Brian Newman: Cincinnati Swing Meets Vegas

Trumpeter/singer with ties to Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett releases debut album on Verve

Brian Newman

When trumpeter/singer Brian Newman had to come up with a title for his first album on Verve, he didn’t enlist any of the usual clichés. He didn’t reference any jazz legend. He didn’t use a silly pun or clever wordplay. He didn’t pay tribute to his wife, mother, father, daughter, or son. He didn’t quote Shakespeare. He simply named the album after his car, a 1971 Oldsmobile 98 LS—appropriately called Showboat. The simple moniker neatly fits the music and the man. It is, as he calls it, “a nod to an era that went big in every sense of the word. Big bands, big cars, and big lapels. It’s an era where the show and showmanship were at the forefront.”

True enough. The sound on Showboat indeed harks back to an era of Louis Prima and Keely Smith, combining a whimsical tone with classic jazz and show music. From time to time, he’s even got his own version of Smith, a gifted and charismatic young singer named Stefani Germanotta, whom he met when he was a bartender and they were both struggling musicians in NYC. Like Smith, Germanotta changed her given name to something simpler and catchier. Unlike Smith, Germanotta didn’t have to hitch her star to a male bandleader like Prima. She’s done quite well on her own as Lady Gaga, but she still remains friends and musical associates with Newman to this day, sitting in with him at various gigs, and collaborating with him and Tony Bennett on the Cheek to Cheek album. This is, after all, not a remake of the remake of A Star Is Born. Gaga guests on Showboat’s cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” a song that was a hit for both the Animals and Nina Simone, back in the day.

Listen closely to the entire album and you can readily pick up a more significant influence: Chet Baker. Because make no mistake, although he’s worked in lounges in NYC and Vegas, Newman is a jazzhead to his core. He was born and raised in the Cleveland area, but his first musical instrument wasn’t the trumpet. “My dad got me a guitar,” he remembers, “one of those wired with the matching Peavey amps in the little packets you buy from Sam Ash. I was reading tablature and I just never got into it. I saw the saxophone and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s crazy, I can’t play that.’ Then I started trumpet and that was a cool thing. I thought it would be easy because it only has three buttons, but man, I was definitely wrong.”

“I’m an entertainer, we’re entertainers. We’re there for a reason: to make people forget about the B.S. they’ve been doing all day, to put them in a different place.”

 

Newman was turned on to jazz in the seventh grade by a teacher, Tim Yowell. “I was goofing off in concert band—improvising—and he suggested that I try his six-week jazz course,” Newman explains. “And that was the beginning. He taught us the I chord the first day, the IV chord the next day, and the V chord the next day. By the end of the week, we were playing 12-bar blues in B-flat.”

He quickly went beyond the basic blues structure, diving into the history of jazz and trumpet. And he stopped goofing around in concert band. “I was able to go and play, and listen to the music, and learn about it, get into Dizzy, Miles, Clifford, Lee Morgan—all the stuff that every jazz musician does,” he recalls. Newman eventually studied trumpet at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. While there, he also played around the city and came under the influence of an unheralded drummer and teacher, the late John Von Ohlen, who was originally from Indianapolis and had played with Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. Von Ohlen led the Blue Wisp Big Band and inspired Newman to learn both big-band and small ensemble styles.

“I just think I got so much more out of Cincinnati rather than just moving straight to New York,” he says. “I was always playing my own gigs in Cincinnati and doing different stuff, doing fusion, but always my own band and having my own ideas of what kind of music I wanted to play. We respected tradition so much, but we also wanted to push it forward while making it acceptable, without changing the content.”

Just like Miles, one of his musical heroes, Newman left a prestigious music conservatory to play jazz in New York City. “I always wanted to live in New York since I was 12 or 13, ever since I got into jazz,” he explains. “I just knew that if I wanted to survive and be a real musician, I’d have to go to New York and do it there.” He came to NYC in 2003 and, over the next 10 years or so, truly paid his dues in a city already filled with gifted jazz musicians and trumpeters. “I got a waiter job on 7th Avenue and Christopher Street just so I could go to the after-hour clubs and Smalls, the Vanguard, Fat Cat, all those, when I could afford it,” Newman remembers. “It was just great to meet all those people and be in that neighborhood. I did a lot of that the first few years in New York.”

He worked as a bartender and did every sort of gig that a trumpeter could do in the city, including stints at some real throwback places: “I did a lot of burlesque, which is what a lot of musicians did back in the day. You play your society gigs, then at night you’re at the burlesque clubs doing vaudeville, and playing those same standards a little bit dirtier.” Besides what he learned about showmanship there, he also found himself drawn to crooning, singing in a similar style as one of his idols, Chet Baker.

Newman began working with his own group, a bunch of guys who came on the scene at the same time and several of whom remain bandmates to this day, including saxophonist Steve Kortyka, pianist Alex Smith, bassist Daniel Foose and drummer Joe Peri. He points to that period as formative because it enabled them to build their repertoire and establish their sound, which serves them well now. “We play in New York at least three, four nights a week and we can play a different set every night and not play the same song twice for a couple of weeks. Having that kind of tightness and loyalty within the band has always been important for me. I’d rather have that than a hired gun, you know?”

