New York Pops Profile

New York Pops Profile

By Norm Freeman on Apr 01, 2003 at 12:00 AM in The News

Spring 2003

Imagine commuting 2800 miles each way to and from work. The New York Pops’ Principal Timpanist, Norman Freeman, is so dedicated to playing in the orchestra that he travels from his home in Santa Barbara, CA to New York City for concerts. 

Until March of 2000, Norm had lived in the tri-state area all of his life. He grew up in Maplewood, NJ, where he started playing the drums in the first grade. In high school he picked up timpani and the vibraphone as well. Around this time, he first began to perform gigs with a jazz ensemble and to actively attend symphony concerts, traveling to Tanglewood or New York City to hear the New York Philharmonic. He “just loved it” and realized that he “couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Norm earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Juilliard and describes himself as “pretty fortunate” to have found work as a musician during his schooling and mmediately afterwards. He started out playing on the New York City freelance music scene and quickly became very busy. He has played for Broadway shows and touring ballet companies, on Saturday Night Live and the MTV Music Video Awards broadcast and with artists as diverse as Lionel Richie, Barry White, Rosemary Clooney, Metallica and Barbara Streisand. Shortly after graduating from Juilliard, Norm began a 14-year stint with the New York Philharmonic as an extra percussionist or substitute.

Norm is a three-time Grammy nominee and a Grammy Award-winning percussionist on the New York hilharmonic recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony. Twenty years ago, Norm received a call to play in The New York Pops’ world premiere concert at Carnegie Hall. He has been with the orchestra and friends with Skitch Henderson ever since. He also taught percussion, eventually becoming Percussion Department Chair at The Mannes College of Music, a division of The New School for Social Research in Manhattan.

For most people, this full-time career in music would suffice. However, Norm had more in mind. About 10 years ago, he made the decision to enter seminary school to become an Episcopalian minister. Needless to say, this was not a familiar scenario to many musicians. While on line for dinner during a 6-month tour with Barbara Streisand shortly before entering seminary, he mentioned his plans to a fellow band member, who responded, “Can you make much money doing that?”

He also remembers being particularly “struck by Skitch’s sensitivity” in presenting him with a photographic essay book on Michelangelo’s Pieta upon his graduation from seminary. 

For Norm, even during seminary school it was important to him to stay “connected with the real world” and to “figure out how to integrate [music and ministry] and blend.” To this end, he continued playing with The New York Pops, holding the Percussion Department Chair at The Mannes College of Music and subbing in Broadway shows. Following his graduation and ordination in 1997, Norm was assigned to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Greenwich, CT, where he mixed music and ministry in his innovative “Jazz Vespers” services. Jazz Vespers are “ simple prayer services that integrate jazz and prayer — it follows a tradition that really took hold in New York City at St. Peter’s Church.” Both traditional hymns or gospels and jazz classics that lend themselves towards the setting are played. “Jazz is my chamber music.

It gives me an opportunity to perform in a context that’s different from a concert hall, a little more intimate,” says Norm. The services were such a success that he continued them after moving to Santa Barbara with his family in March 2000 to become Episcopal Chaplain for the University of California at Santa Barbara and Vicar of The Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Isla Vista. 

Even when faced with a daunting commute, Norm felt strongly that he could not give up The New York Pops’ concerts in New York. Though he did take a 1-year leave of absence from the orchestra to settle into his

new job, a “Pops clause” allowing him to return to New York for New York Pops concerts was always part of his contract there. He has rich memories of his first concert back with The New York Pops in July 2001 at the World Trade Center. Despite “a lot of stuff going on at the beginning of rehearsal, Skitch found some time, called me over, and wanted to know how things were going and if I was happy, and expressed how pleased he was to know I was coming back.”

Norm believes that his experiences with The New York Pops and Skitch have influenced his ministry as well. “I can’t help but notice how much of my experience working with Skitch I bring into the services. Skitch is so warm and engaging with the audience. In how I interact with the people who gather for the Jazz Vespers, I am influenced by his rapport with people, even sensitivities around programming and pieces that I select. I admire, and I’ve heard other members echo, that Skitch has incredible musical integrity — something we all hope to bring to our art.” 

His students and congregation are so enthusiastic about his services that they “don’t have enough seating.” Norm intentionally brings to the church jazz musicians “whom you’d expect to have to go out to a smoky club to hear,” saying “ it breaks down people’s pre-conceptions and misconceptions about what can happen in the church. When I’m standing up there playing the vibes with my collar on, that itself breaks down conceptions about what it means to be clergy and opens up relationships with people.” He has brought his jazz services to other schools and churches, including Princeton University last fall and says there is “no question” that he would like to expand further. 

When Norm is in New York, he also tries to find time to teach at Mannes and New York University, and perform with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. He admits that “the logistics get a little complicated,” but states firmly that he budgets his New York time so that “Pops is my priority.” He says there is “ nothing more exciting musically than stepping on stage and connecting with those extraordinary musicians and knowing that something really electrical is shooting off that stage into the audience and into the hall.” 

Norm maintains a website where you can learn more about his unique ministry: