The first thing you notice about Sammy Nestico when you speak with him is his jolly nature. There's a distinct twinkle in his personality, like that of a storybook toymaker. It's a trait that goes beyond charisma. Sammy's generosity and positive spirit are embracing and motivating Yet neither quality has distracted him from his work or purpose: churning out swinging arrangements for big bands. Clearly, laughter and kindness are secrets to a long life and rewarding career.
Over Sammy's seven-decade career, he has written more than 600 arrangements for musicians and singers at all levels, from auditorium students to studio big shots. Between 1968 and 1983, Sammy composed and arranged 10 albums for Count Basie's band, four of which won Grammy Awards. During this period Sammy also orchestrated for television, movies, pop singers and managed to write 63 albums' worth of material for Capitol Records. Today, Sammy is still hard at work composing and arranging. He also is author of two books—The Complete Arranger, a doorstop of a manual for writing swinging big-band charts, and The Gift of Music, a memoir.
In Part 2 of my two-part interview with Sammy, the composer-arranger talks about working with Basie, the shortcomings of Pablo producer Norman Granz, what it was like to conduct the Basie band, and what he hears in his head and how he captures his ideas:
JazzWax: Picking up on what we were talking about, what did you do when you heard about tenor saxophonist Sal Nistico?
Sammy Nestico: I knew I had been born Sammy Nestico. But when I had looked at my dad’s navy bible, I saw that his last name was spelled "Nistico." Through my relatives, I found out that Sal and I were related. We’re cousins. So I called him up. He was playing with Count Basie at the time.
JW: What did you say?
SN: I said, “The next time you and the band come to Washington, D.C., come by and see me." I was leading the U.S. Marine Band there at the time. Not long after our conversation, the Basie band came to town, and Sal called and came over. When he saw what I had been writing, he said, “You ought to write for Basie.” I laughed and said, “I’m not good enough for him.” Sal said, “Yes you are. Why don’t you come out to the job and meet Basie.”
JW: Did you go?
SN: Of course. But instead of Sal introducing me to the Chief, he had trombonist Grover Mitchell do it. Grover was from Pittsburgh, my home town. When I met Basie, he asked me to write a couple of arrangements. I had already written The Queen Bee and Quincy and the Count. The second one wasn’t fully formed yet, but The Queen Bee was real nice. I gave that to him and a couple of others. After about three months, Grover called me after the job they had played someplace and said, “The Chief likes your charts. Write some more.” So I wrote more and more, and we finally had enough for an album.
JW: What was your first album with Count Basie?
SN: Basie: Straight Ahead. Between my meeting with Basie and the call to do the album, I had finally decided to move out to California. I figured if I didn't do it, I'd always regret it. Two months after I arrived, I was conducting Basie's band at the recording session on Vine Street in Los Angeles. I couldn't believe it.
JW: How did you come to play piano on That Warm Feeling on the album?
SN: There was an organ in the studio. Basie plays organ. Fats Waller had taught him. On the session, he saw it and said to me, “I’ll play the organ, you play the piano.”
JW: Were you nervous?
SN: Oh yeah. I’m a terrible pianist and trying to play like Basie was like paving the Grand Canyon with asphalt [laughs]. I don’t think I impressed anyone playing that piano because for the next nine albums, nobody ever asked me to play piano again [roars with laughter]. I was scared to death. I was nervous.
JW: How did the next series of Basie albums work?
SN: Many of the albums we did after Straight Ahead for Pablo Records were never as good. It wasn’t the music. It was that Norman Granz [pictured] was producing Basie at the time and never cared how the music went. The early ones we did for other labels were set up well. But when Norman [Granz] got a hold of him, the high standards Norman had in the past just weren’t there.
JW: Why is that?
SN: I think Norman just disliked big bands. He kept telling Basie to start a combo and to hell with the band. Basie wouldn’t hear of it. Norman also would keep first takes on almost everything, even if there were mistakes. A song would end and from the engineer’s booth he’d call for the next tune. As for how he set up the band in the studio, he’d have the chairs arranged like it was a job, with different sections facing the same direction on risers. Today, when we record an album, each section is circled around different microphones. Norman just didn’t seem to care.
JW: How did you like working with Basie?
SN: I always felt that my entire career was pointed toward arranging for him. It was the greatest thrill of my life. Knowing him and knowing the band and being with the band was sensational. [Pictured: Count Basie and Sammy Nestico]
JW: Did you get the Basie sound right off that bat?
SN: Almost. At first, my voicings were a little off. Pianist and arranger Nat Pierce, who had Basie's sound down cold, came to me and said, “On this or that tune, you need Basie chords. You have to try to get closer.” Nat was a great writer and a nice friend. I kept thinking about what Nat had said as I wrote for the band. The other quote that hit me was when Grover Mitchell came to me and said that Basie had said to him, “You know, too many guys are trying to write like Basie. They should write it like them and we’ll swing it like Basie” [laughs]. So I did.
JW: Did your personality come through?
SN: I think so. I remember my brother saying, “It’s Count Basie, but I can hear you in there, Sammy.” That’s the whole idea. That’s what you were shooting for with the Chief. To make the listener happy and to make the musicians happy but not lose your identity.
JW: Your arrangements have a particular attitude, a special swagger.
SN: I always like to make an ensemble sound bigger by prepping it with a piano solo. I like to have a sparse piano in there to set up the big band.
