February 15, 2009

Thoughts on Gerry Niewood

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.


  1. Over the last few weeks, I had been digging through all of my old vinyl, and had put on that early Mangione stuff, including the live concerts that Niewood played on and 'Chase the Clouds Away' and was struck by how much his playing was flooring me. (especially side 1 of 'Chase the Clouds..) Sorry that I never got to see him live. I did study for a bit with one of his students.

  2. Hey Bg, thanks for the comment. On Tuesday before this plane crash I had been preparing some music for my weekly radio show (Thursdays 2-4pm whcl.org) My theme was music that had made a significant impression on me as a young musician. One of my selections was the Mangione recording I mentioned where Gerry played so wonderfully.
    I was able to play in an all county type jazz band that Chuck directed in Rochester, a terrific learning experience.
    I used to be semi amused with the way he would take his best tunes and "recyle" them, use them repeatedly in different size ensembles etc. Now I find myself doing the same thing!

  3. I also am a fan of Gerry Niewood.As a young college student at SUNY Oswego, a number of the jazz band members would go over to Eastman to watch rehearsals in the early 70s, and marvel at Chuck Mangione, and Gerry Niewood. I have many LPs in my collection, and found the TOGETHER double album, and noticed it had never been released on CD. I was fortunate to buy one of these record players that produce mp3s, so that I can put the LP onto CD, and enjoy the music in my car as I drive. The one that I like the best is LEGACY with Gerry on soprano saxophone, and alto flute. He was a genius...and will be sorely missed. RIP.