And, of course, it was during that seminal period in NYC that he also met Ms. Germanotta. “I was a bartender at this bar [St. Jerome’s] downtown on the Lower East Side, and I was playing music—not full-time yet—and she was a go-go dancer and a party-promoter/DJ that worked there regularly. The bar was full of creatives—music, fashion, all industry people that weren’t there yet, you know? A breeding ground of goodness. It made it great.”

Brian Newman and Lady Gaga
Brian Newman and Lady Gaga (photo: Kristen Chalmers)

Not that any viewers of A Star Is Born need the verification, but Newman can readily attest to Gaga’s musicianship, which surprised him initially when she sat in with his group downtown. “The first time she came up and sang with us, I was like, ‘Hey, babe, what do you want to play?’ And this sums it all up: She said, ‘“Lush Life” in D-flat.’ And me and the band did that jazz band thing like, ‘Whoa, okay!’ And then she pounded it out and killed it! It was phenomenal.”

He watched Gaga develop her craft, sitting at the piano and singing her songs. Later she went off to L.A. and made her first record; when she returned as a household name, she came to see Newman and his group at a downtown club. Since then she regularly pops into his gigs, surely sending more than half the audience for their cellphones. When she was embraced by Tony Bennett, Newman was like a proud poppa: “[For her] to get that kind of recognition from a person like that, the last of the greatest, it’s just phenomenal.”

Naturally, he sees and knows a Lady Gaga that most people don’t. “It’s great to work with her, she’s a true musician, she knows the key, she knows the songs, she knows the history of the people who wrote them, and she’s always trying to learn, just like every other jazz musician—she’s trying to learn her craft and be better at it and push it forward,” he says with pride. Their joint arrangement of the classic Edith Piaf torch song “La Vie en Rose” is included in the Star Is Born soundtrack. And the two share a tattoo—it’s from a drawing by Bennett of Miles’ muted trumpet. “We were recording and he [Bennett] was doodling on the piano while we were in between takes,” he recalls, laughing. “Afterwards he gave it to Gaga and then she and I went down to the Lower East Side and got it tattooed. We had to. It was something to commemorate the occasion.”

Matching tattoos aside, that relationship with Gaga and Bennett certainly has something to do with his signing to Verve, which is run by Bennett’s son and longtime manager Danny. The album was produced by another Bennett, Dae, the gifted and prolific recording engineer who most recently co-produced his father’s duet album with Diana Krall. “The way he looks at it, it’s like he’s doing it back in the day,” Newman says about Dae’s approach to recording. “Like, tape without tape. You know? I love his style. And what he brought to it, all those other influences. We didn’t have to just make a jazz record. Danny and I talked about it and he said,‘Well, the Velvet Underground was on Verve.’ Frank Zappa was on the label too, for a little while back in the day. All these great musicians that weren’t necessarily jazz but were on this label that just catered to great music. That legacy is super-important to me and the band, and we really wanted to live up to the opportunity.”

The album shows off not only Newman’s affinity for big-band and lounge music of the ’50s and ’60s, but also his love of contemporary composers like Beck and Tom Waits. He admires Beck’s ability to change up from album to album: “I love the way that he can move like that, like so many great artists before him, that have done stuff like that in their own way.”  And naturally, Waits—who began as a self-styled crooner, in his inimitable fashion—was and remains an influence on Newman. “He reminds me of old vaudeville stuff too. He’s a saloon singer. And that’s how I picture myself, how I picture us. I’m an entertainer, we’re entertainers. We’re there for a reason: to make people forget about the B.S. they’ve been doing all day, to put them in a different place. And with records like Tom Waits’ and Beck’s and all these guys, they take you to another place.”

Newman and his group give Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon” a Cuban big-band arrangement on Showboat. That Copacabana feel is no accident. “That’s really what we were trying to do with this record, too. Just make you feel like you’re there, like you’re at a show; you’re not just listening to a record, you’re not just listening to guys play the changes, you’re listening to a live band. And we did record [like that]. All of it is live.” Listeners can experience the real live version plenty in 2019, because Newman and his group will be touring—with perhaps a few cameos from some surprising (or maybe not so surprising) special guests. He’s also had a longtime residency at the Rose Bar at the Gramercy Hotel in NYC.

And what about the car, that antique Oldsmobile named “Showboat”? “I just sold it actually,” he says. Wait, what? “I got something a little older. A 1966 Cadillac Fleetwood. A little bit bigger, a little less miles, a little more conducive for the family. I’ve got a daughter.”

Amazingly, his new old car has only 46,000 miles on it. “The original owner was born in 1908, I found her on ancestry.com. This car has all the paperwork. I bought it from California, but she bought it new in ’66 in Dallas, Texas. Then somebody bought it in California, they had it for the rest of that time, after she passed. And then I bought it from a guy in Jersey who had it for a couple of months. I’m a car guy, so we’ve had a lot of beautiful cars. I work on one, get it up money-wise, and then sell it and get something a little bit nicer.”

Well, what’s old is new and vice versa. That might just be Newman’s mantra, after all: a man with a deep respect for the past, but not afraid to mix things up in the present.