JW: You love building to a crescendo, don’t you?
SN: You bet. And dynamics—soft, loud, lots of contrasts.
JW: What was it like to conduct the Basie band?
SN: At first I was intimidated. On that first recording, Basie Straight Ahead, Marshal Royal, "Lockjaw" Davis, Bobby Plater and other giants were there. But after we started, it was just a matter of communication and everything eased up. There’s no band in the world that played like that. [Photo: Sammy conducting the Count Basie band]
JW: Like how?
SN: The dynamics. The band played too soft and too loud. Which is just the way I like it [laughs]. That's what made the band sound conversational and exciting. I'd mention to the band what I'd want to do with dynamics in one place or another in the arrangement, and they'd mark up their parts. Then Basie would sing the feeling for them so they'd get it. The beauty of Basie is he'd let me do my thing, and he was always supportive. When we started Straight Ahead, I tried to do too much with the conducting. After the first run-down on the first song, I realized that all I had to do is give a downbeat and come in every once in a while. The band was a quick study, and I never imposed myself.
JW: Did Basie ever talk to you?
SN: Not really. But he told a couple of people that he liked me. He wasn’t the kind of guy who ever built anyone up. But he was the sweetest man on the whole planet. He was a big teddy bear. He must have liked what I did. We did 10 albums together and we won four Grammys.
JW: Yet you’re not fully recognized for that accomplishment.
SN: Can I tell you something? I composed the songs, I arranged them and I conducted the band on those sessions. No one even said, “Thanks, Sammy” [laughs]. But it makes no difference. The guys were just great. All gentlemen. Wonderful people. And I was thrilled to be a part of that band.
JW: In some ways, you were Son of Hefti.
SN: [Laughs] Basie identified with that sound. Neal Hefti was my idol. I wanted to do what he did, come up with great tunes and arrange them simply for power, melody and swing.
JW: While you were in California, you were arranging and orchestrating for everyone. You orchestrated songs on two Sinatra albums.
SN: Yes, I did a lot with Don Costa in those days. He’d write a small sketch, two lines or so. Then I’d voice it for 18 musicians. I orchestrated Mrs. Robinson on My Way and five tunes on L.A. Is My Lady.
JW: How did you deal with the famous pressure out there with that kind of workload?
SN: The first year I was out here it was hard. You get more and more jobs, and you don’t have time to complete them all. They don’t give you time. They want everything tomorrow morning. So you stay up late and have the copyist pick up the work at 2 a.m. You don’t sit there and look at the moon or think of some girl laying over the piano. You write your first idea and you go with it. It’s usually your best idea anyway.
JW: That can be hard week after week.
SN: As an arranger in L.A., you’re either feeling boredom or panic. You never get used to it but you can work within that framework. I just sit down and work. I work with a piano. I’ve always worked with a piano.
JW: Who paid you the greatest compliment?
SN: Let me think [pause]. There were two. The first was from the British arranger Robert Farnon. Everyone considered him the greatest. He arranged two albums for Pia Zadora in the mid-1980s, and she recorded them in London. Then they asked him to do another with her. Robert said, “Gee, my schedule is too busy. But I’ll tell you, when you go back to the States, there’s a guy named Sammy Nestico. You should hire him.” When I heard that, I felt so good. I didn’t even think he ever heard of me. That was the greatest compliment.
JW: Who gave you the other big compliment?
SN: Jerry Gray, Glenn Miller’s arranger. He called to tell me that my published chart of String of Pearls was his favorite arrangement of the song. And he was the one who wrote the original. It was only published, never recorded.
JW: Where do you do much of your composing and arranging today?
SN: I write melodies in my car or in the shower off the top of my head.
JW: How do you remember them?
SN: I sing the melodies and remember the intervals. When I reach a piano, I write them down. After I put the original motif down, I’ll dress it up or edit the result and work with it. I keep tuning it up until I get what I want [pause]. Then I say I got lucky [laughs]. [Pictured: Sammy Nestico and Johnny Mandel]
JW: With so much music to write, does Sammy walk around all day snapping and swinging?
SN: [Roars with laughter] I don’t know about that. I sing to myself quite a bit. It has been a great life. Hey, I’m still going strong.
JazzWax tracks: Here are Sammy's 10 albums for Count Basie (asterisks denote a Grammy Award)...
Straight Ahead (Dot/1968)
Standing Ovation (Dot/1969)
Have a Nice Day (Daybreak/1971)
Bing 'n Basie (Daybreak/1972)
Basie Big Band (Pablo/1975)
Fun Time (Pablo/1975)
Prime Time (Pablo/1977)*
On the Road (Pablo/1979)*
Warm Breeze (Pablo/1981)*
88 Basie Street (Pablo/1983)*
Sammy's latest release is Sammy Nestico and the SWR Big Band: Fun Time. The album is sensational. No matter how many times I listen to it, the arrangements roar off with enormous energy. 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 notes: Sammy's memoir, The Gift of Music, is available here or at Amazon here. Sammy told me yesterday he personally signs each and every copy sent out. For musicians, Sammy's The Complete Arranger is available here. And for more on Sammy, visit his website here.
JazzWax clip: For the past seven years, filmmaker Diane Estelle Vicari has been documenting Sammy's life. The result, Shadow Man, is expected to be completed soon. Here's the trailer...