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'Fixation' With Flute Leads to Notable Achievements

March 28, 1993|EDMUND NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PASADENA — Joann Jefferson says she had other plans for her son, Gregory--like maybe a career in the legal profession.

"Gregory Lawrence Jefferson--it's a good name for an attorney," she said.

But all of that changed when Gregory's elementary school music teacher showed him a flute.

The 8-year-old Pasadenan took one look at the silvery tube with the intricate keys and valves and he recognized his destiny. Gregory and the flute--it was kismet. He hounded his parents to buy him one, then retreated to his room to practice for hours at a time.

"I thought he was excessive about it," says Joann Jefferson, a receptionist at the Altadena Town and Country Club. "I'd say, 'Why don't you stop and get back to it tomorrow?' and he'd say, 'No, I'm OK, I'll get it today.' It was like a fixation."

Eight years later, Gregory, 16, has been recognized as one of the most promising instrumentalists of his generation. Earlier this month, he won the General Motors and Seventeen Magazine National Concerto Competition at Interlochen, Mich.

The contest, for which Gregory won $10,000 and a chance to perform as a soloist with the Detroit Symphony this spring, is probably the most prestigious in the country for high school-age musicians.

Making it even more of a coup for the tall, slim junior at the Los Angeles High School for the Performing Arts is the fact that he beat out a pianist, a violinist and a cellist for the prize. The repertoire for piano and violin, the darlings of composers who write concertos, is vast. By comparison, the flute is almost a neglected instrument.

"Going into this thing, you would have said that, no matter how good he was, he wouldn't beat out a good pianist or a good violinist," said Times music critic Daniel Cariaga, one of the contest judges.

"I really didn't expect to win," Gregory said the other day. "It was really high competition."

But Gregory, a six-footer with long, spidery fingers, played with such authority, Cariaga says, that he won hands-down.

Gregory's parents are still mystified by their son's talent. Neither Ruddie Jefferson, a lieutenant with the Sheriff's Department, nor Joann is particularly musical. Ruddie's father, the late Leon Jefferson, was a jazz violinist and pianist of some note when he lived in New Orleans. But after he moved to California, he worked mostly in construction.

"He did it (playing jazz) in small groups," Joann Jefferson says. "He never went professional."

Gregory's talent must have been a kind of gift, the parents say.

"We talk about it all the time," Ruddie Jefferson says. "What if he hadn't gotten the flute when he did? If you don't find it at the right time, it's forever lost."

Gregory himself, who rises at 5 a.m. daily to practice for two hours before school, is blase about his burgeoning career and all the attention it has brought him.

"I never knew what it was about the flute," he says. "It could have been the sound, it could have been anything. I just knew I wanted to play it."

Jim Walker, head of the flute department at USC and Gregory's teacher, says the boy has remarkable poise. Walker says he often asked Gregory about his preparations for the contest, for which he played the Mozart Flute Concerto 2 in D Major.

"I'd say, 'How's this one stacking up?' " Walker says. "And he'd say, 'No problem.' "

It has always been that way. When it comes to performing, it's "no problem" for Gregory. His father described an occasion when Gregory, at age 12, performed with Henry Mancini conducting the Los Angeles Symphony at the Hollywood Bowl.

"There were thousands and thousands of people in the audience," he recalled. "Gregory couldn't wait to get out on the stage."

"I like to be up front," Gregory concedes.

It was at Walker's house in the San Fernando Valley that Gregory met Irish flutist James Galway, the much acclaimed soloist. Galway, who had just played a concert at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, listened to Gregory perform an impressionistic piece by Georges Hue.

"He made a strong impression," Walker says. Galway arranged for the boy to travel to China the next year in an exchange program.

Gregory may be destined for a career as a major flute soloist, but he has other musical interests too. He wants to perform as a singer and dancer, a la Prince or Michael Jackson, he says. He's writing the music now. Some of the prize money from the contest will go for recording equipment.

He also studies jazz with jazz flutist and saxophonist Buddy Collette.

Walker says that Gregory is blossoming as a performer. It's not just the gorgeous tone and the immaculate technique. It's the young flutist's ability to communicate with his audience.

Gregory is playing with "a lot more expression now," Walker said, "a lot more understanding of musical styles. He's becoming more of a personality as a performer."

Ruddie Jefferson noticed it in Gregory's final performance at the concerto contest, in the concert hall at the Interlochen Center for the Arts.

"There were people around me in tears," he said. "Between movements, people were comparing him to the young Galway. I couldn't believe what I was hearing."

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