Wind among the reeds
Gerry Niewood casts spells on saxophone and flute
If there was a turning point in the life of Gerry Niewood, it occurred in a corporate personnel office soon after he had earned a degree in industrial relations from the University of Buffalo.
"I went to Xerox for an interview," says Niewood. "I said, 'Do you have any job opportunities that will challenge a creative person? I don't want to just have a work-a-day job. I'm an artistic person.' They said, 'We don't have anything like that.' So I walked immediately over to the EastmanSchool and applied."
It was at Eastman that Niewood hooked up with childhood friend Chuck Mangione; together they began a climb to the upper reaches of the jazz world. The saxophonist/flautist extraordinaire will visit Rochester Friday and Saturday to join fellow Mangione alum, guitarist Bob Sneider, at the Strathallan.
"Bellavia," "Chase the Clouds Away," "Land of Make Believe" --- Mangione was composer and leader, laying the groundwork on flugelhorn. But Niewood was right beside him, taking the tunes on beautiful excursions with his fanciful improvisations.
The musical relationship began in 1968 when Mangione's quartet was booked for six nights a week at the Shakespeare Restaurant. After building a significant following, Mangione was asked to lead an orchestra concert," Kaleidoscope," that preceded the famous "Friends and Love" concert of 1970.
"That was when I really got an inkling that his star was on the rise," says Niewood.
Mangione became director of the Eastman Jazz Ensemble; Niewood played in the sax section with Chris Vadala, the only other musician to occupy the reed chair in Mangione's group since 1968.
The group took off with one hit album after another: Friends and Love, Together, Bellavia...
"We really started to make a dent. We made an album called Alive that has become quite a cult favorite because it has Steve Gadd on drums and Tony Levin on bass. It was tremendously exciting for me. We were going out to California to make records at A&M Studios. I couldn't believe it," Niewood says.
Niewood's friendship with Mangione began years before when they were kids attending No. 20 School. When Mangione made his first record at the age of 16, Niewood, 14, played baritone sax on it. The song, called "Have I Told You So" at the time, became "B'bye" on Mangione'sChildren of Sanchez album.
"We play it now and it's a highlight for me," Niewood says.
Rochester in the 1950s and 1960s was a fertile location for a budding jazz artist. Niewood saw John Coltrane several times, along with Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, and many others.
He studied with Harry Messina and Eastman professor Bill Osseck, a classical player. Niewood never studied jazz improvisation with a teacher.
"I listened to jazz records and mentally transcribed them. Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane. I did get some one-on-one time from Sonny Stitt. He kind of mentored me and encouraged me. He let me sit in couple of times when he came through town," he says.
Niewood's first run with Mangione's lasted until 1976. "The whole group decided we wanted to do our own stuff. I think that's what Chuck needed because he put a new group together and wrote 'Feels So Good,'" Niewood says.
Meanwhile, Niewood branched out. He played with Simon & Garfunkel at their landmark Central Park Concert, he toured Europe with the great Gil Evan and worked with Gerry Mulligan, Liza Minnelli, Judy Collins, Grover Washington Jr. --- the list goes on and on. Then there was Sinéad O'Connor.
"I played on her big band album and we had visions of going on tour and doing all kinds of stuff. Then she went on Saturday Night Live and tore up the Pope's picture. We never worked again," he says.
Niewood recorded several albums as a leader. The latest, Facets, with Gene Bertoncini, is on the Native Language label. Niewood also plays on a recent album by his 29-year-old son, Adam, also a saxophonist.
Niewood rejoined Mangione in 1994 and has been with him ever since.
"Our mutual respect and love survived our breakup, which really had nothing to do with anything personal. It was more my need to prove that I could make it myself without holding on to Chuck's coattails. And, I'll tell you, that gave me more respect for him than I ever had before."
Still, if Niewood ever gets tired of the jazz thing, there's always Xerox...
Gerry Niewood joins Bob Sneider Friday and Saturday, September 29 and 30, at the Strathallan, 550 East Avenue, 461-5010, 8:30 p.m.-midnight. No cover. Other performers joining Sneider in the next few weeks include Richie Vitale (October 6 and 7) John Stowell and Steve Brown in a jazz guitar summit (November 3) and saxophonist Michael Hashim (November 17 and 18).