Count Basie's finest album of the 1960s is easily Straight Ahead. Recorded in 1968 for the Dot label, the album's tracks were composed and arranged from top to bottom by Sammy Nestico. He even conducted the band. What's remarkable about this album is how naturally Sammy's charts swing within the Basie idiom. Sammy's up-tempo numbers build repeatedly to satisfying crescendos, leaving plenty of room for Basie's punctual piano, while Sammy's ballad compositions are rich showcases for Basie soloists. This year, Sammy was nominated for a Grammy for his new album [pictured], Sammy Nestico and the SWR Big Band: Fun Time, which swings relentlessly. Sammy arranged 10 Basie albums, four of which won Grammy Awards.
I first fell in love with Sammy's writing in the early 1970s. Back then my high school dance band played a few of his charts. Before Sammy went Hollywood, he was an educator-entrepreneur who had created packages of more than 600 band charts. Included in each was a floppy black vinyl record so you could hear what the finished arrangements should sound like. As soon as you heard things like Warm Breeze on that record, you ached to play them.
In Part 1 of my two-part interview with Sammy, 85, the West Coast arranger, who has worked on more than 200 albums and has arranged and orchestrated for virtually everyone in the music business, talks about growing up in Pennsylvania, playing and recording with Charlie Barnet, and the one life decision he still regrets:
Sammy Nestico: It was hard. But everyone on our street wound up like us, so we never felt we were poor. During the Depression, my dad worked for the railroad in the yards moving switches back and forth and repairing locomotives. There was money coming in, but he and my mom didn’t get along. They separated several times, but each time they’d get back together they had to split up again. The third time he left, we moved next to my grandma, and my whole life was happier.
SN: There was no more strife. When we moved, peace came. I was 10 years old and became the man of the house. I was the oldest, with a younger brother and sister. When I was a kid, I wanted to be in a big band. After listening to the radio day and night, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. The great swing bands of 1938 and 1939 were just coming in, and I was listening to shows being broadcast from Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook [pictured] in New Jersey and other unbelievable places. It was just wonderful. Trombonist Tommy Dorsey was my favorite because I was a trombonist in school. I can still name all the musicians in his band then.
JW: Did you listen to records?
SN: Yes. I had a $5 record player that I had received second hand. I wanted to buy records but we didn’t have any money. My mom was giving me 10 cents a day for food, which meant that after two five-day weeks, I’d have a dollar. I saved my dollar by not eating for two weeks. I was hungry but doing without was worth it.
JW: How many records could you buy for $1?
SN: [Laughs] I would go to this little store that sold used jukebox records and buy seven of them for $1. They were all scratchy but I didn’t care. I played them on that little record player. I still remember Charlie Barnet’s Night and Day and Tommy Dorsey’s Song of India with Marie on the flip side. When I finally played with Tommy later in the 1940s, I told him that he had given me lessons [laughs]. I had studied his records to learn what positions he used on the trombone to make his different notes sound so clean.
JW: How could you afford a trombone in school?
SN: I started playing a school instrument in the 8th grade. By the 10th grade I was working in local nightclubs. I came to it naturally and loved playing so much. I bought a trombone on one of those store lay-away plans with a $24 down-payment from my two weeks on the job. I told my mom she wouldn’t have to worry about making the payments, that I would handle them. But I didn’t keep at it, with school and everything, so she paid the rest, little by little.
JW: When did you start working professionally full time?
SN: In 1941, at age 17, I was in the orchestra employed by WCAE, the ABC radio affiliate in Pittsburgh. People would come in to plug their songs. If the band’s leader liked the tune, he’d give me the piano sheet to arrange. I wasn’t the main arranger, but little by little I was writing things for him. It was a simple little band at the time.
JW: How did you learn to arrange?
SN: I just had listened and analyzed every record I bought. There was no book then telling you how to write pop records. I learned from my hits and my misses. I wrote some awful things and told myself, “I won’t do that again.” I had no formal training at all.
JW: Did you always enjoy swing?
SN: Yes, from the start. I learned a lot about swing by listening hard to those Sy Oliver [pictured] arrangements for Tommy Dorsey.
JW: Hold on. You’re making it all sound a little too easy.
