“Fathead” Newman Keeps Growing
by Matthew S. Robinson
Named good-naturedly by a high school music teacher who realized that the music-memorizing Newman had been “reading” his sheet music upside down, David “Fathead” Newman began his career in Texas with the legendary Buster Smith before being discovered by the equally legendary Ray Charles. Over the course of over 30 albums, Newman has also played with Blues ruler B.B. King and such great ladies of Jazz as Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole. At 69, Newman is now celebrating the release of his latest album, Davey Blue (High Note) and continuing to work with legends old and new in an endless road of music and memories.
JazzUSA: Aside from music, one of your other interests as a youngster was religion. Does that still hold true and, if so, how has it affected your music?
DN: It has been helpful. It has been a part of my spiritual well being. I have learned a lot from studying religions. I don’t think it has affected my musical choices. It may happen from time to time that I play something with a spiritual feel, but it is not something I concentrate on.
JazzUSA: How did you first meet Ray Charles and what was it like to be asked to go on tour with him?
DN: We first played in LA in 1954. That was my big chance- it was my first consistent big band gig. I had met Ray in 1951 when we were featured with bands that were on the same shows. We became friends right away and he mentioned to me that he was going to start his own band pretty soonand sure enough he did! It was a high point to start with, but I had played before with Buster Smith, the famous alto sax player from Dallss, which is where I grew up. Buster was my main influence. I got to portray him in [the Robert Altman film] “Kansas City” which was a great feeling that I enjoyed very much. Buster was a big part of that scene.
JazzUSA: Your son Cadino has been in the music biz for a while now. Did you encourage that?
DN: He’s more or less finding his own way, but I encouraged him and gave him my support. Occasionally, we perform together. He is in Dallas now, but we get together every so often. I support him in any way I can.
JazzUSA: What do you think about the new generation of Jazz artists? Are they carrying on the tradition appropriately?
DN: I think that the new generation is very interesting. It’s wonderful to have these young artists keep this tradition alive. Over all, they are doing a great job. They bring discipline and loyalty to the forefront. I think that the younger musicians are expected to and will take the music to greater heights and new ideas and that it will be good for the music It’s a transitional situation
JazzUSA: What do you consider your favorite places to play?
DN: That’s hard to say because there are so many great venues to play. I like the smoke-free rooms, especially at this point in my life, but I am not sure if I can pinpoint a room in particular. I have played Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and in wonderful halls in Europe, but I also like to do the festivals.
JazzUSA: What about audiences? Do you prefer to play for the cognoscenti or to introduce people to Jazz?
DN: I enjoy performing before the experts, and I also like to introduce people to the music.
JazzUSA: What is your new album, Davey Blue (High Note), about?
DN: It’s some of my favorite songs that I always wanted to record and some standards as well. There is also some original music. I wrote a tribute to Stanley Turrentine and there is also new music from Cedar Walton. There is also “A Child is Born” by Thad Jones and other standards, so it is a good mixture. A lot of artists may be tempted to perform and record material for themselves. At this stage, I am starting to consider and think more about my listening audience and what they prefer, so that’s more guiding how I choose my material.
JazzUSA: By “at this stage,” do you mean to say that you are still just warming up?
DN: I want to play until I can’t play anymore. There is no retiring from this.