LA Weekly, 2/21/01
by Greg Burk
James Newton is pissed off. He’s also happy and excited, and the latter conditions are the ones you notice, because his face expresses them more easily. To get the full range of Newton, listen to his flute playing, which alternates between the most delirious beauty and the steeliest daggers; you’ll hear clearly that he’s a warrior as well as an artist. What makes him happy and excited now is that he’s got some new tools.
Last fall, Newton, 47, became a full-time faculty member at Cal State L.A. — the school he graduated from in 1980. It’s a good fortification from which to battle the carnage of Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative-action initiative passed overwhelmingly in 1996. Newton was teaching at UC Irvine at the time, and soon noticed the scenery getting paler. But he believes that his new/old school has the right attitude: “Cal State L.A. is saying, ‘Come here, we want you to have a voice.’ I have some absolutely first-rate students. And there’s a hunger for the knowledge.”
Newton will be teaching music, as he’s done — alongside a global schedule of performing and recording — for over two decades. He’s also been named director of music programming and research for CSLA’s Luckman Fine Arts Complex, and director-conductor of the Luckman Jazz Orchestra, a multistarred aggregation playing its first concert this weekend. Additionally, Newton has scheduled a blockbuster guest concert for April 28, featuring jazz masters Randy Weston (solo piano) and Yusef Lateef (playing with Adam Rudolph & Eternal Wind). The Luckman series will include blues, Latin and classical concerts as well.
Newton’s desire to nurture equal opportunity has personal roots; he doesn’t come from privilege. His father was a military man, later helping Newton’s mother manage apartments.
“My parents were very anti-elitist, and that’s really rubbed off on me,” he says. “I lived in a poor section of San Pedro. I never was hungry or anything, but my parents worked their way up.”
The ethnically mixed seaport environment helped Newton appreciate different cultures. In addition to his African-American ancestry, he holds a special affinity for Mexican expression, and his Chino Hills house is a gallery for his favorite visual artists. A painting by William Pajaud shows the walls of Jericho tumbling down under the im-pact of Joshua’s powerful music. Another, by Jesus Cervantes, portrays a worker being ground up like meat in a cruel machine. A dry-point etching by Francisco Toledo represents wasps so large and detailed, the viewer doesn’t know whether to examine them or flee. Much of Newton’s aesthetic pulls between the beauty and the sting.
Newton’s studio is packed with electronic equipment, which he’s currently using to score and provide preliminary synthesizer sketches for Clan Destinies, a ballet he’s writing for the José Limón Dance Company. He runs the computer program for one movement, a joyfully trippy piece with a lot of counterpoint. Then he plays something completely different, a hip-hoppish take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Miss Lover” with an innovative slosh-wipe groove.
Newton hails from the first generation of jazz performers directly aligned with the Hendrix axis. He was playing bass and singing “Tears of a Clown” in an R&B band when he first heard “The Wind Cries Mary” in 1967, and was changed forever. Though he’s been changed many times since, he’s always kept the influences of previous loves: Miles, Trane, Dolphy, Rahsaan, Mingus, Duke, Ravel, Messiaen, Mahler, Berg, Bartók, Lutoslawski, Takemitsu.
The influences of friends have been at least as deep. At 19, Newton and band were learning Weather Report tunes in a Claremont space when he discovered that Stanley Crouch, then primarily a drummer rather than a cultural commentator, was rehearsing his own group across the street.
“Stanley would come over, and he would say, ‘What you guys are playing is not s***,’” recalls Newton, though you can be sure Crouch did not abbreviate. “‘You should come hear my band.’ So one day I went. Mark Dresser was playing bass, Arthur Blythe was playing alto saxophone, Bobby Bradford was playing cornet, and there was a legendary trumpet player, Walter Lowe, who was this amazing visual artist too. And I just stood there with my jaw wide open. So they said, ‘Get out your flute.’ I’d only been playing it for three years.”
Newton, already studying with Dolphy’s teacher, the great multiwind player Buddy Collette, was proficient enough to stay in the band, playing “King Oliver, Cecil Taylor and everything in between.” Through this crowd he met saxist David Murray, who later helped him break into the New York scene.
Since then, Newton has done about everything a musician can. He had a successful album, African Flower, with Blue Note in 1985, only to have the same label pay him not to record two years later as the retrospective Age of Marsalis came to dominate. He’s played with Herbie Hancock, Kenny Burrell, Mingus Dynasty and anyone else who needs the kind of flutist who’s been named No. 1 in the Down Beat critics’ poll 19 years in a row. He’s made jazz, classical and electronic music all over the world. Some of his best recent recordings include the brilliant Suite for Frida Kahlo (Audioquest, 1994), the wild Good To Go with the Andrew Cyrille Trio (Soul Note, 1997) and the neoclassical As the Sound of Many Waters with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (New World, 2000).
Asked how his flute — you know, the little silver rod your sister tootles on — can penetrate so deeply, convey so many layers of passion, Newton says he practiced a lot and had great teachers. And?
“Duke and Messiaen both taught me a lot about the correlation between color and emotion. I’ll have visual images when I’m composing or playing, of certain colors and certain emotions, and I try to think at the level of nuance that the greatest writers have. The flute is the tool, but the body and the spirit and the soul, that’s the real instrument.”
His eyes water; his throat catches slightly. “And . . . I try to think of being an openness, where I just say, ‘Use me, Lord.’ It’s not about me. It’s about Him.”
Newton says his music, as well as his educational role, has much to do with knocking down those Jericho walls of money and race. And in teaching, a profession he practiced both at L.A.’s Wind College with John Carter and at CalArts before entering the statewide system, there are barriers involving what the hell jazz is.
“Jazz education has been one of the downfalls of the creativity of the music in the last 20 years,” he says. “I’ve tried to approach education from the perspective of the person finding his or her own voice. Science is a big, integral part of music, but another important part is the codes that exist. Some of those can’t be explained, they have to be felt. So I try for a precise and rigorous approach, and another approach that’s very intuitive, and bring them together. The most perfect model is Duke Ellington — you can have a composition like ‘C Jam Blues,’ with two notes, and then you can have the Black, Brown and Beige suite on the other end of the spectrum. The music has to be distilled, of course. You want to maintain certain things. But the thing you have to maintain the most of all is change. It’s always been about change, about taking big chances.”
Newton brings his theories to bear in the Luckman Jazz Orchestra, in which he uses the radical “conduction” methods of Butch Morris, where the conductor prompts spontaneous improvisations in his group — in this case including veterans such as trumpeter Snooky Young, trombonist George Bohanon, saxist Charles Owens, baritone saxist Jack Nimitz and bassist Dr. Art Davis, as well as younger sparks such as tuba player William Roper. They’ll be approaching Ellington, Mingus, Miles, Gil Evans and James Newton compositions in their own way.
“We’re not going to sound like other big bands. You have to put wild cards in your orchestra. You get your traditionalists, and you get your wild cards. That’s what Duke always did. I like the right notes, but I really love the wrong notes, too. When we walk onstage, I know: That music, with those players, is gonna be smokin’.”