SN: It wasn’t easy [laughs]. In my first arrangement for the radio band, I wrote all of the parts in the bass clef [laughs]. Even the drummer knew something was wrong. So I took the arrangement back home. The next week when I returned, my arrangement sounded better—but something was still wrong. I had forgotten to transpose the saxophone parts. So I had to work on it again. Little by little, I got things right. I would listen to my favorite records and try to imitate my heroes. The radio station was a great lab for me.
JW: When you put a record on, what were you hearing?
SN: I’d tune in to the background. Back in those days, arrangers painted a picture. There would always be something in there that was fascinating, and I’d try to imitate it. I didn’t even have score paper nor did I know how to write for different parts. I’d just fill papers with notes. I taught myself the piano, learned the staves and started voicing. Little by little you listen, you learn, you imitate and eventually the result becomes you. Eventually I became Sammy. [Pictured: Sammy in 1940]
JW: Your first big-band experience was playing with Charlie Barnet in 1946.
SN: Yes, what a great band. Six trumpets and four trombones and six reeds including Barnet. It was an integrated band, too. There were three black musicians in the band and two writing for the band, in addition to Billy May. Trombonist Porky Cohen was my roommate, and I was thrilled, like I was in heaven. Charlie Barnet was terrific. He was a playboy and a millionaire who just played music for the joy of it. He was easygoing. If there was anything that had to be done that wasn’t easy, he’d give it to the band manager to do. [Pictured: Sammy Nestico]
JW: What did you do after playing on Barnet’s band?
SN: I returned to WCAE in Pittsburgh. But that was a mistake. I should have gone with Barnet to California in the fall of 1946. But my mother kept saying, “You should be a teacher.” So I listened to her and enrolled at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and earned a music education degree. My girlfriend at the time had said, “Let’s go to California.” But I didn’t listen, and I always regretted that decision.
SN: If I had gone, I would have been writing for dozens of bands throughout the 1950s. Many of the guys left the Barnet band when it arrived in Hollywood and got an early start out there. But I never held my decision against my mom. She pushed me to stay in education, out of love. But it was a bad decision, career-wise.
JW: So you became an educator?
SN: Yes. In 1950, I taught high school for a year but I didn’t like it. I loved the kids, but the administrators drove me nuts. They were a drag. I hated academia because of the administrators.
JW: Then what did you do?
SN: By then, the swing era was all but finished and the rock era was starting with Bill Haley. I re-enlisted and became staff arranger for the Air Force Band in Washington, D.C. for 15 years. During this time I became the leader of the Airmen of Note, the top Air Force jazz outfit. When my period of service was through with the Air Force, I enlisted with the U.S. Marine Band and led that orchestra.
JW: You seem to have enjoyed leading these bands.
SN: Oh very much so. But it was tricky. Most of the musicians were great but occasionally you had guys who didn't swing immediately or didn't have the passion. One time I said to the band, "When the trumpet is playing a beautiful solo, can we have a little more support from the trombones?” One of the guys in the band cracked, “If you wanted more support, you should have written it in.” I said, “If I’d written in all the things you’re supposed to do in that bar, there’d be no room for notes.” I grabbed my ears and said, “You see these? These are what you’re supposed to be using. Your two ears—that’s called musicianship.”
JW: Were you a good educator?
SN: I think so. I was always about the feel and the execution. When I taught at the University of Georgia, I’d always tell my students, “Don’t go on to the next page after you play something. Go back and analyze the music until you understand how it works.” I never had lessons in my classes. We'd rehearse tirelessly until they got it.
JW: How did you finally wind up in California arranging?
SN: In late 1960s, I had heard about this tenor sax player with Woody Herman named Sal Nistico. But that's a whole other story.
Tomorrow, Sammy talks about his connection to Sal Nistico, how he wound up writing arrangements for Basie, and how his successful charts led to a major West Coast career that began at age 44.
JazzWax tracks: Sammy Nestico and the SWR Big Band: Fun Time is an album that just won't quit. The SWR Band is a German orchestra made up of the country's finest musicians. You'll find Fun Time at iTunes and at Amazon here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Count Basie in 1968 playing Sammy's composition and arrangement of Magic Flea, from the Straight Ahead album...
Here's the SWR Big Band playing Blue Samuel, the opening track on Sammy's new Fun Time CD...