Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Story on Jazz Arranger/Composer Sammy Nestico


Musician’s talent takes him places
Superstars and presidents are part of his adventures


Tuesday, December 29, 2009 at 12:01 a.m.

What do you say to the president after he insults your life’s work?

Absolutely nothing.

That was one lesson no one had to teach Sammy Nestico, who was working as the White House chief music arranger when then-President Lyndon Johnson said, “You call this music?”

“I didn’t answer, although I didn’t think his concept of music was worth a damn,” Nestico said.

Nestico, 85, a jazz musician and La Costa resident, was recently nominated for a Grammy in the Best Large Ensemble category, for his album “Fun Time,” which he recorded with the SWR Big Band of Germany.

He composed 11 of the album’s 15 tracks and arranged all 15.

“I’m going to conduct it in March in Germany,” he said.

His living room is occupied by a large composing console. A Yamaha keyboard is plugged into his Macintosh. As he plays chords, the corresponding notes pop onto the screen.

He’s been arranging jazz and big-band pieces on a computer since 1999. He also has drawers full of handwritten music that he produced for some familiar musicians: Barbra Streisand, Bing Crosby, Count Basie, Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra.

The names are so numerous they would fill a book, so Nestico wrote one “The Gift of Music,” his memoir.

“The Library of Congress came and took 600 of my publications,” Nestico said, standing in the middle of a room full of mementos. It’s the only place in his home where he shows off his achievements. He and his wife, Shirley, call it the “brag room.”

He considers his collaboration with jazz pianist and band leader Count Basie the pinnacle of his musical sojourn.

“Count Basie and I did 10 albums, and four of them won Grammys,” Nestico said. “Count Basie was my favorite person in the world.”

He recalled a recording session when they had to stop to fix an error in the music charts.

After correcting it, “I said (to the sound engineer), ‘Play that back, I want to hear the tempo,’ ” Nestico recalled. But Basie waved him off and started tapping his foot.

“He had radar in his shoes,” Nestico said, marveling at the memory.

The two worked together from 1968 until Basie died in 1984.

Dressed in a cream-colored argyle sweater, brown slacks and white tennis shoes, Nestico looks much younger than his age.

He said he tried to retire, but couldn’t.

His collaboration with SWR Big Band started in 2003, when he and the band were nominated for Grammys separately and met at the awards ceremony.

“Europe still loves big bands,” Nestico said.

Nestico discovered music at age 13, as a high school freshman in Pittsburgh.

“After two years I knew what I wanted to do the rest of my life,” he said.

When he joined the Army in 1941, the big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Count Basie and Duke Ellington ruled the music world.

“When I came home (in 1946) the swing era was still in bloom, then it all ended,” Nestico said.

So what was a trombonist with dreams of conducting to do?

Re-enlist, this time with the Air Force as arranger for its concert band and jazz ensemble. The Air Force still gives an annual award, The Sammy Nestico Arranging Award, in his honor.

In 1963 he became arranger and leader of the Marine Band in the White House, serving Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

He liked Kennedy and was arranging something for him when the president was assassinated.

“I started in May and with Nov. 22 it was over,” he said.

Asked what music Johnson liked, Nestico grimaced. “Hello, Lyndon,” he said, sung to the tune of “Hello, Dolly.” It was Johnson’s campaign song.

After his White House stint ended, Nestico came to California. “I wanted to make my way in Hollywood.”

He said he got his big break with Capitol Records, but added, “A break is when preparation meets opportunity.”

He recalled recording with some of the great musicians, including Crosby, whom he admired. But he said recording with Crosby was a disappointment.

“Bing came in, sat in a booth and overdubbed,” rather than standing in front of the band and singing. “He lost that spontaneity.”

Sinatra, on the other hand, “stood in front of the orchestra, his hand cupped over his ear,” and let it rip.

“It was electric,” Nestico said. “I thought he was the greatest singer of the 20th century.”

Before his guests left, Nestico logged onto his iTunes library and queued up Michael Bublé singing Nestico’s arrangement of “Mack the Knife.”

As the song played, Nestico’s hands waved in the air as he conducted the virtual musicians from his chair. His face glowed.

“It humbles me, that people like my music,” Nestico said after the song ended.

But, he said, “The more I give the more I get back.”

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