Most of us have recollections from our youth, those moments of watching or hearing someone and thinking that’s what I want to do. One of my earliest memories was seeing the Glenn Miller Orchestra, a ghost band by that time. In the sixties it was led by Ray McKinley, and when I was in junior high in Rochester, NY, I recall looking at the saxophone section and thinking that’s what I want to do, even though it was long past the era of big bands.
In high school later on, I was able to get to know Chuck Mangione in Rochester, and often went downtown to see his quartet at the Shakespeare Room. The most memorable part of the Chuck Mangione Quartet for me at that time was Gerry Niewood, saxophonist and flautist extraordinaire, and I used to look at him and think that’s what I want to do, though Gerry was only six years older than I. When you are a teenager, six years seems like forever; not so when you’re in your fifties.
Music lovers are fortunate that when Gerry was a young man he stopped in at the Xerox Corporation in Rochester inquiring about a job that would take advantage of his creative mind. When they replied they didn’t have anything like that, he walked down the street to the Eastman School of Music where his career in the jazz world started.
As I recall, Gerry was the perfect sideman for Chuck Mangione in the seventies and for many years after. He was a player who brought a vitality to Chuck’s writing, a consummate artist who raised the level of musicianship in whatever group he graced. Jazz fans, especially in here in Upstate New York, were shocked and saddened to hear of his untimely passing in the February 12 plane crash near Buffalo at age 64.
Gerry had too few recordings as a leader, one in my LP collection is entitled “Gerry Niewood and Timepiece” on Horizon, released in 1976. On this LP is a tune called “Joy,” written by Gerry, featuring his soprano saxophone. It is in one word: joyous. It’s an upbeat, sparkling melody and his transcribed solo is included in the LP jacket. Saxophone players will appreciate Gerry’s fluency and range; high E’s and F#’s on the soprano are far from easy. His solo, while filled with many notes, is a constant stream of invention. Nothing is wasted or extraneous, it’s a perfect example of an improviser’s mind working at full throttle.
Equally impressive is his soprano sax solo on Chuck’s signature song “The Land of Make Believe,” from the Chuck Mangione Quartet in 1972, the LP on Mercury Records. Again Gerry demonstrates the rare ability to improvise beautiful melodies in perfect pitch with a beautiful tone. If J.S. Bach had played jazz saxophone, I think he would have improvised like Gerry Niewood.