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To anyone who is old enough to remember “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson”, the name Tommy Newsom will bring back many fond memories. Because of his quiet demeanor, Newsom was referred to by Carson variously as “The man from bland” and “Mister Excitement”, and Carson made a point of frequently jabbing at Newsom during his monologue, which Newsom delighted in.

Occasionally Newsom was able to turn the tables on Carson, with devastatingly funny results. One such occasion was the night when he wore a bright yellow suit, in stark contrast to his normally drab attire. Carson commented, “Look at that big, dumb canary,” to which Newsom replied, “You’ll know what kind of bird I am when I fly over you.”
Newsom began playing alto sax in the Tonight Show band in 1962; from 1968 on he was assistant music director, often subbing for bandleader Doc Severinsen. He stayed with the band until Carson retired in 1992, at which time he did also. 
Newsom was born in Portsmouth, Virginia on February 25, 1929. Like many who go on to become professional musicians, he was born into a home filled with music. His father was a pharmacist and his mother was a kindergarten teacher who also played the piano and sang. That makes it probably not too terribly surprising that he developed an interest in music at a young age and began playing the saxophone when he was 8. By age 13 he was playing with local bands.
Prior to joining the Tonight Show band, Newsom had toured with Benny Goodman and, during a stint in the Air Force in the early 1950’s he toured with The Airmen Of Note, an Air Force jazz ensemble. He was a gifted arranger who did charts for Skitch Henderson, Beverly Sills, Kenny Rodgers, Woody Herman and John Denver, among others.
Newsom died of liver cancer in his hometown of Portsmouth on April 28, 2007 at age 78.
Multi-instrumentalist Ken Peplowski (saxophone, flute) was born May 23, 1959 in Cleveland, Ohio. According to the bio appearing on his web site, he was not even in his teens yet when he played his first professional gig, which apparently was in a Polish Polka band. He and his brother, trumpeter Ted, often played gigs around Cleveland while still in elementary school, performing at weddings and even on local TV shows.
Peplowski’s first big break came after his first year of college when Buddy Morrow, the musical director of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, saw him when he appeared at the Cleveland Jazz Festival. Morrow not only offered him a spot with the band, but as lead clarinet and a featured spot with the rhythm section.
Further on in his career, Peplowski played with Benny Goodman when he came out of retirement in 1984 and put together a band. He has also played with Rosemary Clooney, Mel Tormé, Howard Alden, George Shearing, Ruby Braff, Steve Allen, Houston Person, and many others.
According to a brief bio of Peplowski appearing on Wikipedia, he has since 2007 been jazz advisor of the Oregon Festival of American Music and Music Director of the Jazz Party at The John G. Shedd Institute For The Arts (known as The Shedd).
Coincidentally, Peplowski is appearing this weekend in Newport, Oregon at the Oregon Coast Jazz Party (formerly Jazz At Newport).
The Feeling Of Jazz, 1999, Arbors Records
The album I want to discuss today is, obviously, a collaboration between these two. That is the 1999 Arbors Records release, “The Feeling Of Jazz.”
The personnel this time ’round were:
Ken Peplowski, tenor sax
Tommy Newsom, tenor sax
Benny Aronov, piano
Greg Cohen, bass
Mike Peters, guitar
Chuck Redd, drums
“The Feeling Of Jazz” consists of eleven songs. Surprisingly, only two came from the pen of any of the fellows appearing here: One from Newsom (“Titter Pipes”), and one from pianist Aronov (“Benny’s Pennies”). The remaining ten songs, mostly standards, were written by ten composers. So we’ll just get to them as we get to them.
First off we have “Only A Rose”, written by Rudolf Friml and Brian Hooker for the 1925 Broadway show, “The Vagabond King”. This is a feel-good song if ever I heard one. Drummer Redd starts it off, and right out of the starting gate it catches you by the lapels and whirls you around the dance floor. This arrangement swings hard from start to finish.
The title track is up next, from Duke Ellington, George T. Simon and Bobby Troup. This one is a bit quieter than the first track, but even so the rhythm section burns with a heat that belies the pace of the melody. The principals’ solos are exquisitely done, as you would expect from a couple as experienced as these two are, and everyone does a knockout job.
The 1951 Alan Jay Lerner song, “Too Late Now” follows. This quietly beautiful masterpiece floats along on the big, round sound of Newsom’s tenor, while Cohen and Redd set the mood. Peters finally gets a nice guitar solo nearly five minutes in, and the pace quickens a little as the song moves forward, then falls back. This is a tender ballad, perfect for romantic interludes or late night encounters of the… ahem. Never mind.
Next we have “Benny’s Pennies”, from the mind of pianist Benny Aronov. It starts off with Redd soloing on the drums, but the rest of the group quickly joins in and takes this off and running. When Newsom and Peplowski join, this becomes a quintessential bop piece. Running just over six minutes, this one leaves you wishing they’d kept at it just a little longer.
Irving Berlin’s “All Alone” is next. If the title makes you think of a quiet ballad, think again. As presented here, “All Alone” bops and bops hard. The group takes this one for all it’s worth.
The Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer standard, “Skylark”, begins with Aronson quietly tinkling the keys. He is soon joined by Newsom and Redd, and they take this quiet ballad all the way as a trio.
The one remaining song written by a member of this group is Newsom’s “Titter Pipes”. This one is in marked contrast to the mellow “Skylark”. Both Newsom and Peplowski hit the ground running from the first note and almost everyone else joins in right away. This is another number that bops hard and doesn’t let up.
The final track I’m going to write about is Horace Silver’s “Opus de Funk”, a song that is about as aptly named as any you’re likely to find. This is another one where the guys are off and running from the beginning. In the end, you are as breathless as you imagine the musicians must have been.
“The Feeling Of Jazz” by Tommy Newsom & Ken Peplowski is a fantastic exercise in bop and straightahead jazz. The accessible style of all involved would make this an excellent gift for a friend who wants to know what jazz is “about”, and you know I feel it would also make a first-rate addition to your own personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
This article wouldn’t be complete without at least one clip of Newsom with Johnny Carson, in this case from September 16, 1982:
And here are Newsom, Ed Shaughnessy and Doc Severinson appearing in an undated clip on the David Letterman show, playing Carson’s favorite song, “Here’s That Rainy Day”:
And here is Ken Peplowski (on clarinet), Mark Edwards, Piers Clark, and Steve Thompson, performing “China Boy” live at Smalls:
If you’d like to learn more about Tommy Newsom and his music, there is a brief bio of him on Wikipedia, and his nephew, Jim Newsom, has published an interview with him here. Scott Yanow has penned a short bio of him for the allmusic.com web site, which you can read here.
To learn more about Ken Peplowski and his music, you can visit his web site, or check him out on the JazzTimes web site.
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Copyright © 2012 by Al Evans. All rights reserved.