2020

The Taskforce: A Micro Story About Race

Tomeka Jackson just received a letter from her school stating that they're starting a Racial Awareness Taskforce. "How cool," thought Tomeka. "We get to spend all day talking about racism." She begins to remember that talking about this makes her friends see her as the black girl and not as Tomeka. She becomes worried and sad. "I don't want to go back to school," she cries to her mother. "I don't want to be the black girl, I just want to be Tomeka." "Girl, hush up," rebukes her mother. "This stuff ain't about you, it's about them." She grabs the letter of so-called racial unity and tosses it into the garbage next to the discarded can of tuna, and goes back to fixing Tomeka's lunch. "I'll make you a smoothie," says her mother. "Smoothies always makes you happy."

Friday, June 5, 2020

Why are There so Few Black Writers in Jazz?

With so many black men and women playing jazz and carving out successful careers as performers, despite being only 13 percent of the U.S. population, why then are there so few of us who are jazz-writers? And let me be clear, many greats wrote extensively about jazz and jazz-laced topics: Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Albert Murray, Amiri Baraka, to name a few. And then there are the contemporary critics, essayists, and historians like Stanley Crouch, Willard Jenkins, K. Leander Williams, Greg Tate, Greg Thomas, and Robin D.G. Kelly. Even though they’re not all in the same league, what they share is an unwavering love for the music. Nonetheless, it does prove my point that even though black writers do exist in jazz, however, by comparison to the number of performers, we are still relatively few. 

A few years ago, I attended the Jazz Journalist Awards at the Blue Note Jazz Club (the JJA being an organization first conceived by Willard Jenkins), and you could pretty much assume that the white males were journalists and black males were musicians—which is fine.  These are the racially segregated teams that have played the proverbial game of jazz since the very beginning.

Personally, I would like to see a more sizeable presence of black jazz writers--more for their point of view than their skin color.  But only if they are excellent.

A few years ago, I attended the Jazz Journalist Awards at the Blue Note Jazz Club (the JJA being an organization first conceived by Willard Jenkins). You could pretty much assume that the white males were journalists and black males were musicians—which is fine. These are the racially segregated teams that have played the proverbial game of jazz since the very beginning.

I would like to see a more sizeable presence of black jazz writers--more for their point of view than their skin color. But only if they are excellent.

As I see it, if the world of jazz journalism started embracing the much-practiced paradigm of racial quotas and cosmetic diversity where people are hired not by the content of their work, but the content of their skin would eventually hurt everyone involved. Aspiring black writers would suffer in that they'll never be incentivized to rise to the occasion and earn their position as a staff writer at a coveted magazine or newspaper. White writers would have to blanket their anger in white guilt to damper their hostile feelings towards the newly incompetent writers taking some of their work—justifying it with "Well, it is their music, right?" And music publications would suffer in that their magazines and newspaper would be all of the sudden flooded with substandard writing. This is only a hypothetical situation, mind you, pointing out the potential pitfalls of skin-based diversification.

Many would argue that jazz publications are already flooded with substandard writing, even with a white male majority. And I'm not sure I would agree with this assertion. While it is true that jazz journalists don't always get it correct as far as deciphering who's excellent and who's not, I would hardly label the writing as substandard. It's pretty good. You don't get to be a magazine of longevity like DownBeat, JazzTimes, and The New York City Jazz Record, without doing quality work. That's just a fact.

Having more of a presence of black writers would offer a different sensibility that would broaden the aesthetical spectrum of these magazines, and not just cosmetic diversification, which is often the case with skin-based attempts at diversity like those seen at elite schools and universities.

We can hang up our jackets of political correctness for a moment and acknowledge that there's a certain cadence present in black writers, which differs from that of white, Hispanic, and Asian writers. For some reason, acknowledging cultural and aesthetical differences between groups gets us labeled as racist. I think it's more racist, pretending that no cultural differences exist in the arts.

I'm all for diversification, as long as you're bringing excellence and something much needed to the table.

 In fact, one of the biggest disservices that white liberals do to blacks is that they are all too willing to pacify us just to rid themselves of the stigma of being racist or beneficiaries of white privilege—no matter what the consequences are to us as a group, long-term. The reason that Stanley Crouch probably writes better than the average writer at DownBeat, JazzTimes, or the New York City Jazz Record, is because he had to. When you are a minority, not just regarding race and gender, but regarding being part of an under-represented group, you have to work harder. And this can be a good thing.

When you have to work harder, the quality of your work becomes better. Because you are producing better work than your peers, you are now raising the level of your medium. This is what happens when we value merit over melanin. And you may not like Stanley's tone or always agree with his often contrarian point of view, but you can't deny his ability to put pen to paper.

