The following was done over the phone in late March and transcribed by Kevin Sun.
Ethan Iverson: We’re speaking the day after Arthur Blythe left us.
James Newton: Yes, we are. I’m flooded with emotion. I’m also overwhelmed with gratitude, and I say that because Arthur Blythe was one of the most giving people that I knew. I remember; specifically, I was playing in a jazz-rock group in Pomona. I was playing electric bass and I’d also been playing flute for a few years. Stanley Crouch lived across the street, and he said, “Your band sounds horrible, you should come hear my band, so next weekend, come hear my band and bring your flute!”
I walked into Stanley’s house, and it was Arthur Blythe, Bobby Bradford, Mark Dresser, and Stanley. (David Murray would join the band a few months later.) I sat down to listen, and I was astounded. I could hear the influence of Ornette a little bit in the shape of the music. But the other thing that struck me the most of all was just the genius of Bradford and Arthur Blythe together. It was astounding because their sounds were so significant, and they had such authority. This was about 1973, just before I think Bradford recorded Science Fiction or he had just recently done it with Ornette. Arthur was really into late Coltrane at that time. I’d never heard an alto that had that kind of weight on the bottom of the horn. It was like being in church. Trane had that thing coming out of a line of preachers, and Arthur had a similar sound in his music. The playing scooped you up emotionally, you found yourself in these spaces that were very rare and very precious and very powerful, emotionally. Hearing Arthur and then hearing this phenomenal logic of the construction of solos that Bobby Bradford would put together, where you could just see one idea and then another and then another and then the dialogue among the ideas! At this time they were playing solos for 15 to 20 minutes. When I heard them, I felt this is where I needed to be.
At that time I could barely play. I remember I asked Frank Wess about something once and I said, “Well, what did you think of that person’s playing?” And Frank Wess said, “They sound like a fart in a windstorm,” and I don’t think I was much better than that.
Everybody displayed incredible patience and gave me the opportunity to learn a lot. Performing with that level of musicians was something that had such a major impact on me. We stretched out a lot because everyone was so into Duke and the way the Ellington orchestra would hit your body was so important.
David Murray and I were just talking yesterday about how beautiful Arthur was as a human being, and you know, just a major artist on every level. And I love the things he did with Abdul Wadud and Bob Stewart, and Arthur’s work with Horace Tapscott in LA was really important. Arthur was one of the major musicians in the city before he moved to New York, and Arthur never forgot people. He was always doing things for other people.
When I came to New York, Arthur Blythe and David Murray set me up. Two weeks after I had moved in, I was at Columbia studios, doing the Lenox Avenue Breakdown recording and there’s Jack DeJohnette, Cecil McBee, Blood Ulmer, Guillermo Franco, and Bob Stewart, and wow! David Murray gave me a place to live. “Stay here as long as you need so you can save up enough money to move your family to New York.” That’s something I’ll never forget. So all of us were close, we looked out for one another, it’s something precious in my memory. David also arranged for him and me to do a month-long duo tour of Holland, which was my first European tour. The music soared.
Arthur Blythe: that’s the most compelling alto sound that I’ve ever heard in my life. I can say that without actually thinking twice about it, you know. The ability to seamlessly put together late Coltrane and Charles Christopher Parker, to make that work within a language is no small leap. He figured out a way to bring those two elements together and create something that was his own.
EI: When you mentioned combining Bird and Trane, the first thing that comes to my mind is how they really were both bluesmen.
JN: I’m trying to tell you! They used to call him “B. B. B.,” “Blues Boy Blythe,” you know?
I think that’s one of the things that was really stressed by both Bradford and Arthur. You had to have a close relationship to the blues and the feeling of the blues in the context of music that does not use blues form. Of course, Ellington is someone who laid it out for all of us who came after him. Also, we looked to Billie Holiday and so many others who took that approach and created art that will last for millennia and further.
So the blues was always, always in the equation. Also, a lot of us came out of the black church, and we could all hear it and feel it in Trane’s playing. I’ve thought so much about why Trane took his direction late in life. In one of the very last recordings, Expression, it’s like he’s partially coming back to changes again and including it in his previous explorations, and all of a sudden his search is coming full circle.
