(Portland, Oregon) – At the Portland Jazz Festival between concerts and after hours, much of the talk among musicians is about the death of Gerry Niewood. The saxophonist was one of 50 people who died in a plane crash Thursday night near Buffalo, New York. He and guitarist Coleman Mellett were on their way to Buffalo to perform with Chuck Mangione’s band. Mellett was also killed in the crash.
Niewood was a childhood friend of Mangione. He and the trumpeter played together in youth bands and became even closer musically at the Eastman School of Music in their native Rochester. Niewood was not on the celebrated Mangione Feels So Good album, but his association with Mangione’s huge success brought him attention and admiration among fellow musicians. That never translated into wide popular acceptance after he became a leader of his own group. He developed a successful career as a free-lancer on several reed and woodwind instruments and through the years rejoined Mangione for tours and in concerts recreating what became known as their Friends and Love music, which has retained popularity through four decades.
Respected for his technique and solid tonal qualities on all of his instruments, Niewood said in a 2006 interview with Rochester’s City Newspaper, “I don’t start to play until I hear something that I want to play. I try to develop it and have that thread of continuity. I’m not big on the use of pyrotechnics. I’m a melodic player, a rhythmic player, a harmonic player. I’m not a flashy player.”
In Portland, a group of musicians and friends who knew Niewood stood at the Arts Bar of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts listening to the John Gross Trio with Dave Frishberg and Charlie Doggett. Between tunes, much of the talk was about Niewood. Joe Lovano was particularly warm in his admiration for his fellow saxophonist’s musicianship. Judy Cites, the tour manager for Mangione’s band when Niewood was a member, recalled him as one of the most natural and unaffected people she has known.
From Rochester, a longtime friend of Niewood adds a memory from their early careers. The friend is Ned Corman, head of a national organization called The Commission Project, which is devoted to jazz education for children from grade school through college age. In his days as a saxophonist, Mr. Corman worked with Niewood and the Mangione brothers.
Some of the best music I was part of was a ten-piece band Chuck Mangione led in the late 60’s. Chuck and Sam Noto were the trumpet section. I don’t remember the trombone section. Gap Mangione, Frank Pullara and Vinnie Ruggerio were the rhythm section. Gerry, Joe Romano and I were the saxophone section. Gerry was also part of the FRIENDS AND LOVE concert, perhaps the only time I was fortunate to make music with Marvin Stamm. A piece of information little known beyond Penfield High School music students: Gerry did his student teaching at PHS and Denonville Middle School. Students took lots of pride that Gerry was their teacher as well as a star with Chuck Mangione.
Gerry Niewood was 65. For an obituary, go here.
Addendum, February 16: For an interesting insight into Niewood’s and Mellett’s lives as itinerant musicians, see Nate Schweber’s piece in today’s New York Times.