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Sammy Nestico (1924-2021)

Jim Warrick | April May 2021

    Sammy Nestico (born Samuel Luigi Nistico), passed away peacefully at age 96 of natural causes on January 17, 2021 at home in Carlsbad, California. Shirley, his wife of 21 years, was by his side.

    Information about Sammy’s early years is included in the accompanying article that I wrote for the February 1989 issue of The Instrumentalist after spending a weekend with him. That visit also resulted in two commissions that he wrote for my jazz ensemble at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois – Two Sides of the Coin and I Remember Clifford.
    I first saw Sammy Nestico’s name in 1968, printed on the upper right corner of my drum part to The Queen Bee while rehearsing in my high school’s jazz ensemble in Kingsport, Tennessee. The band’s director, Jewel Tilson, played a recording of the Count Basie Orchestra performing the exact music sitting on my music stand, and that was truly a memorable experience watching how the professionals played the same music. Sammy often said he wanted to write music that, “Kids could play in a school jazz band in Iowa and say, “Ohhhh, this is good. I like this.”

reprinted with copyright holder’s permission

    Before Sammy Nestico it wasn’t important to try and teach young people jazz. He really created this whole idea of teaching jazz to our middle schoolers and high schoolers. To do that, he had to write music that was playable by students at that level. Among his many recognitions, two that he received from band directors were among his most favored: the Midwest Clinic Medal of Honor in 2001 and the International Association of Jazz Educators Hall of Fame Award in 2004. If not for Kendor Music and Hal Leonard Music publishing companies then Sammy’s music would not have been available worldwide when jazz education was just getting started.
    Musicians who knew him well now share their views about his immeasurable impact on jazz education as an arranger and composer.

“Sammy is what my grandsons want to be when they grow up, and what every man wishes he were when he is old” – Shirley Nestico

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Jeff Jarvis is the former owner of Kendor Music, the company that published over 200 of his works and the first to publish his jazz and band arrangements:
    “Sammy was a true pioneer in the jazz education movement. When Sammy and Kendor began their long relationship, he was still in the armed services, leading and writing for military bands. Most of my dealings with Sammy focused on his book, The Complete Arranger. Sammy could write for any ensemble at any proficiency level and make those groups sound their best.”

Mike Sweeney, Director of Band Publications at Hal Leonard Music, which published over 100 of his pieces, also had a long relationship with Nestico:
    “Sammy’s pencil manuscripts were very neat, easy to read, and required very little editing. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew how to notate it clearly. There were hardly any actual wrong notes, but we often discussed articulations that he rarely included. When I’d bring this up he’d just say that ‘people know my style and how I want it to sound.’ I would explain that young players in particular and often ‘non-jazzer teachers’ really needed clearly marked articulations to help with the correct interpretation. He’d reluctantly let me add in articulations, but always with his approval, of course. In more recent years, following an eye stroke that left him blind in one eye, it became more difficult for him to write, and we found more errors than normal. But he never lost his enthusiasm, excitement, and joy for creating music. Sammy was one of a kind!”

Gordon Goodwin, his close friend and fellow composer said upon hearing of his death:
    “The impact of Sammy Nestico’s music on me was profound. Upon hearing The Queen Bee, which was his audition piece for the Basie band, I knew as a middle school kid what I was to do with my life. I am not alone in having a visceral connection with his music. Musicians from all over the world hold his music in high regard. I believe that our attachment to his music goes beyond the notes and harmonies and compositional aptitude. I hear such positivity in every Sammy chart, an undeniable sense of optimism and joy and gratitude. For those of us who were lucky enough to know him personally, these qualities were clear and present in the man himself. In a cynical world, the music of Sammy Nestico was therapeutic and needed more than ever.”

Composer Gordon Goodwin with Sammy Nestico, Photo courtesy of Milla Cochran

The most famous performers of his music, the legendary Count Basie Orchestra, is directed by Scotty Barnhart, who said:
    “Sammy was one of the orchestra’s most important arrangers whom Basie loved. That’s why Basie let him write about ten albums for the orchestra starting in the late 1960s. Sammy’s tunes, never too hip for the room, were perfect for CBO to bring them to life and beyond what Sammy probably expected. Same thing with Neal Hefti. No other orchestras on the planet can play Nestico’s or Hefti’s arrangements the way we can. They just knew how to keep it simple, but yet very interesting and danceable, and Basie always made sure that audiences could dance to whatever charts were played. I make sure of it when we perform now. So Sammy’s music gets played on 99% of the concerts we do. If we miss a night then it’s back the next night. I also told his wife a couple of months ago when I called after hearing he was sick, that on our new recording being released in April, Live at Birdland, we recorded one of Sammy’s best tunes, The Wind Machine.”

Music is only paper until performers use their talent and bare their soul to bring it to life. Representing the numerous performers that were on Sammy’s albums is Dan Higgins, an alto saxophonist who recorded on six of Sammy’s albums including the famous album Sammy collaborated with Quincy Jones. Dan has recorded more than 800 motion picture soundtracks and 280 television productions.
    “As an instrumentalist, I can’t think of a setting more fun than playing and recording a Sammy Nestico chart. Before meeting Sammy, I, like many others, had played hundreds of his charts. Upon our first encounter, I felt like he had been a friend for years, and we had already shared years together. In some way he spoke to all of us through his arrangements and compositions telling a unique joyful story in each. What a blessing it was to be with Sammy and enjoy the transfer of his creativity and love of music to my fingers on the saxophone. This is why all the players got into music – for that ‘feeling.’ With Sammy this sensation was always guaranteed. He was truly a giant influence for all of us who fell under his captivating spell.”

“Has anyone EVER seen Sammy without a smile?” – Jim Warrick

A later and less-known aspect of Sammy’s creativity was when he began painting in mid-2017, and produced 21 paintings. Alexandria Coon, the Executive Director of the Massillon Museum in Ohio offers her thoughts about Sammy’s painting:
    “It is remarkable to think that, at age 93, someone could pick up a brush for the first time to give painting a try. That’s exactly what Sammy Nestico did, and the pride he felt in his finished paintings was warranted. The sweet, smooth energy sweeping through his musical compositions floats across the surface of his canvases with the same ease of movement. We can almost imagine his brushstrokes dancing, as one is inclined to do when hearing his arrangements. In his painting of a woman in a blue dress, clutching a wind-blown and weather-beaten umbrella that somehow still resembles a poppy in full bloom. The clicking of her heels across the bridge is nearly audible. In the midst of a gale the focus is a mysterious woman, the soloist in this composition. Though self-taught as a painter, it is clear Nestico’s understanding of how color relationships convey a mood stems from his understanding of how soulfully composed music does the same. As he said in a discussion about painting during our interview last year, “Giving your soul to the canvas” is akin to giving “your soul to the orchestra.”

The Lady in the Blue Dress by Sammy Nestico, Photo courtesy of Milla Cochran

diane estelle Vicari, is a movie producer who discovered Sammy in 1991 when she was invited by her husband, the recording engineer, to document one of Sammy’s recording sessions at Capitol Records in Los Angeles. What followed was 21 years of interviews and video recordings that she made to produce her still-in-production documentary entitled, Shadow Man: The Sammy Nestico Story:
    “42 years ago, I traveled to California, and 21 of those years were spent shadowing Sammy’s every move. He has trusted me with his most precious gift of music. For that, I am forever grateful. I promised my friend that his legacy will live on beyond his 96 years. I am left with the privilege to complete the film of his gigantic life and share it with the world.” 

diane Vicari with Sammy Nestico, Photo courtesy of Milla Cochran