Word came yesterday, through people I know on social media, about the passing of the great Sammy Nestico. Sammy was an arranger for the Basie band, and that's perhaps what he was most famous for, but even if you weren't technically a jazz fan,it was impossible not to come across Sammy Nestico if you were in bands growing up.
Sammy Nestico was 96 years old, and he was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — another good Pennsylvania person, even if he was from the wrong end of the state. In the 1930s, he joined his high school orchestra, according to Wikipedia and we know how trustworthy that is. He was a trombonist.
By the age of 17, he had joined the local radio station’s orchestra. His career — of course his time with Count Basie is one of his most memorable — he also arranged for the US Air Force and US Marine bands, and he played trombone with many of the greats, including Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, and Charlie Barnett. If you're into big band music you know that's an A-list of bands.
There's a handful of arrangers names that you come across — Lennie Niehaus. Bill Holman, Dave Wolpe — but Sammy Nestico is the big one.
I probably came across Sammy Nestico for the first time in junior high school, if not before. You notice who arranged this chart, even if you're not really into that stuff. I was just in the early stages of getting into jazz and big band music. I was really kind of a neophyte. But, you know, you just recognize the names and it seems like every second or third chart that my band directors would pull out would be a Sammy Nestico chart.
And why not? They were good. Even the easy ones for middle schoolers were good. And band directors are going to gravitate to that stuff because they want something that's at least fun for them as well.
As I got older, my knowledge of jazz and Big Band jazz grew. Of course you come across the Count Basie stuff. And as you move into the 60s and 70s, that was the era of Sammy Nestico the Basie band and, of course, great arrangers all around. Quincy Jones, what do you what do you got to say on that?
My sax playing friends will probably have a good laugh at that or throw something at me, but, you know, that's why they sit in front of me — so I can poke them with the slide.
What you really appreciate with Sammy Nestico is that he never lost sight of those Basie roots. The Basie band always had great arrangers, and that’s the reason it survived over time in ways that all the other big bands really didn't. It changed with the times, new ideas came in, but there was a root, there was always a Basie sound that still exists today, even though the Count has gone on to the great gig in the sky, that roots still exists in the Basie music.
And Sammy Nestico was, of course, hugely influenced by that — that's where he came from. Even as he modernized over the years, he had that at his root, which I think is really kind of a nice consistency. You can grow, but if you have that base to start from, then you know that it's always going to be an evolution of the conversation. I guess tht’s what I'm trying to get at.
And, through his involvement in education and creating charts for developing bands. He really was able to have an amazing influence with that. I know that today's arrangers owe a huge debt to Sammy Nestico, as we all do who play modern Big Band jazz. We all have an enormous debt of gratitude toward because he made it fun for us. We were very lucky.
It's a shame that great artists have to pass, and how short our lives are and the influence that we can have. But, like so many things, it’s what you leave behind. And for Sammy Nestico it's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of charts for all levels of musicians. That's a legacy. And we're all very lucky as musicians to be touched by that.
My hope is that the next generation who were influenced by him will do the same. It's not like the old days when they said, good music was popular and popular music was good. The days that the big bands dominate the charts are long gone, with the exception of the occasional Brian Setzer, Harry Connick Jr. or, Michael Bublé. But the music lives on through the creators. The people who write the arrangements, and those of us who interpret them and play them and have the joy of that experience.
I'm so thankful for that, because it's a big part of who I am. And I’m thankful for Sammy Nestico, a warm and generous and creative master.
A toast to Sammy Nestico.