But what I love about Arthur is that I think he took that influence and figured out a way to do something that no one else that was touched by Trane’s music did. During that period in the 70s, Trane’s influence was probably as large as Bird’s was right after his passing, and so, yeah, Arthur Blythe, wow.
EI: It seems to me that you’re saying a lot of music post-Coltrane influenced by Coltrane wasn’t so bluesy or connected to the church.
JN: Yeah, in part. There were people who had those connections, and there were others who didn’t. On the other hand, I strongly feel that people should have the freedom to create in the way that they are motivated. I guess part of that mentality comes from the fact that I did not start reading music until I was 18 years old, and I did not pick up the flute until I was 16. I played by ear for a few years before I read a note of music, so I had to develop my ears. Mainly I was playing rhythm and blues, and I was also playing electric bass in a Hendrix cover band.
EI: Ok, James so this is our cue to go back, why don’t you lay it out for us where you’re from, where you grew up, and how you got into music.
JN: Sure. I was born in LA, May 1, 1953. We did not stay in Los Angeles for very long because my father was in the army as a career man for 20 years. We were moving all the time. I always said that I got used to the life that I lived as an adult because I had already lived that way as a child. We spent a lot of time in Germany; I remember living in Augsburg, Munich, Ulm, and Dachau. We lived in Dachau for about a year and a half; this was about 1962 and 1963. Death was still hanging like a cloud in the air. Death was pervasive. I was trying to deal with that and also trying to deal with images of American lynchings that I had seen in books and magazines. It struck me at a very young age that the lowest common denominator in humanity can drop insanely low.
Two things were gigantic in my childhood. The first is this: we would go home to the States to visit family. My mother was from Aubrey, Arkansas. (Oliver Lake is my cousin, and he’s from Aubrey!) We would go back home during the summers, and I’d have a chance to be on my grandparents’ farm, so that gave me a world of experience. I remember my father had bought a Gründig reel-to-reel tape recorder in Germany, and the word got out, and people would come to my grandparents’ farm to record. It was like my father was doing fieldwork! There’d be gospel quartets and blues singers coming to the house, and they were just thrilled to hear themselves played back on tape.
The first time that music touched me in a way I could not comprehend was in Aubrey when I was about four or five. Four women were singing a cappella in a church. They were singing spirituals, and I couldn’t recall the spirituals they were singing, but I remember my spine tingling, and I remember being transported to a space that I have been chasing for the rest of my life. I’ve always wanted to get there because it was maybe the warmest space I could imagine as a child. Nothing else felt like that, so I’ve been chasing that ever since both as a performer and composer.
And I remember another occurrence in Munich, Germany when our school went on a field trip (I can still smell the diesel fumes from the school bus) and I was 9. We went to a museum, and there was an El Greco exhibition. Seeing that art planted the seed for having a deep passion for visual art, which has continued to grow throughout my life.
The church thing and the blues thing from those experiences from down South, together with my passion for visual art, have forever changed me. They led me on a pathway. It took me a long time to understand the pathway. Sometimes you walk through life, and the revelation does not hit you immediately, it might hit you over decades. Then suddenly you arrive in this space where you have an understanding of what you’re supposed to produce as an artist. Your unique path becomes clear with a goal in mind to lay down something that is going to stand the test of time. It is a reflection of the things that are important to you: the passions that you have about artists that have influenced you and the way that you feel about your surroundings, about your family, about the political climate, how you feel about walking in nature and understanding why women and men are obsessed with trying to capture nature within the context of art for thousands of years.
EI: What was your first instrument?
JN: It was the electric bass. We came back to California before the riots; I remember being in South Central LA during the Watts Riots. Anyway, I started with the electric bass at 12 after my parents moved to San Pedro, Ca. I joined a rhythm and blues groups and was singing the high falsetto parts in three-part harmonies. Anthony Brown, the composer, multiple percussionist, drummer, bandleader in the Bay Area and an incredible scholar and a member of Asian Improv, was my childhood friend. We started working like crazy in a Hendrix cover band called Axis (how original!) after I left the R&B group. The Hendrix cover band’s repertoire consisted of compositions from Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love and some pieces from Electric Ladyland, along with some standard blues pieces. Hendrix has been a significant influence on what I’ve done. I still listen to him all the time. I think he’s one of the greatest orchestrators, the way he would layer the guitars and he’d have different effects on the different guitars impacted the way I approach orchestration. Hendrix also had a special relationship with the blues: This is somebody that studied both country blues and urban blues, and to this day, I can’t wrap my head around the conclusions that he drew from his studies at a young age. The way he used the blues to have a beautiful dialogue with all this experimentation that was occurring was another thing that I’ve tried to keep with me as I moved through the evolution of my musical language.
