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SOUNDS AROUND TOWN

'Mr. Excitement' : Saxophonist Tommy Newsom will be guest of honor at the Ojai Festival this weekend.

October 08, 1992|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On the old "Tonight Show" bandstand, Doc Severinsen ruled the roost. Unmistakably, Doc had the monopoly on loud garments and high notes.

But in another corner, there was the deadpan, mild-mannered "Mr. Excitement," Tommy Newsom, faithfully carrying out his duties. Excitement comes in many shapes and sizes.

Since retiring from the "Tonight Show" in May, Newsom has been getting around and showing his stuff. He's a fine, polished tenor saxophonist with one foot in the late '30s. You can hear it on his album, "Tommy Newsom and his TV Jazz All-Stars," on the Laserlight label, or at a club at least somewhat near you.

In July, a capacity crowd attending a concert by the former "Tonight Show" band at the Gainey Vineyard in Santa Ynez, heard some of Newsom's arrangements--from beginning to end, without commercial interruption.

Two weeks back, Newsom played at Maxwell's at the Beach in Huntington Beach and served up smooth, fluent solos on "Cottontail" and "Stella by Starlight." The next night he was playing at a bowling alley in Canoga Park. Nice work where and when you can get it.

Newsom's abode in Tarzana is your basic American Dream House, with white clapboard siding, a big pine tree in the front yard, a white picket fence, a pool in the back yard. The house look more like it belongs in Springfield, Ill., than in the San Fernando Valley.

But then there's something solid and non-Hollywood about Newsom. Born and raised in Portsmith, Va., Newsom went to the Peabody Conservatory before heading to New York. Thirty years ago, he was signed onto the "Tonight Show" band.

At the "Jazz at Ojai" benefit for the Ojai Festival this Sunday, Newsom will be a guest of honor, as well as emcee and musician for the afternoon. "I'm going to hold their coats," Newsom said, grinning. "I'll bring my horn, but I'm going to do the poor man's (famous jazz DJ) Chuck Niles. It should be a nice thing."

Recently, he talked with a reporter in his living room, with his dog Mandy in tow.

You didn't do much improvising on the "Tonight Show."

No, I didn't play a lot of solos. I played more solos when it was with Skitch Henderson, but then Doc moved me to being the section leader. That's interesting too, but there's very little latitude for expression in there. But that's not your job in that role.

*

Have you always played clubs at night?

Just about all my life. When I was a kid, I started playing at the Elk's Club and the VFW, things like that.

When I went to music school in Baltimore, I worked in strip joints. That's good for your education. I learned to sight read that way, because I was a sub and would have to play whatever music was there. The guy just told me, "You make a mistake, it's history. Don't worry about it. Just go straight ahead."

That was on-the-job training. It wasn't very uplifting, though. It's a seedy side of life.

*

Hearing you play, your style seems connected to pre-bebop music. Who were your heroes?

It was pre-bebop. The heroes when I came up were Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Charlie Barnet. I was born in 1929, so when I was 10 years old they had the jukeboxes in each booth. It was a nickel. It was always either jazz records or the big band things. Of course, when bebop came along, it was like the world turned over. It was very strange to my ears at first. But I enjoyed that too. That's where my tastes lie. I love Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and those guys.

*

The big band in Santa Ynez had a real good response. Has the reaction to the live band surprised you?

We have always gotten a good response with that band, because people don't get to hear a band like that much. It's seldom seen nowadays, a live band of that size playing the standard tunes from years ago.

We noticed that when the "Tonight Show" ended, every time we'd show up somewhere, there was this outpouring of affection. People wanted to let you know how much they had enjoyed the band on TV. That was very gratifying.

When we ended on May 22, I went to Sacramento to play the jazz festival up there and there was this outpouring of affection and admiration. I said, 'Man, I must have really gotten better.' It wasn't that; it was them showing how they felt about Johnny's show and that band.

We were a kind of fixture in the lives of people who went for that sort of a thing at that time of night. But all things change. It was a great run.

*

STRIKING A NEW NOTE: It isn't every day that a conductor's baton is passed after 30 years of unbroken service. That's what occurred last Saturday night, when an SRO crowd filled the Oxnard Civic Auditorium to hear the Ventura County Symphony's inaugural concert with incoming, Canadian-based Boris Brott.

Brott is only the second conductor in the history of the symphony, founded and maintained by Frank Salazar.

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