PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
August 12, 2003

Back to Byrd-Land

by Jim Newsom

Last September, jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd and saxman Tommy Newsom were among the eight members of the first class enshrined on Norfolk’s Legends of Music Walk of Fame on Granby Street. Friday night, Tommy pays tribute to his old friend as part of the Jazz Norfolk celebration at the Roper Center for the Performing Arts, joining with Charlie’s bass playing brother Joe for the kickoff performance of this season’s Jazz on Granby series.

The Tommy Newsom-Charlie Byrd connection goes back to the 1940s, when Newsom was a student at the Norfolk division of William & Mary, now known as Old Dominion University, and Byrd was a recently returned World War II veteran who had served with the 7th Army in France.

“He was in the service in the second world war,” Tommy reminisced recently. “In fact, he told me that one time they gave him a long pole with explosives on the end and told him to go put it into a pillbox and said, ‘We’ll cover you.’

“He got out, but the good part was he was over there and met [legendary jazz guitarist] Django Reinhardt. And he came back in one piece, which was good.”

Chuckatuck native Byrd and Cradock born Newsom first played together in local jam sessions.

“There used to be a lot of jam sessions in the area and places that would stay open all night,” he remembers. “I might’ve met him at one of those. He played with the William & Mary band down at Seaside Park for a couple of months. Then they had to cut the band down and Charlie and I both got cut out. Charlie was playing bass in that band.

“The next thing I saw of Charlie, he had a trio working around town. It had to be the first integrated group in this area, because this was 1946 or something like that. It was Bertell Knox on drums and Keter Betts on bass. It was two black guys and one white guy.”

Tommy subsequently went to Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, after which he played with the Air Force’s Airmen of Note. Charlie went first to New York, then down to Washington, DC, in 1950, where he began studying classical guitar with Sophocles Pappas. Then he traveled to Europe in 1954.

“He had been living in New York in the late ‘40s, but there was no work for guitarists then in the dance bands and jazz,” Newsom explains. “So Charlie got some kind of grant and went to study with [Andres] Segovia. He’d been studying with Pappas in Washington.

“He had been like a follower of Charlie Christian. He kinda changed his whole course. He became an acoustic guitar player and went and studied with the champ of them all.”

The two reconnected in the mid’50s:

“After I got out of the service in 1956, I worked down at the beach with Ziggy Harrell one summer at the Jolly Roger. I had made up a bunch of tunes, so we played them. Charlie came in and the next thing I know, we had a little recording session in Washington. Nothing ever happened with it, but we did some of those tunes.”

One of those tunes, the appropriately titled “Chuck-A-Tuck,” did appear on Byrd’s first album, Jazz Recital, recorded the next year for Savoy Records, and Tommy played sax and flute on the record. He was living in New York at the time, doing graduate work at Columbia University and becoming acquainted with the jazz scene. Byrd was in DC, beginning to stake out his own unique turf combining classical technique with a jazz sensibility.

For both men, journeys to Brazil opened up a whole new set of possibilities.

“I was lucky enough to be in Brazil in 1961 with Benny Goodman,” Newsom recalls. “Every nightclub you’d go into, they were playing the bossa nova. It had not been played in this country. It was sensational.

“Your mind says, ‘Boy, we ought to do something with this.’ Well, Charlie did. He was the first, as far as I know.”

Byrd had been to South America on a State Department tour that year, and upon his return sent some tapes of the music he’d heard there to saxophonist Stan Getz. The two of them got together to record on February 13, 1962, at the Unitarian Church in Washington with producer Creed Taylor and a rhythm section that included Charlie’s brother Joe, who was then going by his given name of Gene Byrd, and his old pal Keter Betts. Released in April, Jazz Samba went to #1 on the Billboard album chart and yielded a rare instrumental hit single, “Desafinado,” that launched the bossa nova craze in the U.S.

That success eventually landed Charlie Byrd a contract with Columbia Records, and he called up his friend Tommy Newsom, by then a member of NBC’s Tonight Show orchestra, to write the arrangements for his first album for the label, Brazilian Byrd, released in 1965.

“He wanted me to do the writing,” Newsom says. “The only writing I’d done for strings was in the service. So I grabbed hold of the brother of a friend of mine and took some string writing lessons. And then I wrote the arrangements. It was fun, because it was all [Antonio Carlos] Jobim’s music. I think it’s the highest quality material that I’ve ever been associated with in that regard. Jobim was the greatest composer of the last half century.

“Charlie did all the choosing, in fact Charlie wrote a couple of the arrangements on it. [Producer] Teo [Macero] had told me they wanted strings on one session and brass on the other. What they were thinking of was Claude Thornhill’s band, which was a nice, mellow sounding band. Somehow, I forgot that. I did a couple of hot numbers and I had the brass carrying on. When Charlie’s manager heard these things, he stormed out of the studio. What they had planned was to sell it as easy listening. I’m glad I messed it up!”

The two worked together on several more albums in the ‘60s, including Hollywood Byrd and More Brazilian Byrd, and they remained friends, playing and recording together on occasion until the guitarist’s death from cancer in 1999.

“He was a good guy, low key but very firm in his convictions,” Newsom says of Byrd. “He didn’t sound like anybody else. He just took a step and it worked out like a son of a gun.”

On Friday night, Tommy will be playing with the Joe Byrd Quartet. Besides the bassist, who accompanied his brother on countless concert, club and studio dates, the group includes Charlie’s longtime associate Chuck Redd on vibes, drummer Marty Morrison and highly regarded guitarist Steve Abshire.

“We’re going to play a lot of Charlie’s hits,” Newsom concludes with a chuckle. “I hope I know em!”

copyright © 2003 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.