There was a friend who played incidental music on the flute behind Death of a Salesman. That moment really hit me, and I said, hey, I want to play the flute. I was 16 and went to a pawnshop (on November 22, 1968) and got a flute that leaked like I don’t know what, but I just fell in love with the instrument right away and started practicing a lot. Eventually, I entered Mount San Antonio Junior College. My reading wasn’t that good, but by the end of the first year, I’d caught up with the people there, and maybe I moved forward a little bit more because I was practicing six to eight hours a day. I quickly learned to read because when you take so much music from recordings, you’ll hear a rhythm and you’ll say, I know that rhythm, and then you’ll look at the score, and you’ll say, “Ah, that’s what that rhythm looks like notated.”
I fell in love with Eric Dolphy’s playing and composing, and I sought out Buddy Collette to study. I studied with Buddy for at least 15 years. Even in the ‘80s when I was coming back to California from New York, I continued studying with him. I’d always come back to him to get tuned up. He was such a master teacher. Buddy Collette was still in my ear long after the early days. I’d see Buddy Collette being called to do classical saxophone gigs of contemporary music. He’d just put another mouthpiece on his instrument and make that mental shift. I remember hearing him playing a work of T.J. Anderson’s that I love, “Variations on a Theme by M. B. Tolson,” but man, what a piece and Buddy just killed it.
EI: Collette taught Eric Dolphy, right?
JN: Oh yes, he did.
EI: Who else did he teach?
JN: Charles Lloyd and so many others. Charles and I talk about Buddy Collette all of the time. Charles and I both are incredibly grateful for Buddy Collette because he was a musician’s musician. I love Charles, and I learned a great deal from him.
There’s a school, and I consider myself to be a part of it, and I’m very honored to be a part of it. Not just Buddy Collette but also Lloyd Reese, one of those seminal figures in Los Angeles music who taught Eric and taught Mingus. The way that I look at it, there’s a whole school premised on the fact that Art Tatum was in LA a lot during that time, and his harmonic thinking impacted a lot of the musicians here. Mingus and Dolphy were learning things about Tatum’s harmonies from Lloyd Reese. If you look at the essay Mingus wrote in Let My Children Hear Music; he discusses the fact that Lloyd Reese is breaking down a part of Stravinsky’s Firebird to him and he’s trying to figure out what the heck is going on. And, if we step back and look, if you have a circle with a 25-30-mile radius at that time, who would be within that circle? Tatum, Mingus, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Dolphy. All within that space!
Now let’s step back and go a little further. Jazz did not touch Schoenberg so much other than what he might have picked up from Gershwin, but Stravinsky had a relationship with ragtime and jazz for the majority of his career, and one of Schoenberg’s students was teaching 12 tone techniques to Buddy Collette and some other people. Mel Powell was similarly bridging the different communities for a different set of evolved reasons a few decades later. Reese’s tenure was so exciting. You have this beautiful wedding of traditionalism and experimentation occurring at the same time, and I’ve always tried to be between both the worlds, you know, and that model comes out of Lloyd Reese’s school. It also comes from Buddy, Eric, and Mingus and so many other people in LA in the late 40s and 50s.
A lot of people don’t know that there was a dialogue between Eric Dolphy and Bird when Bird was in Camarillo. One of the things that Bird had discussed with Eric that he wanted to get done was to have the ability to study with Varèse, and Eric kept that in himself. That’s just my humble opinion that he just kept it in his mind. He learned Varèse’s seminal flute solo, Density 21.5. Hale Smith took Eric to Varèse’s house in New York because he knew him, and after an extended session going through the work, Varèse signed a copy of Density 21.5 score, dedicated to Eric. It is in the Library of Congress.
EI: James, this may be a tangent, but when I think about LA in the 40s and 50s, I also think of Hollywood and all that incredible music, where the musicians involved in many of the greatest film scores had to know something about jazz and know something about classical music.
JN: It’s true. It’s entirely true. You had many film composers that were delving into contemporary classical music and jazz: I would say, you know, from early jazz up to postbop.
