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Remembering Sammy Nestico, An Unstoppable Force in Big Band Jazz Arranging, Dead at 96

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IAN Productions

Sammy Nestico, an omnipresence in big band arranging and composing, best known for a close association with the Count Basie Orchestra, died of natural causes on Jan. 17 at his home in Carlsbad, Calif. He was 96.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Shirley Nestico.

Over a career that began near the end of the swing era and ran through bebop, cool jazz and well into the rock ‘n’ roll era, Nestico wrote some 600 published arrangements, many of them his own compositions. His work also extended to writing for major artists like Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Sara Vaughan, Phil Collins and more, as well as TV shows, commercials and movies. He was also a respected trombonist. But it was his longtime association with Basie that made him jazz royalty. 

Nestico was an equal force in jazz academia. “If you were a young jazz student and wanted to learn how to swing in a big band, all you had to do was play one of his charts,” says Justin DiCioccio, former head of the jazz department at the Manhattan School of Music. “Tunes like ‘Basie Straight Ahead,’ ‘Fun Time,’ ‘Strike Up The Band,’ ‘Ya Gotta Try...Harder!’ and ‘Wind Machine’ are just some examples of the charts that Sammy wrote that influenced generations of players and writers.”

Samuel Luigi Nistico was born on Feb. 6, 1924 in Pittsburgh, PA. His father, Luigi Nistico, was a first-generation Italian immigrant who had served in the Navy in the first World War; he worked on the Pennsylvania Railroad and married Frances Mangone, a Pittsburgh native.

Young Sammy changed his name to Samuel Louis Nestico after discovering that his father’s Navy Bible had his name misspelled “Luigi Nestico” on its cover. He adopted the misspelling, which proved easier for others to pronounce. He wrote his first arrangement while still in high school. By 17 he had become a house arranger for a local ABC radio affiliate, WCAE, also joining the band as a trombonist.

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Sammy Nestico during his tenure as director of the Marine Band.

A member of America’s “greatest generation,” Nestico served as a musician in the U.S. Army Band during World War II. Postwar, he earned a Music Education degree at Duquesne University, which led him to transfer in 1950 to the Air Force for a 13-year stint writing and directing what became the famed Airmen of Note Big Band. As if that weren’t enough, in 1963 he then transferred to the Marines to be the musical director and conductor of the famed U.S. Marine Band during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. 

“I was the drummer in that band, and Kennedy loved jazz,” DiCioccio recalls. “We were at his beck and call. If he wanted for us to play in a combo setting at two in the morning, we’d be summoned to play for just him and only him! We were always performing in different contexts, from small group, concert band, big band, full symphony. We played many of Sammy's arrangements at the White House with the Marine Band (The Presidents Own) Dance Big Band. We played ‘Queen Bee’ and other Basie charts way before Basie recorded them. ‘Queen Bee’ on the Basie Straight Ahead album was the beginning of Sammy’s major writing career and his audition piece for the Basie band. Sammy became chief arranger for the Basie Band from 1968 thru 1984. He wrote charts for 10 Basie albums, four of which won Grammys.”

Starting in the late ‘60s, Nestico worked alongside fellow composer-arranger Billy May at Capitol Records, where they devoted five years to transcribing and re-recording more than 600 songs from 78-r.p.m. records made during the Swing Era. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, “Their meticulously reconstructed stereo versions of those 630 songs were recorded at Capitol Records’ famed Studio A in Hollywood and were released — on 63 albums — by Time Life.’”

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Nestico also worked for television shows like Mannix, Mission Impossible and M*A*S*H, along with the Academy Awards, the Grammy telecasts and as a ghost writer for Earl Hagen, Quincy Jones and more. His own solo albums earned him four Grammy Award nominations, his last at the age of 93. His book, The Complete Arranger, is considered a Bible by jazz educators. In 2009 he published his memoir, The Gift of Music.

He is survived by his wife Shirley, her two daughters, and three sons from his first marriage. His final album — Every Star Above, a reimagining of Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin with vocalist Mandy Barnett — is due later this year.

A documentary film, Shadow Man: The Sammy Nestico Story, is also near completion. Nestico will be given full military honors later in 2021.

