Jazz Saxophonist Tommy Newsom; Played on 'Tonight Show'

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Tommy Newsom, 78, a jazz saxophonist and arranger who gained national visibility as a key member of Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" band for three decades, and whom Carson nicknamed "Mr. Excitement" for his stone-faced demeanor and somber outfits, died April 28 at his home in Portsmouth, Va. He had bladder and liver cancer.

As a personality, Mr. Newsom pretended to have none. Carson gently taunted him for his deadpan expression and bland tastes -- his suits ran the gamut from brown to navy.

"As a child one time, Tommy got lost, and his parents couldn't describe him to the police," Carson once said. On another occasion, Carson said Mr. Newsom "wants to come back as a plant, so somebody will talk to him."

Periodically, Mr. Newsom topped Carson's one-liners.

When Carson asked why Mr. Newsom kept his jacket buttoned, the saxophonist replied that his rear end would otherwise fall off. This prompted executive producer Fred De Cordova to remind Mr. Newsom that the host was supposed to get the bigger laughs.

Despite the gags, Mr. Newsom was a graceful musician and veteran of bands led by guitarist Charlie Byrd, clarinetist Benny Goodman and society bandleader Vincent Lopez. Mr. Newsom became an NBC studio musician, worked for Merv Griffin and soon after was assigned to the "Tonight" program in early 1962, several months before Carson took over.

Mr. Newsom spent the next 30 years on the show, most of the time directly under the bandleader and trumpeter Doc Severinsen, who was known for his loud outfits. Mr. Newsom became assistant music director in the late 1960s and took over the baton in Severinsen's absence.

"I think the first night I took over for Doc, Carson recoiled," Mr. Newsom told the Los Angeles Times. "He was so used to having foils on either side, Ed [McMahon] over here and Doc over there, and he needed somebody to bounce something off of, so the gags began.

"I guess my cardboard-cutout style makes a good contrast to Doc's flamboyant image," he said. "Carson has really laid some heavy ones on me. One night, he said I was the only person who was going to reach puberty and senility at the same time."

Thomas Penn Newsom was born Feb. 25, 1929, in Portsmouth, where his father was a pharmacist and his mother taught kindergarten. As a child, he was exposed to opera and big band music over the radio. His mother played piano and sang.

His parents bought him a saxophone when he was 8, and he immediately launched into a Hungarian rhapsody by Brahms, albeit with unorthodox fingering. He later received formal training and, as he told an interviewer, began playing in a school band -- "two girls playing a piano, several violins, a trumpet, a clarinet or two and I had a C-melody sax."

By 13, he was playing professional engagements in the Norfolk area at school dances and for returning World War II service members.

"My parents kept a very loose rein on me," he later told a Norfolk reporter. "They were grand, but they were very lenient. They had faith in me."

By 1952, he had graduated from the Norfolk division of the College of William and Mary and the Peabody Institute in Baltimore -- taking music jobs in strip clubs to supplement his income. He spent four years in the Airmen of Note, the Air Force's big band, and received a master's degree in music education from Columbia University.

Meanwhile, he began an active freelance career based in New York. He recorded with fellow Tidewater jazzmen such as Byrd and clarinetist and vibraphonist Tommy Gwaltney. His most prestigious early job came in 1961 and 1962, when he toured the Soviet Union and South America with Goodman's big band.

While with Goodman, he wrote a well-received composition, "Titter Pipes," that became a showcase number for two other saxophonists on the Soviet tour, Phil Woods and Zoot Sims.

Mr. Newsom continued to cultivate his reputation as a solid composer-arranger. Over his long career, he arranged for Byrd (including 1964's "Brazilian Byrd" album), jazz trumpeter Buck Clayton (for whom he wrote "Kansas City Ballad") and the all-female jazz orchestra Diva. He also arranged for opera singer Beverly Sills, country singer Kenny Rogers and the Cincinnati Pops orchestra.

Mr. Newsom also did musical arranging for such TV broadcasts as "Night of 100 Stars" (1982) and the "40th Annual Tony Awards" (1986), and he shared Emmy Awards for both productions.

Long settled in Los Angeles, he was persuaded to relocate to Portsmouth by California's Northridge Earthquake in 1994. He recorded several CDs, including three for the Arbors label, and played at music festivals nationwide.

With the self-deprecation that made him a household name, he once told a festival audience: "And now we're going to render George Gershwin for a while. Probably into a bar of soap."

A son, Mark Newsom, died in 2003.

Survivors include his wife of 49 years, Pat Hernansky Newsom of Portsmouth; and a daughter, Candace Liebmann of Teaneck, N.J.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company