Here's another point: Imagine if the World Tennis Association had racial quotas that demanded that at least one black player had to be in the quarterfinals to make up for the injustices of slavery, there would certainly be no Venus and Serena Williams. And why would there be? They would no longer have the incentive to be the best of the best. If that kind of racial preference policy existed, the only thing the Williams sisters would need to make sure was intact would be their blackness—since that would be the main thing that they would be judged on. I call this the melanin-over-merit fallacy. 

I imagine if you were one of a handful of black staff writers at a predominately white-staffed magazine or newspaper you might get boxed into an aesthetical corner, feeling pressured to only write about black musicians, black related issues, or everybody’s favorite, racial discrimination. This is very different from white jazz writers, who are free to only write about music and musicians who inspire them. And sometimes writing explicitly about your race might be necessary, but my issue is feeling that these are your only options as black writers.

And this is one of the significant challenges of being black in America.

We don’t always feel we have the freedom to just be an individual. We are perpetually under societal pressures to be part of the black collective. More recently, we are letting white liberals define our narrative. Without aligning ourselves with this collective, whose unifying cultural glue is typically victimization, we become at a significant risk of being labeled an Uncle Tom, a coon, or a sell-out. And this is pretty scary for most blacks. We're one of the few groups that actually fear being ostracized from our race by other blacks. I've seen so many blacks play down their intelligence and social grace just so people won't think that they're not "down with the common folks." And this is one of the great tragedies of black culture. We let underclass values define the culture as a whole. We need more blacks who dare to stand up and say, "No, I'm not acting white, I'm acting normal. I'm not speaking white, I'm speaking correctly."

No one is more demonized than the black conservative (or nowadays, and old-school liberal) whose only crime is thinking differently. I remember when actress Stacy Dash was vilified by other blacks for endorsing Mitt Romney for president on Twitter. One person tweeted in response: "I like to request a trade to send Stacy Dash to the Caucasians to acquire Bill Clinton to the blacks." (Totally ignoring that we experienced one of the biggest mass incarcerations of black males during the Clinton Administration.) Another person tweeted back: "We've been letting you slide for years! It's OVER." As you can see, thinking differently about black culture, especially in politics is considered cultural-treason. Regarding Dash, my question is this: Why can't you be black, AND an airhead?

Ben Carson, with all of his extraordinary accomplishments, is nothing more than a sell-out, an Oreo, while the dude on the corner selling weed is a "real brutha." I wish I were making this stuff up.  Anthea Butler, professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, referred to Carson as "coon of the year, " for no other reason than having a point of view that's different from the black majority. Interestingly, people like Professor Butler rarely call out real coons like rappers Young Thug and Chief Keef for being the modern-day minstrels that they are. Their views on misogyny and gang violence against other blacks don't seem to warrant public scolding. Albeit, Ben Carson does say some pretty wacky things. And he probably should have stayed out of politics. His story is pretty inspirational, and he'd probably been a great motivational speaker. But that's neither here nor there. However, as I alluded to with Dash, why can't you be wacky AND black? Why does thinking differently automatically mean you're not authentic?

Let me also add that an ongoing membership into the black collective is simple: don't challenge the majority's point of view. Obama learned this very quickly. You can be committed to a life that's destructive to you and the image of black people as a whole, but as long as you don't break this Golden Rule, you're in. Challenging this doctrine by preaching personal accountability will result in immediate expulsion from the race in the black courts of public opinion. Remember Bill Cosby's Pound Cake speech?

In many instances, I don't agree with black conservatives, either, but I do admire their willingness to be different--to be an individual--no matter the societal backlash. I certainly couldn't do it. We live in a culture that seems to welcome diversity of skin tones, but not a variety of thoughts. This is especially true at many universities across the United States: invited conservative speakers are always being shut down at these schools. It's no longer about having a debate. "Either you agree with me, or you're not allowed to speak." This has become the new millennial model of free speech.

I remember once I was hanging with a fellow musician who was fascinated that I had written two pieces on my blog on soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill the year he had died. Of course, the fascination was with the fact that I'm black and Lol Coxhill was white. Even considering that my blog is called Soprano Sax Talk and Lol Coxhill was a soprano sax player, that was not enough to make it not so much of a novelty. As a white liberal, the group that claims to be the most color blind, he could not get past my skin color and see me solely as a writer of soprano saxophone related issues and Lol Coxhill just as a soprano player. Mind you, if the tables were turned, and I was a white blogger writing about a black musician who recently died, no one would think twice about it. Most importantly, as a white writer, I wouldn't think twice about it, either. And this is a freedom that most other groups have when it comes to anything related to race.