I’ll tell you a few things. There were segregated unions in LA. Buddy Collette and Red Callender — another significant influence for me who shaped so much of what I’m doing — helped to merge the segregated unions. Marl Young, Jerry Fielding, and Groucho Marx were important in supporting these efforts. There are always these absurd stereotypes: jazz musicians can’t read. Before Red came to Los Angeles, he was the principal bassist in the Honolulu Symphony. They were fluent in many different styles of music. One of the things that was always important about let’s say a particular LA school would be the ability to sit in some environments, including film, and be able to have all that music laid out in front of you and you sight read it with authority and stylistic flexibility. The ability to blend your sound with others was also stressed to a high degree.
Because I was a late bloomer and started the flute late, one of the things that Collette stressed over and over and over to me, and I have put a lot of time into, was sight reading. Another reason why I had to put a lot of time into it was that my father initially hated the fact that I decided to become a musician. One of the first things that he said to me was, “I didn’t’ work my way out of poverty for you to turn around and slide right back into it.” And he was very serious! When he found out that I was determined to become a musician, in his typical fashion, he did a lot of research and he said, “I heard you have to learn how to sight-read well.” He was right, it became very important, and it helped me a great deal in my career.
’ll tell you another story that’s not well known that I learned from Mel Powell. When Stravinsky was writing Agon, he asked Conte Candoli to come to his house in Hollywood, because there were certain alternate fingerings for the trumpet that jazz musicians were using that he wanted to familiarize himself with to get certain effects that he incorporated in Agon. And Agon does not have an in-your-face jazz influence, as opposed to say the first movement of Symphony in Three Movements, which is just so full of jazz iconography.
But, yeah, so, I mean, there was this kind of hybrid musician that came out of the demands of Hollywood as well as the creative endeavors that were occurring in the African-American community during that time. There was also the impact of Los Angeles gospel, cool jazz, and R&B. It was a stylistically diverse period in the music.
Also, in LA, there’s an abundance of trees and nature everywhere. Birdsong orchestrated Eric’s neighborhood. Much later, Freddie Hubbard roomed with Eric Dolphy in Brooklyn, and Freddie told me how Eric would go up on the roof to practice and dialogue with the birds. I think the environment makes a difference, you know? So if you add that element to the equation, then you can understand that the music had to go a different way in L.A. It’s not like a hyper-urban environment in the Midwest or New York City or Baltimore. Different, like the musicians who came up out of the South who had a thing that was very specific having to do with the fact that there’s an in your face blues aesthetic occurring and spirituals and gospel music embedded in so much of that language. And just like, Dallas and New Orleans are going to give you two things that are different, but have significant commonalities having to do with how the roots of the music flourished within those particular environments.
L.A. has that thing, too, but it’s just in a different way. I loved it when Andrew Cyrille called Los Angeles, “Lower Alabama.” Yep. In other words, there are a lot of country people that were a part of the Southern migration to L.A.
EI: After college, did you keep playing recitals of European classical music?
JN: Oh yeah. I did that up until deep in the 1990s. I used to occasionally get with different people to play a lot of repertoire.
EI: You must have had a graduation program or something, do you remember what that was?
JN: For my senior recital, I played J.S. Bach’s E Minor Sonata for Flute and Harpsichord, Debussy’s Trio Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, the Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for flute and piano, and the Ibert Flute Concerto. I still love listening to the Ibert. I love the Ibert even more because I heard from some of my elders that he came to America and upset a lot of folks because they asked Ibert who was the most important American composer and his response was Duke Ellington.
JN: A couple of years before he died, the Hollywood Music Society of Film Composers honored Toru Takemitsu. They asked him, who is your favorite composer, who has inspired you the most? And Takemitsu stood up, and he said, “Duke Ellington.” And I said to myself, “Aw man! That’s what time it is!”
I went through a period where I did a lot of solo flute concerts in the 70s and 80s, and in those concerts, I played works of my own. I might play pieces by Ellington, Monk or Mingus, and different colleagues of mine. But I would also play Density 21.5 by Varese, Mei or Requiem by Fukushima, Debussy’s Syrinx, and other classical solo repertoire mixed in.
EI: Jolivet wrote some good flute music, right?
