A Minute With Brian Newman

Brian Newman has become one of the most sought-after acts in New York City. Splitting his time between touring with Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett and leading his own quartet with his crooner jazz revival and signature expert trumpeteering, Newman is part of the movement that is bringing glamour back to New York. Aside from his impeccable horn playing and rendition of romantic favorites, Newman commands a room not just by his talent, but also as a band leader that makes each person in the audience feel as if they are a part of his performance.After 7 years, Newman’s power and presence has brought him to the most iconic and fabulous venues around this great city, proving that New Yorkers crave a taste of classic days of yore. With a new baby with burlesque legend wife Angie Pontani and a hectic tour schedule, Newman has the world on a string.

You’ve been friends with Lady Gaga since the days when you and I met- you were slinging $2 beers at St. Jerome’s while she go-go danced, then she hit it big. You’ve always been close friends, but when did you two decide it was time to collaborate?

Brian: That is true Lori! We’ve known each other since the old days! Over the years we’ve played together off and on for all of her jazz performances. The first one was the Today show back in 2010. We did a bunch more things after that over the years until last year I got a call from her about the record she was doing with Tony Bennett. (Whom I first met with her when we performed the Robin Hood Gala) We talked about jazz and the direction the music was going. The only true American art-form that was created here needed to be back out in the general publics eye. We needed to do something different and push the envelope with the music to make it exciting again. She knew that we did that every night in New York hot spots but to do it with a legend like Tony Bennett and such a talented musician and icon like Gaga was the opportunity of a lifetime for my band and I.

Since our last “formal” interview in 2011, New York has had sort of a revived appreciation for Jazz. Not to say that it ever went away, but now new venues have opened and are catering to evenings of cocktails and band leaders. Why do you think this has come back into vogue?

I’d like to think that the boys and I are a big part of making that happen in this city. There are many fine musicians and great live music establishments. I also feel that sometimes musicians come to New York and play their gigs but they are just going through the motions and playing like they are wallpaper. They have that school mentality not the kind of mindset to push the envelope. When I first moved here in early 2003 the clubs I went to we’re not ideal. They had quiet policies and lots of jive talk. I knew then I had to make it happen for myself. No one was going to help me get gigs or create a scene for me.

You’ve come a long way, baby. Where and when was your first gig in New York playing with the quartet?

My very first gig playing in New York was with totally different guys at Jules Bistro. We played Sunday brunch and then I would run to BLT fish to bartend. Eventually I gravitated back towards my roots and started playing with my man Alex Smith who I went to school with. We started doing duo stuff at a few spots. I was always hustling gigs somewhere. Then the bass man Scott moved to town, we got Paul Francis on drums. We played quartet for a while till Steve Kortyka came in on sax. These were all guys I was playing with since 1999. There’s still lots to do and more rooms to play but I love playing music with these guys and we continue to work hard to keep our selves at the top of our game.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like to work with a legend like Tony Bennett. But seriously, what was it like!!!?

Man! Tony is such a legend and such a great soul. He always had something to teach us. Whether it was something he said, how he sang something. His whole vibe was a learning experience. He’s so comfortable with himself on and off stage. We also learned a ton from his band that I mentioned above. Harold Jones, Grey Sargent, Marshall Wood and Mike Rienzi are legends too and incredible musicians that have played with everybody in the business. Truly a humbling and exciting experience to travel and play with the whole scene, baby!

Going to see you play is one of my favorite things to do on a New York night. What’s your ideal evening in this great city?

My ideal evening in Old New York depends on what I feel like getting into! Playing music at the Rainbow Room with my 10 piece band is always a highlight and it fulfills a goal I’ve had for years. Since teaming up with the crew at The Roxy I’ve been really enjoying TriBeCa again. There’s two great spots in the hotel to hear good music- The Roxy Lounge and Django. There’s also a pocket of super cool bars and restaurants right across the street – Macao Trading co, Belle Reve, The Odeon. Classic New York stuff right there! Everybody’s so nice too. No bad vibes to be had in TriBeCa!

What can we expect when we come see you at Django in The Roxy Hotel?

The Django has been really fun for us because it gives us a chance to stretch and have some of our friends come down and sit in. In the past two weeks we’ve had burlesque queen Angie Pontani, sax man Eddie Barbash from the Late Show and it was truly great to have Jose Feliciano come to sing and play guitar with us! I love it too because it’s late night Friday night. We start at 10:30 and go till 1:30 or so. I miss the old days playing jazz till 5am but we all grow up a little bit and this is a grown up show for sure. I keep it changing week to week so you’ll always have someone new to check out. All backed by the boys in the band!

Words by Lori Zimmer.

Brian Newman next performs at Django on Friday, March 18th. See the full events calendar here.