Seven For Sammy

The big band is the symphony orchestra of jazz, and its secret weapons are the arrangers. They provide the vehicle for the musicians to be draped in lush harmony, challenging rhythms, melodic invention, and the opportunity for the writers themselves to display mastery of timbre and sound. The band in essence becomes their instrument. But despite this influence, they rarely get the spotlight. What made Sammy so respected and loved? I asked some of my colleagues for their comments on “El Maestro,” and some of their favorite charts of his.

“Hay Burner”

Sammy Nestico was a huge inspiration to me. The chart that hooked me was his original composition “Hay Burner.” I discovered it through the popular jazz arranging book, Inside the Score, which talks about this chart and some hip substitute chords he uses. He also uses some beautiful texturing in the unison melody written for flute and Harmon-muted trumpet. Check out his ability to smoothly transition between the different sections of the song between 1:05-1:08 and 3:35-3:38. A true master.

— Danny Rivera plays bari sax and bass clarinet in Bobby Sanabria’s Multiverse Big Band, where his own arranging is featured.

“Magic Flea”

Sammy Nestico was a true master. He was able to get excitement out of a band in a very economical way, with no note or figure wasted. My first exposure to his writing was the album Basie Straight Ahead. Everything on that album was gold, but the highlight for me was “Magic Flea.” I had never heard a band play more exciting, and it was Sammy’s writing that made it work. Beautiful interplay between the sections sets off an absolutely burning Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis tenor solo that is followed by a pure lesson in how to write a shout chorus. All arrangers owe Sammy Nestico a true debt of gratitude.

— John Fedchock is a Grammy-nominated trombonist, composer, arranger and educator who leads the critically acclaimed John Fedchock New York Big Band.

“The Queen Bee”

Sammy was friends with one of the trombonists in the Basie band, who had asked him to send a chart so Basie could hear Sammy’s writing. So Sammy sent him “The Queen Bee,” which we already had played in the Marine band. When Basie heard it played back by his band, he freaked. “Who the hell wrote this? I want to meet him!” The rest is history.

— Justin DiCioccio is an internationally recognized jazz educator, drummer, percussionist who was with the U.S. Marine Band during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and was the former head of Jazz at the Manhattan School of Music.

“Switch in Time”

Nestico’s music exhibits an economy of means that is truly magical. The entire Basie Straight Ahead album is a textbook in this approach. The swing is in the Articulations! The second A-word I want to highlight in Sammy’s writing is “Antiphonal,” the back-and-forth conversation between the brass and reed sections that propels the music. And lastly, the third A-word I want to talk about in Sammy’s writing is “Anticipation.” He’s a master of letting the pot simmer as the rhythm section slowly stirs the Sunday sauce like an Italian nonna, judiciously and sparingly adding in ingredients at just the right time.

— Jeff Lederer plays tenor saxophone, soprano sax, and flute in the Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band, where he is also a featured arranger. 

“Samantha”

Nestico was the consummate arranger, able to adopt and enhance the voice of his employer, Basie, and yet still find an originality that was distinctly his own — such as in the beautiful ballad “Samantha” that featured Bud Shank, from the album Fancy Pants, Basie's final studio big band recording. I also think of the influence that Nestico had on music education, writing playable yet interesting charts for all levels of musicians, from middle school through high school and college and obviously on to the professional world.

— Dr. Jeremy Fletcher is a composer, arranger, saxophonist, flutist and educator who has written for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and the Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band

“Stormy Weather”

Yours truly has many faves from what can only be called the Canon of Nestico. Among them is the task he was given to interpret a classic song for The Chairman of The Board. It would be Frank Sinatra’s last studio album, and Sammy answered the call with supreme inventiveness. After the opening brass flurry that grabs the listeners attention, he reduces the band to just bass and guitar to create the intimacy of a small club, giving Old Blues Eyes the room to speak to the listener as it builds with blues feeling to a climax. The flute figures that close the arrangement drench you in a dream like state of the memory of a lost love. It could only come from the pen of man who has lived it.

—Bobby Sanabria, multiple Grammy-nominated bandleader, drummer and composer, and host of Latin Jazz Cruise

The Maestro Gets the Last Word