JN: Yeah! I would practice his Concerto pour flûte et orchestre a cordes, and he also wrote a lot of amazing solo flute repertoire like Chant de Linos. I loved the polymodality in Jolivet’s music, and it’s also rhythmically compelling. He’s grown a little bit out of fashion, and that’s sad. Hopefully, he’ll have resurgence.
EI: And then there’s Messiaen.
JN: When I went through the music Dolphy had left with Hale and Juanita Smith. I learned a lot. I loved seeing Jaki Byard’s and Randy Weston’s music in the Dolphy collection. There were a lot of Latin composers’ scores. Dolphy was a Panamanian-American. He also had Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir. So Dolphy was into Messiaen a before he died in ’64. It is possible that Messiaen’s music could very well have inspired some of Dolphy’s own birdsong explorations.
It’s just incredible, looking at the journey of rapid development that Messiaen had, how he got a lot more specific about how birdsong worked and how he would translate it into his compositions. Then you can look the rapid development of Eric Dolphy, from the Chico Hamilton recordings when Buddy Collette got Eric that gig, to 1960. It is like the language is an exploding sonic boom. Getting back to the flute repertoire, Andrew White left us with accurate transcriptions of some of Eric’s solos, and they were harder than Berio’s Sequenza, the most challenging music in the classical repertoire of that timeframe. The transcriptions of Eric’s solo demanded so much more technically than the Berio.
So I connect Messiaen and Eric beyond the love of birdsong, there’s also this almost insatiable desire for expansion and development of techniques along with the celebration of faith and beauty.
When I was 19, and I heard the “Liturgie of Cristal” from the Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps, that was one of those moments when I realized that I was in a space where art is playing with technique in profoundly new ways. The language is very different. It’s like you’re breathing rare air, and it took me a while to understand, “OK, I can hear the birdsong,” you know. I purchased the score quickly after hearing that first performance, and it stated, “Comme un oiseau,” “like a bird.”
There’s astonishing ability to be able to have these different planes of musical composition co-existing with independence among one another but still at the same time connecting. The harmonic cycle is different from the cycle of rhythms. I remember the rhythmic pedal has seventeen values and the harmonic loop consists of twenty-nine chords, and you have this incredible fluid birdsong that’s occurring in both the clarinet and the violin, and I believe you have a rhythmic pedal of five notes in the cello. I have to go back and look at that specifically, but one of the things is the color specificity of the musical language. The first chord starts with the double appoggiatura, resolving to an F13; and after the double appoggiatura occurs, the resolution is an F13 and check out this voicing: F G Bb C (left hand) each dyad a whole step apart, and in the right hand you’ve got Eb A D, combinations of fourths, one perfect and the other augmented. I’m going, “Whoa, wait a minute. What?” Those first two chords…it’s almost as if you do not need to hear anything else after that, they’re so profound! But it’s also those specific voicings; it’s the dynamics, it’s again the color specificity that just grabbed me to no end.
Then, in the next decade, the real birdsong revelation is dropped, and that is Catalogue d’Oiseaux, because Messiaen has observed the flight of birds in their environment and transformed that flight into musical lines. He’s dealt with a particular bird that was flying just above a lake near a cliff, and he also considered the time of the day that the music was written and other aspects of the environment. Just like other non-Western music performance must occur at different specific times of the day or evening. Messiaen pushed himself to a place where no one else could be, and very few people understood, you know? Yvonne Loriod understood where he was, but very few other people did.
Now let’s look at Eric. Everyone knows Eric loved Charles Christopher Parker to no end. You hear it in Eric’s language to the nth degree, but what he did was construct scales and modes that were his own, that he incorporated not only into the compositions but even more so in the way that he approached playing the changes, which sometimes means he’d play notes that some musicians thought were incorrect. But that’s what he was hearing. There was this beautiful and rigorous dialogue going on between Yusef Lateef, John Coltrane, George Russell and Eric Dolphy, where they were theoreticians of the highest order that were sharing their found information with one another and impacting one another’s art in profound ways, you know?
But with Dolphy, it’s not just the way that he approached harmony that was so unique, the choice of instruments was also unique. Look what he did with the bass clarinet! And he’s still my favorite flute player by far. His alto playing developed out of his love of Bird, Rabbit, Benny Carter and others.
