In the winter of 2009, trumpet great Brian Newman’s band was holding down a weekly gig on Fridays at Duane Park music and burlesque club in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood.
One night, a rising star and friend Newman called “Stef” walked in.
Stef as Stefani Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga. Just a few years earlier, she had been known in the area as a DJ and go-go dancer. But on this night, she wanted to join the band.
“I’ll never forget it, she came in and sat in with us, and I said, ‘What do you feel like playing? What do you want to sing?’ ” says Newman, today Gaga’s bandleader who is about to perform his own residency on the Strip. “She called the tune, said the key, told us how she wanted it and counted it off and pounded it out. She is very serious musician. Whenever I listen to her play the piano, she knows the history, technique, the history. She makes it easy for us.”
The song was the George Gershwin-penned “Someone To Watch Over Me,” famously covered by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. The song has been revived in Gaga’s set list for “Jazz + Piano.”
The symbiotic musical relationship between the star and bandleader plays out when Gaga returns for her “Enigma” production on Thursday, and her “Jazz + Piano” big-band showcase, headed up by Newman, on June 2.
And apart from the Park Theater performances, Newman himself is in residency Wednesday through June 15 in “Brian Newman After Dark” at NoMad Restaurant at NoMad Hotel, connected to Park MGM (shows start at 11 p.m., post Gaga, and tickets start at $49; hit Ticketmaster.com for info).
Newman built the framework of his Vegas shows during his days headlining in New York.
“I had that show at Duane Park, on Friday nights, for five years,” the bandleader says. “That’s the really loose basis for what we’re doing at NoMad, the variety, with some of our other influences, our ’80s and ’90s influences will all be there. We have some great performers, singers booked, all sorts of talent, in Las Vegas and beyond, planned for this show.”
The 37-year-old Newman is fulfilling a lifelong dream to headline a show on the Strip. He’s wanted nothing more than to play trumpet for a living since he was in fifth grade. He picked up the instrument after a drumming great Louie Bellson, a veteran with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, pointed him out and said, “You look like a trumpet player.”
“We wanted to build a band that was more than just guitars,” Newman says, laughing. “All I wanted to be, even then, was a musician. I wanted to go to New York. I saw the trumpet and thought it was going to be easy. It only had three buttons! I was very wrong.”
Newman’s interest in pop and rock in his younger years was offset by his fascination with the Rat Pack, and Vegas greats Louis Prima and Keely Smith. “I felt like I missed that era,” he says. “I saw that there was more to what they brought to the stage than just being a musician. They really knew how to entertain, and what they did in Vegas made you feel like you were really part of something special. Even listening to the recordings, you feel like you’re part of something wonderful and interactive.”
Newman became intertwined in the New York burlesque scene, and it, too, reaches Las Vegas. His wife, Angie Potanti, is a burlesque star who won the 2008 Miss Exotic World competition at the Palms. He also played trumpet in Melody Sweets’ New York band, the Candy Shop Boys, a few years before she moved to Las Vegas to perform as the Green Fairy in “Absinthe.”
“I have a lot of close friends in the burlesque scene,” Newman says. “That’s where I’ve learned a lot about how to be an entertainer, more than just a musician.”
Newman has bonded with some of Las Vegas’ top players, hitting such under-the-radar hangs as the Copa Room at Bootlegger Bistro and the Dispensary Lounge on Tropicana and Eastern. He pulled the horn section from Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns for the “Jazz + Piano” shows.
“I found this bevy of Las Vegas talent, great musicians — the Dispensary had that old-club feel, and I’d already known about the Santa Fe boys when we came in to Las Vegas,” Newman says. “I got here a few days early to meet with them, not really as an audition, but to be around them and see how tight they were together.”
Because the Newman “After Dark” shows are more than just a music performance.
“We have guys whose lives transfer through the instrument, if that makes sense,” Newman says. “You can feel it. This is not going to be a show where we’re ‘shushing’ people. It’s going to be a hang. It’s going to be a party. It’s going to be fun, like they used to do it in Vegas.”
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.