Here's another interesting point about the black collective: They don't always get it correct. Sometimes, they are on the wrong side of the issues. Take jazz, for instance. Many of the black-collective consider smooth jazz to be real jazz. Good jazz. Black folks love Kenny G. He won two Soul Train Music Awards and nominated twice. Now imagine as a black jazz musician, we went along with this collectivist assertion. But we don't. We challenge this collectivist thinking and, consequently, we often end up with zero black people in our aesthetical-corner who are not fellow musicians. To me, this is precisely what black conservatives do--only they do it on the political stage, not the bandstand. Like the black jazz musician, their commitment is to what they believe to be the truth, not to the collective.

And this is the issue that I have with musicians who attempt to water-down their music to align themselves with this collective. They do what white liberals do: they pander to blacks instead of trying to elevate us. They treat black audiences like they're all aesthetically challenged, un-equipped with the intellect to appreciate high art, so they have to dumb it down for them. And the sad thing is, nobody wins. And this is not an assault on smooth jazz or Kenny G. I like some of that music. My issue is with musicians who play it not for the love of it but thinking they're making things easier for black audiences. This is what Michael Gerson from The Washington Post refers to as "The soft bigotry of low expectations." 

As far as the under-representation of black writers in jazz, maybe that's just the way it is for now—which is fine. As long as jazz journalism remains a meritocracy and there are no discriminatory hiring practices, I have no immediate problems with under-represented groups. Contrary to popular belief, racial and gender disparities within specific organizations are not always the result of discriminatory hiring practices or prejudiced culture. Sometimes particular groups merely outperform others. And in some cases, particular groups are just not even trying to play the game.

As I mentioned earlier, blacks represent roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population. However, we make up approximately 75 percent of the NBA. Is this the result of preferential drafting policies? Not. Black players are simply outperforming ALL other groups. Fortunately, for professional sports, teams are committed to winning, not looking like a rainbow coalition. And if the NBA does become more diverse, I'm sure it will be because the other groups stepped up their game. Not because of social engineering.

Meritocracy is what keeps jazz thriving. Either you can play or you can't. Being famous and getting press, those are different issues. However, as performers and composers, blacks have never needed social engineering to be a competitive or a dominant group in jazz. We've always done so the old fashion way: originality, hard work, and excellence. We didn't have to adhere to a lesser assessment model, compared to whites and Asians, the way we've had to when dealing with elite schools and universities. Some college admissions give race "bonus "points: blacks get 280 points added to their SATs, Hispanics get 180, and Asians get docked 50. Talking about the soft bigotry of low expectations. This sends  a clear message that says, "We have no faith in you and your abilities." So sad.

But who knows, maybe society as a whole can learn a thing or two from the jazz world.  We might look at jazz journalism 15 years from now and find that the majority of staff writers at the publications, as mentioned earlier, are Asian men and Hispanic women. If that's the case, I hope that they will be there for one and one reason only: excellent writing.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

4 Star CD Review: All About Jazz (Mike Jurkovic)

There is a lot of movie-going on: The night boatman at the moors, fifty-foot ants, a crisis in chaos, gulls, babies, dark climes, eccentric mimes . . . Whatever you can fancy while listening to the unruly codes of saxophonist Sam Newsome and his equally idiosyncratic, first-time rhythm section of bassist Matt Smiley and drummer/percussionist Ron Coulter is happening, whether you can follow it or not, within the challenging realm of Free Wyoming. 

Recorded live in March 2020, at the Metro Coffee Co. in Casper, Wyoming, Free Wyoming(only available in digital format) is the culmination of a three-day residency at Casper College. Dubbed the SN Trio, this performance may mark the first time these guys have played together but the immediacy of creation and the depth of their eloquent discourse encompasses years of free thought and investigation. Some will hear rambling, abstract noise while others, fortunately, will hear an elemental drama. A resolute curation of space and how one shapes it presents it and makes it livable. Or not. Because Free Wyoming is just one of those albums you can't take your ears off of. But, more importantly, your logic just won't turn away, imparting to the listener free rein to improvise as well! Demanding, tensile multi-phonics prop up or let fall the structures. Layers of harmonic expectancy scratch and claw. A story is told. Sound and time are manipulated or just doesn't exist. So what? It's a valid and vastly articulate argument in times such as these. 

"Big Horn," "Owl Creek," "Black Hills," and "Wind River" all represent a taut theory of evolution: Layering, stripping, probing, praying. Dismantling. Dissonant. Dancing. Yes, dancing. A scampering gambol, "Black Hills" hops and pivots; a pure finger-snapping swinger with enough spiky jabs and cascading lines from Newsome's spry soprano to keep things on that experimental edge Newsome eagerly inhabits. It is also a clear signal that, no matter how or what we think it is and how and why we respond to it, it is always good to dance.

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...