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Sammy Nestico 1924–2021

The world’s most published scholastic jazz arranger left a lasting mark on the teaching and learning of music

Sammy Nestico
Sammy Nestico in 2006 (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jack Braden)

Sammy Nestico, a trombonist, composer, and arranger who became one of the key figures in the development of jazz education, died on January 17 at his home in Carlsbad, California. He was three weeks shy of his 97th birthday.

His death was announced by his family in a statement on Nestico’s official Facebook page. The exact cause of death was undisclosed; however, he had been in long-term hospice care at his home for several months.

Nestico was a true giant in the world of music, and of jazz in particular. A veteran of the Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, and Gene Krupa orchestras as a trombonist, he made his most enduring contribution to big-band jazz during his 17 years as an arranger for the Count Basie Orchestra. Nestico was also a first-call arranger for vocalists, working extensively with the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and Toni Tennille.

Prior to his collaboration with Basie, Nestico established himself among the foremost composers and arrangers for military bands. He spent 15 years in the U.S. Air Force Band, most of them as chief arranger for its jazz ensemble the Airmen of Note, before transferring to the U.S. Marine Band and directing the White House orchestra under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The Airmen of Note have since 1996 sponsored the Sammy Nestico Award competition for composers and arrangers of big-band jazz.

Almost certainly, however, Nestico is best known for his long career as a freelance composer and arranger of music for jazz students. First attempting it on a lark, he became the world’s most published and arguably most beloved scholastic jazz arranger, a staple of curricula around the globe—his “Hay Burner” and “The Queen Bee” being the school-band equivalent of jazz standards.

Nestico explained the secret of his success in a 2012 interview with JazzTimes. “[The target players are] 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!’”

On top of all this, Nestico had a career as a bandleader in his own right, albeit one that only began when he was in his fifties. Based in Los Angeles, his big bands invariably used the highest-caliber musicians on the Hollywood circuit, with his albums netting four Grammy nominations.

“It’s been a good life, an interesting life,” Nestico said when he was 88. “My wife and I, we sit and say how fortunate we are, and what a good life we’ve had.”

Samuel Louis Nistico was born February 6, 1924 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Louis Nistico, a railroad worker, and Frances Mangone, a homemaker. He began playing trombone at the age of 13 when he joined his school’s eighth-grade beginner orchestra. He proved a talented and extraordinarily quick study: At 15, he wrote his first arrangement for the orchestra; by 17, he was working as a trombonist and arranger in the house orchestra at Pittsburgh radio station WCAE.

After a year, Nestico was drafted to serve in the Second World War, where he played in the U.S. Army Band until war’s end. In 1946 he joined Charlie Barnet’s band, though he only spent a few months there before returning to Pittsburgh and WCAE while completing a degree in music education.

In 1950, degree in hand, Nestico returned to military service, this time in the U.S. Air Force. He was stationed in Washington, D.C. as a trombonist and arranger in the USAF Marching Band but was quickly brought into the newly formed Airmen of Note as its chief arranger. He led the band for a year in 1954-55 before returning to his staff position. Then, in 1963, Nestico transferred to the Marines, accepting a reduction in rank in exchange for the prestigious assignment of leading the White House orchestra (a position once held by John Philip Sousa), where he remained until 1968.

Nestico began a parallel career as a freelancer while stationed in Washington. In about 1960 he saw an advertisement seeking big-band sheet music for young students; a small publisher in New York state, Kendor Music, gave him a tryout. “Boy, I never dreamed that it would balloon all over the world!” he said later. “I get letters from South Africa, Norway, New Zealand, Australia—it’s just blossomed, you know?”

Nestico’s tenure in the Marines also served as an unusual launchpad to a career in television. He appeared leading the Marine Band in one of his own pieces on a 1967 episode of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., which opened the door to arranging for TV, with over 50 screen credits, including Mannix, The Bob Newhart Show, Hawaii Five-O, and various commercials.

Also in 1967, Nestico’s cousin, the saxophonist Sal Nistico, introduced him to his employer, Count Basie. The bandleader asked the Marine to send him a chart or two, beginning a collaborative relationship that lasted until Basie’s death. In 1968, discharged from the military, Nestico decamped for Hollywood, where the Basie band was based. Basie Straight Ahead, the band’s first recording of Nestico’s arrangements in 1968, became a classic and was the first of 10 albums together, including the Grammy winners Warm Breeze (1981) and 88 Basie Street (1983). In Hollywood, Nestico also took a job as a house arranger and conductor for Capitol Records, where he ultimately worked on 63 albums for the Time/Life imprint.

Nestico finally formed his own band at the age of 56, with his first album, Dark Orchid, released in 1981. He ultimately recorded a dozen albums as a leader or co-leader, working with the likes of Quincy Jones, Buddy Rich, and the SWR Big Band. His work as an arranger for hire also continued, with wide-ranging credits that included In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, Pat Boone’s 1997 album of heavy metal songs, and My Kind of Christmas, Christina Aguilera’s 2000 holiday recording.

Nestico is survived by his wife of 20 years, the former Shirley Aldridge; three sons, Gary, Terry, and Mark Nestico, from his first marriage to Margaret Douthitt (who died in 1994); and several grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews, and nieces.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.