House of David

Fathead comes home

Kosher meals aside, Newman attended St. Peter's Academy, a Catholic school in North Dallas, through sixth grade. After graduating from Lincoln High in South Dallas, Newman attended Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, on a church scholarship, but didn't study theology. "I would have gone to a music school if we could have afforded it," he says.

Jack Ruby's Vegas Club and the Silver Spur were dives that employed black jazz musicians in the Naughty Dallas of the '50s. "The thing I remember most about Jack Ruby," chuckles Newman, "were the stag parties in his clubs. Whenever the striptease dancers came out, he'd want the musicians to turn our backs, 'cause these were white ladies. He'd say, 'Now, you guys turn your backs so you can't see this.' But the strippers would insist that the drummer watch them so he could catch their bumps and grinds. So, Jack says, 'Well, the drummer can look, but the rest of you guys, you turn your backs on the bandstand.'"

Newman played bebop in Fort Worth with Ornette Coleman, and jammed Sundays at the Woodmen's Auditorium, a black lodge and insurance company on Oakland Avenue. "We knew every tune that Bird, Diz, and Miles would put out, note for note," says Newman. R&B package tours came through Dallas featuring T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, and Lowell Fulson (with Brother Ray on piano). Buster Smith's Dallas-based ensemble, which Newman played in as a teenager, backed these package tours in town. "I'd listened to Charlie Christian before him, of course, but T-Bone Walker was the first blues guitarist to really impress me," remembers Newman, who had never before heard a blues guitarist use diminished and augmented chords.

Dallasite Buster Smith had been to Count Basie what Fathead was to Ray Charles: his alter ego. Smith was also Charlie Parker's teacher, as well as a mentor to Fathead. Since Newman led a tribute album to Smith on Austin's Amazing Records 40 years after his stint, he was a natural to play Buster Smith in Robert Altman's fascinating flop, Kansas City. The film's house band played counterpoint to the plot, with all the musicians approximating roles of historical figures. According to Newman, however, with little musical direction, the younger cats weren't true to their 1934 counterparts. Joshua Redman, as the Lester Young-based character, didn't play like Young, and Cyrus Chestnut--not being grounded in stride piano--didn't play like Basie. Altman felt that commercial 78s of the time may not have reflected the experimentation during these Blue Devil jazz days and therefore allowed bebop riffs to poke in and out of the solos. Ron Carter and Fathead Newman, however, were the movie band's elder statesmen. Playing alto sax, Newman was thinking Buster Smith with every note. "I was a little older and experienced and knew about this. Had I played tenor saxophone, I would have been able to imitate some of the Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young sounds."

Newman himself carries the mantle as today's preeminent Big Texas Tenor. The Texans who created this world-renowned sound came a generation before: Arnette Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, and Herschell Evans. Influenced by many, Fathead saw Charlie Parker only once, in 1954, racing down to Birdland after a Ray Charles Apollo gig in Harlem. "That was a big moment in my life," he says.

Newman's albums sell big for jazz records. Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman sold 150,000 copies by 1960. Bigger & Better, which cost $50,000 to make in 1968, sold 200,000 copies, and his last effort on Kokopelli Records topped the Gavin jazz chart with more than 100,000 units sold. Unlike many artists who forget their roots when they make it big, however, Newman never forgot local peers like Marcel Ivery, with whom he cut a 1993 album in Holland called Blue, Greens & Beans. But Holland doesn't count. As a jazz musician, says Newman, "You have to move to New York or L.A. to further your career; be on the scene. You have to leave town, like the young Roy Hargrove, to make it."

Newman also cut two albums with recently deceased hard-luck story James Clay--one in 1960, and one recorded live in New York in '91, one of Clay's swan songs. Though Newman took Clay out on the road with Ray Charles' big band for two years in the early '60s, Clay fell short of critical expectations as he spent most of his career in Dallas and jazz obscurity, perhaps the better to nurse his heroin addiction.

"We used to believe you had to be high to play," Newman says of his days with Ray Charles. "Nowadays, we know this is completely untrue. I'm so proud of guys like Mac [Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John] now that he gets up in the morning, eats a nutritious breakfast, then gets to work."

The image of Fathead's close friend and musical ally Dr. John eating a nutritious breakfast is somewhat unsettling, but the fact is that he cleaned up his tracks and recorded the strongest records of his career after 34 years of heroin addiction. Today's jazz players, Newman believes, are far more disciplined than those of his own generation. Young jazz musicians are today's four-eyed squares who go to college, practice diligently--and eat nutritious breakfasts; it's the MTV bubblegum groups who drown their sorrows in heroin.

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