One day while young David Newman was playing in band practice at Lincoln High School in Dallas, his instructor noticed the music sheet on Newman's stand was upside down. Newman, it seems, had a bad habit of memorizing music. "He knew I could barely read music upright, let alone upside down," Newman recalls. "So he thumped me on the head and called me 'Fathead' because he wanted to make sure we learned to read the music."
The name became a trademark, and to this day, jazz saxophonist David Newman is best known as "Fathead." "Fathead" is the name that distinguishes David Newman, the reed player, from David Newman, the popular film composer. "I get a lot of congratulations from people who think I'm the other David Newman," "Fathead" Newman says. "He's quite good." BMI even got the two confused when they sent "Fathead" Newman one of the other David Newman's royalty checks. BMI let Newman keep the check, which was a bit larger than the jazz saxophonist was used to receiving, because it was the company's mistake -- but don't think the publishing firm was being magnanimous. "They deducted it," Newman says, "from my future royalties."
Anyone who has listened to David Newman wouldn't think he was a fathead anyway. Newman's big Texas Tenor sound has appeared on more than 150 albums since he hit the scene in the early-'50s. He has been called upon by artists as divergent as Herbie Mann, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, The Rascals, Doug Sahm and Aretha Franklin to lend his distinct, meaty tone to their recordings. He also spent 12 years with Ray Charles, in which he established himself as one of the top sidemen in the business. Need a catchy, bluesy riff or solo? "Fathead" is the man for the job.
Though Newman has been a well-known saxophonist since those days, he started playing the instrument by default. Neighborhood boys would call him a sissy for playing the piano, so Newman asked his mother if he could play a more masculine instrument. "She asked what I wanted," Newman says, "and off the top of my head I said the saxophone, and right away she took me to the music store."
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Newman started studying alto saxophone while in elementary school and eventually expanded his reed vocabulary to include soprano sax, tenor sax and flute. By the time he was in high school, Newman had fallen in love with the saxophone and knew music was his calling. In high school he started gigging around Dallas and hooked up with alto player and composer Buster Smith, who was one of Charlie Parker's mentors in Kansas City. After being mentored by Smith through high school, Newman attended Jarvis Christian College in East Texas on scholarship from a local church. His parents couldn't afford to send him to a better-known music college, plus, Newman says, "My mom had aspirations for me to be a minister."
After two and half years, Newman just wanted to play, so he left school to join Lowell Fulson's group in the early '50s. In 1952 he met Fulson alum Ray Charles, and the two hit it off instantly, so much so that when Charles asked Newman to join him in '54, Newman jumped at the opportunity. Though Charles was a full three years away from scoring his first Top 40 hit, Newman, now playing mostly tenor, suspected Charles would become quite popular. "We didn't know for sure what was going to happen," he says, "but we had a pretty good idea that Ray was going to be a very big hit, because he was a tremendous talent."
Though Charles was wanting to take a pop-oriented direction, he incorporated a lot of jazz elements into his playing and was already considered an accomplished jazz player. This is why Charles attracted top-caliber jazz players such as James Clay and Hank Crawford. "You couldn't make a living playing bebop, especially in the South, or anywhere practically, because bebop wasn't that well accepted," Newman says. "It was a situation where I wanted to be a jazz musician, but in order to make a living and have an income you most likely need to play some blues, R&B, rock. All the musicians that were connected with Ray's band were very talented professional musicians. They weren't necessarily rock or rhythm-and-blues musicians, but we all grew up with the R&B background, so we knew all about the blues."
While playing with Charles, Newman released the first of his more than 20 solo albums: Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman (currently only available in its entirety on the 32 Jazz double-CD compilation It's Mister Fathead). The 1958 effort revealed Newman was a leader in his own right and capable of eventually fronting his own band. In 1964 Newman left Charles, in part because of the drug busts happening around him in the band and in part to move to New York City to strengthen his bebop chops.
Jazz was undergoing one of its most revolutionary periods in the mid-'60s. Instead of following the direction of John Coltrane, Newman played with hard-bop masters Lee Morgan and Kenny Dorham (who originally hailed from Galveston). It wouldn't be until after Coltrane's death that Newman would really get into Trane's work, and even now Newman is a more "in the pocket" bebop player than experimental traveler.
Newman left New York City in the late '60s to move back to Dallas. In 1970 he rejoined Ray Charles's Big Band for two years. He left Charles again in '72, this time to work with flutist Herbie Mann. "I decided I wanted to venture out," Newman says, "and I felt that there wasn't much farther I could go musically with the big band. In the big band situation, you don't get smothered, but you don't get a lot of freedom musically."
During the '70s and '80s Newman made several recordings, and his session work increased as everyone from Greg Allman to Delbert McClinton to the Average White Band called for his services. Newman remains a popular sideman, and his recent solo efforts show his creative abilities have grown substantially over the past decade. Now residing in Woodstock, New York, Newman doesn't play the club scene in New York City that often, as he can't be around smoke (per doctor's orders), which limits the number of venues he can play.
Though Newman has made several recordings, only about half a dozen are available domestically (three of which are compilations). Many of his recordings went out of print during the CD conversion phenomenon of the late '80s/early '90s, and his two most recent CDs went out of print when Kokopelli Records went out of business (though a quick check to CDNOW shows the Kokopelli release Under a Woodstock Moon is still in stock). Next month High Note will release Newman's latest recording, Chillin'. An excellent straight-ahead outing with Newman's regular working Quintet (including the inimitable John Hicks), Chillin' is one of Newman's finest efforts and clearly demonstrates his growth over the past few decades. Compared to It's Mr. Fathead, which comprises Newman's first four albums cut in the '50s and '60s, Chillin' is more bop and less R&B. He can still get nasty when he wants, but Newman has evolved into a more elegant player with a greater sense of maturity. For those looking to learn about Newman, both recordings are mandatory.
At the Kemah Jazz Festival, Newman won't be bringing his working group; instead he'll be the featured soloist in front of Houston-based drummer Malcolm Pinson and his Jazz Warriors. A Texas treasure comes home to play with some fellow Texans? This could be phat.
David "Fathead" Newman performs with Malcolm Pinson and the Jazz Warriors at Kemah Boardwalk Jazz Festival, Saturday, September 25. Set is scheduled for 8:15 p.m. Call (281)334-8902.
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