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A Conductor on the Start of Something Big

Jazz * Cal State L.A.'s big band becomes a reality, with intrepid James Newton at the helm.


There's a new jazz big band in town, and it's coming from a fresh place. Leave it to James Newton, the famed flutist-composer-bandleader-educator, to pull it off, leading the adventurous, newly founded Luckman Jazz Orchestra, based at Cal State Los Angeles.

One afternoon this week, Newton, a large, friendly presence under a porkpie hat, could be found rehearsing his new band, warming up for tonight's inaugural concert at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex.

The chart on the music stands is a delicious rarity, Charles Mingus' "Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid Too," from Mingus' 1972 album, "Let My Children Hear Music." In this music, strictly scored sections weave in and out of improvised sections, giving Newton a chance to try his hand at "conduction," a technique of directing big-band improvisation pioneered by a Newton collaborator, Lawrence "Butch" Morris.

At one point, Newton's expressive direction takes on dance-like gestures. He stops the band in the midst of a collective improvisation, insisting, "You've got to put Bird in there too," referring to the trademark bebop riffs of Charlie "Bird" Parker. "That's what [Mingus] wants there, some fragments of Bird licks."

The band strikes up, this time with crisscrossing layers of chirping bebop riffs in the mix.

It's all in a day's work for Newton, who is happily implementing the vision for a resident jazz orchestra held for years by Luckman executive director Clifford Harper. Newton has long been a risk-taking luminary who happens to live in Los Angeles, his birthplace, but he doesn't make many high-profile appearances here. He plays frequently in Europe, and many of his commissions for classical work come from across the Atlantic. It was mainly in Europe, in fact, that Newton played in a unique big-band project led by saxophonist David Murray, the experience of which he claims colors his conception of what the Luckman Jazz Orchestra could develop into.

The Murray group had a program called "The Obscure Works of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn." Newton plans to program healthy doses of Ellingtonia into the Luckman repertoire, along with Mingus, original music and other items of musical interest, just outside the norm. He is conscious of the sizable cultural legacy he's entering with the Luckman ensemble.

"There is a real tradition of big band out here," Newton said. "We're blessed to have two of the greatest big bands in the world here: Gerald Wilson's and the Clayton-Hamilton bands are as good as it gets."

The 16-member Luckman Jazz Orchestra includes several local big-band regulars, including trumpeters Bobby Rodriguez and Snooky Young, tenor saxophonist Herman Riley, drummer Leon "Ndugu" Chancler and bassist Art Davis. Part of the orchestra's distinguishing musical agenda will reflect Newton's experience and tastes, extending from the conventional toward more experimental zones, also a local tradition.

"You also have to deal with the significance of Horace Tapscott and the Arkestra," Newton points out, referring to the influential L.A. pianist, composer and bandleader who died in 1999. "[They] created unbelievable music that changed the shape of many of us, and had a deep and profound effect upon not only just musicians, but all members of the community.

"We're blessed to have a really heavy tradition here . . . In Europe, I think, they look at the West Coast a lot more seriously than they do in other places. On the East Coast, we don't get as much respect as we're due."

Musical Life Defies Easy Categorization

Getting a fix on Newton's musical life can be slippery business. He's firmly ensconced in the jazz sphere, having won the best jazz flutist award in Down Beat's critics and readers polls for nearly 20 years. Yet he has also built up a healthy catalog of contemporary music compositions, is a Guggenheim Fellow and maintains an interest in "world music." Accordingly, his recent discography veers in various directions: "Southern Brothers," on the Water Lily Acoustics label, is a cross-cultural meeting with South Indian saxophonist musicians K. Gopalnath; last year's "As the Sound of Many Waters," on New World Records, is his first all-classical recording, which he performed with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players.

Newton's style-stretching instincts continue, and one of his works in progress is a tribute to a personal hero, Jimi Hendrix. For Newton, a list of prominent influences also has to include Eric Dolphy, Ravel, Mingus and Bartok.

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