The man sitting next to me at the Black Penny in the French Quarter is very tall, pencil thin, in a black T-shirt and trousers with a skull-and-cross-bones belt buckle. He leans into his Vieux Carre cocktail with his tattoo sleeves propped on the bar, his pin-striped jacket hanging under it. In New Orleans, he could be anybody—a rocker, a random tourist, just a guy. But in barely 24 hours, he’ll be headlining Jazz Fest with a jazz legend and a pop superstar: Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.
So I have to ask: is he nervous?
“I’m not nervous,” Brian Newman says, and I believe him. “Anxious may be the right word. But I feel at home up there. Partly because I got all my boys with me, we memorize the music—there’s no charts. I’m not nervous, but 40,000 people tomorrow? It’s gonna be a little crazy. But I’m excited. It’s like you spend your whole life getting ready for something like this, so when I get there I’m not nervous. I do drink a couple glasses of champagne, though, before. Just to take the edge off.” He laughs, a hitching Midwestern laugh that is genuinely contagious. Turns out Newman laughs a lot. And he should—he seems to have arrived, and he and his wife, the burlesque star Angie Pontani, are also expecting their first child.
Newman, a Cleveland native who went to Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of music—where he found most of his bandmates—came to New York in the early aughts. “For me,” he says, “the jazz community in New York has never been very helpful to me, and I learned early on that if I was gonna do anything in New York—and in my life in music—I needed to do it myself.” So he produced a popular downtown show featuring jazz standards smattered with burlesque performances—a supper club atmosphere that Newman would like to reproduce if he could find the right venue. (Full disclosure: I’ve written about Newman extensively and hired his Quintet to play my wedding.)
But being an artist in New York usually means having a side gig, which is how Newman met the woman who became Lady Gaga. “I was bartending at a place on the LES called St. Jerome’s—now renovated,” he says, referring to what’s now Rivington F&B.
“It grew up, just like we did. But it was a hotbed for talent. In all forms. There’s people that I knew there that are now big in the fashion industry… and there were bands I knew from there, and Gaga—she was the biggest one to come out of there. She was gogo dancing and DJing there with Lady Starlight, who was on the road with her and still is a great friend of all of ours. We called it the clubhouse. We would go there after all of our other gigs.”
Gaga moved to L.A. and blew up, but she and Newman are still close–just check out their matching tattoos of a trumpet that Tony Bennett drew while they were all in the studio. When she played “Someone to Watch Over Me” on the Today Show, she asked Newman to sit in. That led to the BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend in London, which was broadcast on television and radio.
Gaga called Brian up last June to say she might be interested in doing some additional takes for her long-awaited record with Tony Bennett, Cheek to Cheek. According to Newman, “Tony’s sons, Danny [Tony’s manager] and Dae [Tony’s producer] came to the Rose Bar one night and I told the boys before the show, ‘We got 45 minutes to get this—to get on this album.’” They got on it, and the album won a Grammy.
Speaking of Lady Gaga, “I knew early on, even before we got into playing together… she knew the music, and she was a student of the music,” Brian says. “She would come sit in with us at the Oak Room and come up and call the song and say the key and that was it. She was a regular one of us.”
The next day, at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Newman and his boys couldn’t have looked more relaxed, in spite of the fact that they were wearing full tuxedos in a heat that was piercing to us New Yorkers. Brian leaned into his solos, starting with the opening song “Anything Goes,” his face focused and bigger than life on a giant screen beaming to 40,000 people. Newman played exquisitely, nonchalantly shaking Bennett’s hand after a solo as Bennett gave him the thumbs up. And Newman’s piano player Alex Smith took it in stride when Gaga snuggled up next to him on his bench.
The crowd itself was all ages, and I remembered Newman saying, “I’m happy about how these two are bringing jazz to a younger audience.” The mix onstage was palpable. On the show’s closer, Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” Newman’s boys joined in with Bennett’s big band, which includes Mike Renzi, who played on Sesame Street and played the Gershwin tunes in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Newman’s drummer Paul Francis was pitched head-to-head with former Count Basie drummer Harold Jones. Not to mention that Bennett’s sound man, Tom Young, worked with Frank Sinatra.
Back in New York, besides playing Radio City with Gaga and Bennett, Newman will finish his own record with Dae Bennett, with support from his boys Smith, Francis, Steve Kortyka on tenor sax and Scott Ritchie on the bass. It promises to feature originals as well as standards, including rock songs by Tommy London from the Dirty Pearls rearranged for jazz.
It’ll be business as usual. The Brian Newman Quintet has a standing gig at the Rose Bar, and while you’ll find yourself rubbing elbows with the kind of Gramercy patrons who can afford the cocktails, the lack of a cover or a drink minimum still makes it a relatively inexpensive New York jazz offering. And maybe the best—Newman’s small-room manner is sheer Old School New York, suited and booted, a glass of champagne in hand, bantering with the audience between songs.
Having a drink in the Quarter, Newman is clearly enjoying the weight of it all, the fun of the tour. “I opened up one of the shows and I was singing some songs, and [Bennett] said something like, ‘Man, you are a really great singer.’ And I said, ‘Thank you. Coming from you’— that’s the thing, to get that kind of—” Newman falters, uncharacteristically knocked out of his cool, the memory fresh with him. Validation? “Validation. That’s it. To get the validation from a guy like that? That’s played with everybody, that knows everybody, that’s listened to everybody, that’s fired everybody… To have a guy like Tony Bennett say, ‘You guys sound good…’” Newman doesn’t finish the sentence, and doesn’t need to.
“And that’s the thing for me, just knowing that you worked on this your whole life and now you’re at the big show. You know what I feel like? I feel like a rookie with the Yankees. Especially with Tony and those guys, it’s like we got called up from the minors, but we’re still watching Jeter bat.”