Sammy Nestico: Leaving the Shores of Security
On arranging for kids, pros, Hollywood, JFK…
The very first jazz chart I ever played was a Sammy Nestico chart,” says trumpeter Wayne Bergeron, among the most acclaimed, in-demand jazz musicians in Los Angeles. “It was called ‘The Queen Bee,’ and I was 12 years old. That was my introduction to big-band jazz.”
Trombonist Andy Martin, too, grew up playing Nestico’s big-band arrangements. “I was playing his stuff when I was in high school,” he says. “I knew Sammy’s name from very early on. He’s such an icon.”
Bergeron and Martin weren’t private students of Nestico’s. They were just two school kids among millions who first learned to swing by studying and performing the Pittsburgh native’s arrangements. While writing for the Count Basie Orchestra in the early 1970s, Nestico thought it might be fun, perhaps even lucrative, to arrange and publish the Basie charts for student jazz musicians. Forty years later, he is probably the most widely published, and curriculum-integrated, scholastic jazz arranger on the planet. “I get letters from South Africa, Norway, New Zealand, Australia,” he says over the phone from his home outside San Diego, voice warming with pride. “Boy. I never dreamed that it would balloon all over the world!”
Nestico also spent 20 years with the U.S. Air Force Band, as well as the U.S. Marine Corps Band, known as “The President’s Own” for its White House performances; Nestico was their chief arranger—a position once held by John Philip Sousa—during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Since 1994, the Airmen of Note, the Air Force’s jazz ensemble, has given an annual prize for new compositions: the Sammy Nestico Award.
These accomplishments are just the tip of the iceberg in a 60-plus-year career. And yet it’s his newest CD of arrangements, On the Sammy Side of the Street (SN Publishing), that Nestico, now 88, considers the jewel in his crown. “It’s the best written, best played, best album I’ve ever been associated with,” he says. “At my age I thought that was wonderful! Things are going well for me.”
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Nestico got his first gig—arranger and trombonist for the house orchestra at radio station WCAE—in 1941, at the age of 17. It was the wrong age and time to begin any kind of career: After one year, he, like 15 million others, was drafted into World War II. He remained Stateside, stationed in Indiana as a member of the Army Band.
At war’s end, he briefly went on the road with Charlie Barnet’s band. But in the fall of 1946, when Barnet headed to California, Nestico stayed behind, going back to WCAE and enrolling at Duquesne University on the G.I. Bill, where he studied music education. Graduating in 1950, Nestico took a job as a teacher; it lasted a year. “I didn’t like it,” he recalls. “I loved the kids, but I wasn’t into the politics of academia.”
When WCAE dissolved its orchestra in 1951, Nestico successfully auditioned to be a trombonist and arranger in the Air Force Band, which sent him to Washington. Twelve years later, the Marine Band advertised an opening for chief arranger; Nestico took the job, although he was penalized two stripes for jumping branches, knocking him down to corporal. Soon, however, he found himself writing for White House functions, even arranging Irish tunes for President Kennedy aboard Air Force One and impressing his colonel enough to attain the Marines’ highest enlisted rank, master gunnery sergeant.
It was during those years that Nestico took another approach to music education. “I noticed that music was being published especially for school kids,” he says, “and I thought I’d like to try that. So I started sending some letters out, and some arrangements, and there was a little town way up in northern New York called Delevan. And there was a company up there, Kendor, and they said, ‘Yeah, we’d like to try this.’” That began Nestico’s prolific second career, one that enabled him to support a wife and three sons.
The real watershed, however, came in 1967. His cousin Sal, a tenor saxophonist in the Count Basie Orchestra, suggested that he write for Basie. “I said ‘Ohhh, no, Sal. I’m not good enough to write for Count Basie,’” he recalls. “But he said, ‘Well come on out and meet him!’” Basie (whom Nestico still affectionately calls “Bill”) was receptive, encouraging Nestico to send him a chart. “About two months later, at two o’clock in the morning, [Basie’s] trombonist Grover Mitchell called me and said, ‘The Chief likes ’em! Write some more!’ And that’s how it started.”
The next year, with Nestico’s discharge, he moved to Hollywood, where Basie recorded Straight Ahead, an album entirely composed of Nestico arrangements. By 1970, he had become Basie’s official arranger, writing 10 albums (four of them Grammy-winning) before Basie’s death in 1984. The bandleader had as much effect on Nestico’s music as vice versa. For example, On the Sammy Side of the Street’s orchestration puts the horns blazingly out front, just as Basie’s band did in its post-1950s incarnations. “That’s exactly right,” Nestico confirms. “You can hear on the new record that I was influenced by Count Basie.” He laughs. “How could you not be?”
With his publishing experience, Nestico soon realized that he was sitting on a goldmine. “I said, ‘Bill, you know what? Let’s you and I start a corporation, and we’ll market the music to school kids, ’cause they’d like to play Count Basie!’” He was right: Sheet music for tunes like “The Queen Bee,” “Hay Burner” and “Have a Nice Day” sold hand over fist, snapped up by aspiring young musicians and their teachers eager for the polished swing that Basie’s current band represented. “It really saved the day, and it was wonderful,” says Nestico.
“You have to be careful when you’re writing for young students,” he acknowledges. “They’re not professionals, but just because you’re writing something fairly simple doesn’t mean it has to be bland. You want to make it as musical as possible, and make it so that the students say, ‘Boy, I like playing this!’”
The strategy seems to have worked. “It was a really good lesson on how to swing,” says Bergeron. “He seemed to know a little about all the instruments. Nothing was ever clumsy or in a bad key; everything laid well on the instrument, and that made it easier to play. I think that’s why I loved them.”
Hollywood opened many doors for Nestico. He began by working for composer Earle Hagen on TV shows like Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. and Mayberry RFD. (Hagen suggested Nestico choose between being a player or arranger, causing him to abandon the trombone.) Not long afterward his friend and fellow Pittsburgher, Billy May, brought him to Capitol Records to help produce the Time-Life “Swing Era” music series; Nestico would ultimately work on 63 Capitol albums. From there, he broadened his television work, orchestrating for dozens of programs including The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H; he also began working with producer Quincy Jones and with vocalists, including Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Julie Andrews. Work since then has never stopped. It’s brought him into contact with L.A.’s finest studio and session musicians—among them Bergeron and Martin, who have worked with Nestico frequently over the last 15 years, including on On the Sammy Side of the Street. “Hollywood has the greatest musicians in the world,” Nestico says. “I go into a session, hand out music they’ve never seen before, and they just sight-read it; by the second time through we’re recording it. That’s the kind of musicianship you’re dealing with here.”
Bergeron notes that On the Sammy Side of the Street offers tunes that have been in Sammy’s book for years—including Bergeron’s big trumpet feature, “Bustling”—but were rewritten for the new disc. “He does that a lot, actually,” Bergeron says. “He’ll go, ‘I have a better voicing now than I had then.’ And so he’ll re-record ‘Bustling’ again. He’s always perfecting his craft.”
The craft will no doubt continue to endure, from timeless recordings to generations of up-and-coming musicians who learn his charts in band class. It’s an extraordinary legacy, and Nestico has worked hard for it. “It wasn’t easy,” he says. “But I think you have to leave the shores of security if you want to get ahead. You take a risk; you bet on yourself that you’re gonna succeed. And it worked out for me.”