My American Grandpa: Sammy Nestico


By Alexandra Schueller

My American Grandpa: Sammy Nestico 

Students in band, especially those in the jazz band, may have played an arrangement by the renowned jazz arranger Sammy Nestico. During his life, Sammy Nestico was a prominent and influential composer and arranger of jazz who lived in Carlsbad. He inspired musicians of all ages through his fervor and love for music. Sammy was best known for his involvement in arranging for the Count Basie Orchestra and working for various artists like Frank Sinatra, Micheal Buble, Quincy Jones, and Phil Collins. 

Born in Pennsylvania in 1924, Sammy was surrounded by music at an early age, writing his first arrangement while he was only in high school. Having joined his school’s orchestra and playing the trombone, his career as a musician soared into decades of success.

“He loved music from the age of thirteen. Sammy practiced every day, over and over, and he perfected his techniques with the trombone. He never gave up, he was never embarrassed about his mistakes. That’s how he would learn,” Sammy’s beloved wife Shirley Nestico said.

As he grew older, he served in the United States Army Band during World War II, and eventually he went on to become the chief arranger and director of the U.S. Marine Band in the White House, serving under President John F. Kennedy. Later, Sammy worked for many movies and composed and arranged albums for many recording artists. He also released his own music, which attained him four Grammy nominations. 

For me, Sammy was my “American Grandpa.” Sammy was a very close friend of my dad, and he was the sole reason why my family moved from Germany to America. My dad is also an arranger and composer, so he was inspired by Sammy and contacted him online. Their mutual love for music quickly connected the two, and they began working together. “There seemed to be an instant bond between them, they got along so well,” Shirley said.

This love for music turned into Sammy asking my dad if he wanted to move to California to become his apprentice. It was a dream come true for my dad: personally having one of the most influential jazz arrangers as a mentor. With that, we moved out to California in 2013 for my dad to work with him. Sammy became like my Grandpa here in America for me, being one of my biggest inspirations ever since I was small.

Our move to California proved just how much of an influence Sammy and his music had on everyone who knew him and his work, including our band teacher here at SMHS, Mr. Radant.

“I first saw his name when I was in high school,” Mr. Radant expressed his appreciation for Sammy’s impact on his life and the way he teaches his students. “There isn’t a single semester where we are not playing a Sammy Nestico chart, it’s been like that since I started teaching. I believe that if I don’t include his charts then I would be doing them a disservice; it is essential to that learning process to make sure they know his music.”

Sammy’s arrangements were a significant factor in the way Mr. Radant taught his bands, sharing what he finds so special about his work. “One of the things that is amazing about Sammy’s writing is that he has the ability to make any group sound fantastic. There is just something about the way Sammy writes that is amazing,” he says.

From our own school to people close to him, Sammy’s humility and sincerity was unforgettable, especially to his wife, Shirley. “I never knew anybody like Sammy,” she exclaimed, speaking of her travels all around the world with Sammy for his career and how he changed her life and others. “I never thought in my wildest dream that I would be traveling with a famous man in these places. There’ve been many‒many that have given Sammy credit for their position in the musical world.” 

Additionally, Sammy loved teaching his passion to younger musicians, instructing high school kids in the San Diego area. “He had always worked with young kids. His dream was for the young kids to be able to feel like they wanted to go on and be professional players and for people to love his music,” Shirley admired. “Sammy had the brain that he would hear every note before he even wrote it.”

In 2021, Sammy passed away in Carlsbad, where he still made music until he was 96. He leaves a lasting legacy of music and inspiration behind him and I will always remember how he influenced me and those around him, especially his lifelong quote of  “Never let anyone steal your dreams.”