What type of Saxophone do you play?
What type of Mouthpiece?
Otto Link & Berg Larrson
What type of Microphone?
What type of Neck Strap?
Ray Hyman Neck Straps
Who are your influences?
Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, and Coleman Hawkins were seminal. Many others followed.
How did you get the nickname Newk?
A cab driver mistook me for the Dodgers’ pitcher, Don Newcombe, and then Miles sort of played along with him. That’s how I got the nickname “Newk.”
How did you write St. Thomas?
St. Thomas is a traditional island melody; what I did was to create my own arrangement. My mother came from St. Thomas and she sang that to me when I was a little boy. It has become a trademark tune.
How did you title Airegin?
Airegin was an attempt to raise consciousness about a disadvantaged group.
Have you studied with spiritual teachers?
I am a spiritual person to the extent that I understand what life is about, how difficult it is. And I know how difficult it is for me to kind of be the person I want to be, with better eating habits, better exercise habits, and most importantly, better Golden Rule habits towards other people. All these things, according to my spiritual beliefs, are important for the development of my soul.
This is what is important to me, what I am trying to do with my life, to give it meaning. In fact, Coltrane and I used to speak about these things and exchange books. And I have studied Zen in Japan, and spent time in a monastery in India.
How did you end up practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge?
In the 50s and 60s, Lucille and I had a small apartment on Grand Street on the Lower East Side of New York. It was a nice time. I had a lot of friends there and I was welcomed by the neighborhood people. Like most of New York, the Lower East Side has undergone gentrification but back then, it was a much more ethnic place.
I started practicing in the house because I had to practice, but I felt guilty because I’m a sensitive person and I know that people need quiet in their apartments.
I was walking on Delancey Street one day, not far from where I lived on Grand Street and I just happened to look up and see these steps that I decided to check out. And there, of course, was the bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge. It was this nice big expanse going over the East River. There was nobody up there. So I started walking acoss the bridge and said, “Wow. This is what I have been looking for. This is a private place. I can blow my horn as loud as I want.” Because the boats are coming under, and the subway is coming across, and cars, and I knew it was perfect, just serendipity. Then, I began getting my horn and going up there regularly. I would be up there 15 or 16 hours at a time spring, summer, fall and winter.
What advice do you have for young musicians?
I would say that they have to love what they are doing. Never mind the material. A lot of people come to me — a lot of kids — “Gee, Sonny. What should I practice? How can I get to be a successful musician?” You have to love what you are doing, and if you are not hurting anybody or harming anybody else, that’s it. Just stay on that path. If you are looking for money, for material success, I have no advice, because I don’t want to think like that, I don’t believe that’s the meaning of life. I am not a materialist, I don’t believe in consumerism.
After all these years, what do you practice?
Everything — but in no particular order.