Obituary: Joe Newman
Friday 10 July 1992
IN THOSE days we all wore white underpants. Consequently I was shocked when I entered the Count Basie band's dressing- room in Blackpool with Basie's trombonist Benny Powell to see a huddle of large men wearing underpants bedecked with goldfish, rainbows and loud check. These were The Giants.
They were looking down benignly upon an altercation between two much smaller men, Joe Newman and Frank Wess, who were also wearing what might be described as exotic underpants. Newman and Wess were The Midgets. In the Swing Era it was fashionable to have band publicity photographs taken with the men arranged in order of height. You couldn't have done that with this Basie band. After Eddie Jones, Charlie Fowlkes and the other Giants, there was a sudden cliff down to the smaller but musically potent Midgets. Frank wrote a feature for his flute and Joe's trumpet which became a jazz hit under the title of 'The Midgets'.
Joe Newman shared with Buck Clayton the distinction of being one of the greatest mainstream trumpeters. True, they had both had triumphs during the earlier age of swing, but it was their eloquent flowering into the new era of the long- playing record which brought them both worldwide fame. Joe appeared on Columbia's unique series of Buck Clayton Jam Sessions, where his warm, legato tone was contrasted with Buck's more incisive and delicate playing. Happily, Newman's greatest years coincided with the upsurge of mainstream and with his worldwide tours in the Count Basie band.
Newman had the finest credentials in the jazz tradition. 'My daddy was a musician in New Orleans, where I originally came from. He played in the first negro band, the Creole Serenaders, to have a radio show in New Orleans.' (Later Joe became the first trumpeter to appear on colour television.)
'My dad bought my brother a Conn cornet, but my brother got so he didn't really want to play the instrument. It just lay around the house until I picked it up and learned to play tunes on it.' By the time he was 13 Newman was winning talent concerts with his trumpet playing. He escaped from a strict Catholic upbringing (the Sisters didn't like him taking band jobs at weekends) with a music scholarship to the Alabama State Teachers College in Montgomery. The college band, which Newman joined immediately, was exceptional. 'The band got to be so good that we could go to a town like Dayton, Ohio, when (Jimmy) Lunceford and all those bands were there, and still have a packed house]'
Newman was ill and could not join his comrades who hitch-hiked to hear the Lionel Hampton band when it played a hundred miles away in Birmingham. But the musicians found out that Hampton needed a trumpet-player and spoke to him highly of Joe. Hampton asked for Newman to go to Atlanta the next night so that he could hear him. 'I didn't have any money, nor did my two friends, but they pawned some of their clothes to get me the fare. It was months before I heard from him, but eventually I joined Hampton in Chicago in early 1941. I was 18 then.
'I stayed with Hamp till December 1943, when I went with Basie at the Lincoln Hotel. What encouraged me to go with him specifically was Lester Young and Jo Jones. Jo came by and said Buck Clayton had to go in the army and would I come and sit in with the band. Basie decided to keep me, and I worked with his band a year or so until I decided to stay in New York and get my union card.' In the Basie band Newman sat next to such established trumpeters as Harry Edison, Ed Lewis, Al Killian and Snooky Young at a time when he was most open to their influence. Newman had many spells with Basie. This time he left when the tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet left Basie to form his own band. Newman went with him, and spent the next few years working for both Jacquet and for the drummer JC Heard, who had the band at New York's Cafe Society. Newman featured on many records with both bands, mainly made for the Apollo label.
Count Basie, whose music had fallen fallow during the late Forties, put together one of his greatest bands at the beginning of the Fifties, and Newman joined it in January 1952. By now Newman was a mature soloist with a trumpet tone almost as beautiful as that of the man he replaced in Basie's new band, Joe Wilder. Newman had begun as a swing musician and, since he had come to maturity during the bop era, was a musical bridge between the older musicians and the younger generation.
During his earlier period with Basie he played bebop, but he later retrenched to an Armstrong/Harry-Edison-influenced style. His solos were poised and accurate and he showed a good sense of form, despite an occasional reliance on cliches, a failing he inherited from one of his influences, the trumpeter Harry Edison. Like Edison he had great strength and control and his use of the valves on the trumpet was superb.
Newman stayed with Basie until 1961, and during this period he made his most notable contribution to jazz. Apart from the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions he was heavily featured in Jazz Studio One, a superb album which set mainstream and modern soloists together for a 20-minute workout on 'Tenderly'. The many albums under Newman's own name (an average of three a year from 1954 to 1957) were of the highest quality, and again mixed mainstream and modern jazz in an appetising blend. To make them he used Basie musicians and the cream of New York players like Al Cohn, Nat Pierce and Frank Rehak. In 1958 when the Basie band was on holiday Newman took a sextet of Basie-ites and Nat Pierce to Sweden for a successful tour under his own name.
The tours with Basie brought Newman to Europe each year, and he met his Swedish wife Rigmor on such a tour in 1954. He loved Europe and his ambition was to settle there to run a 'jazz restaurant' which would feature his playing as an attraction. In the early Sixties Newman and his wife became prime movers in Jazz Interactions Inc (JI), a non-profit making organisation in New York dedicated to generating and maintaining interest in jazz. Newman gave lectures and ran clinics for young musicians for JI and in 1967 he became its president.
He joined Benny Goodman's orchestra for its tour of the Soviet Union in 1962 and, like the rest of the musicians in that unhappy band, was lionised by the Russians. He returned to tour Europe and the Soviet Union with the New York Jazz Repertory, which he joined in 1974, and once again was idolised by the Russians, who were transported by Joe's singing and playing of 'Sweethearts on Parade', played in tribute to his master and fellow New Orleanian Louis Armstrong. (In 1956, Newman had recorded the very successful Salute to Satch album using Armstrong's hit numbers.)
Newman visited Britain regularly and was very popular here. Much in demand for international festivals, he continued to tour as a solo artist until he became ill last year.
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