He spoke Spanish also, which might have had an impact on part of the uniqueness and specificity of his articulation. If you go to the Library of Congress and you look at his scores, you’re going to see all these different modes and synthetic scales written underneath his compositions. Some people are thinking, “Oh, he’s just playing free.” Oh, no, not quite.
Both Eric and Messiaen…there’s like a shadow chasing them and they have to keep moving; they have to keep pushing the bar. If Eric would have lived to be 60 or 70, I can’t imagine what he would have been doing.
How many people in the music that you and I love, start off with an interval of three octaves and a half step? I’m talking about “Gazzelloni.” There’s so much Monk in his music. Monk’s harmonic voicings have a crystal clear clarity because of the way that he colors rhythm by accents, syncopations and a wide range of touches to the piano.
EI: When you mentioned that Messiaen voicing, I thought of Ellington and Monk.
It’s that same kind of specificity, that same kind of resonance.
JN: Oh let me tell you, you’re talking right on it. Those are my cats because of that specificity, you know? And also, the space of mind and heart to hear that specificity and run with it to define the human condition in the way that only they could do!
I stopped doing this, but I used to ask composition students to stand up and just say “I love you.” I’d have them yell it! Then I’d have them say it a little lower than yelling…then I’d have them whisper it. I did this to help them understand the change drastically in dynamics dramatically impacts meaning. The Basie band could play at such a whisper. The Ellington band could also perform at a whisper. That’s one of the things that just floored me about the MJQ: I loved it when that band played quietly with Milt hitting blues out of the park home runs. The harmonic colors become so gigantic, and the groove was swingissimmo!
I wish we could have seen Eric pushing to the limit as an elder statesman of the music. We did see Messiaen push himself to the limit when he created his opera, Saint François d’Assise. I think it took him six years to compose the music and two years for him and Yvonne Loriod to write out the parts from the score. Now that is commitment. Composing is not an art form that you can approach without realizing that if you’re going to do great things, you’re going to have to bleed — and you’re going to have to bleed a lot.
EI: I know you’ve paid some heavy dues, James. Tell me more about becoming a jazz flute player.
JN: My father loved Duke Ellington, and he loved the blues; my mother loved spirituals and gospel music, so that’s what I heard growing up. But I was also attracted to In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Live at the Fillmore, that was the music that I listened to when I was in high school, probably the music with which I was most obsessed. (I didn’t know at the time how much Hendrix had impacted Miles, and so that’s another draw in hearing the wah wah pedals and everything.) I bought Filles de Kilimanjaro, and I wasn’t quite ready for it at first, but it didn’t take long before I fell in love with it, so that was where I was coming from. I was coming out of Weather Report’s first and second albums. I was coming out of Mwandishi big time, when I heard them play at Donte’s in L.A., it was a life-changing experience. (There are two people in that band I’m now really close to, Billy Hart and Bennie Maupin.) I had heard Ornette a little bit, and I knew some of late Coltrane.
So the first day I’m spending time with Stanley Crouch and Arthur Blythe I’m just in awe. Stanley had an incredible record collection: I’m hearing King Oliver for the first time, I’m hearing Sun Ra in depth for the first time.
The first time I heard Debussy’s La Mer was when Stanley played it for me…
JN: Yeah, that’s a kind of funny story because people do not associate Stanley with Debussy, they always laugh at that.
This was also the first time I heard the music of the forest people of central Africa. I became obsessive about that music because of its inherent spirituality and deep beauty. I also found out Eric was into it, and long before learning that this is music that drew Ligeti’s attention and others. Eric and Trane were learning the beauty, mystery, and deep intellectualism in the music and culture. I always thought that this music was one of the reasons why Eric’s musical language utilizes so much octave displacement. Of course, his music was also inspired by Monk’s use of octave displacement.
The other crucial gift of that period was hearing Bobby Bradford talk about the history of our music. Bradford is one of the most brilliant scholars that I know. I put Bobby and Billy Hart in the category of being teachers whose level of discourse is in the stars, with an ability to break down so many different elements of music and culture in a provocative and profound manner.
Bradford would talk about different articulations. He’d say, “Man, isn’t that funny, that opening phrase of ‘Half Nelson,’” and he’d give you the articulation for it. All of these experiences impacted my flute playing immensely.
Different people would come through Stanley’s house: John Carter, who became a close friend, mentor, and collaborator. David Baker came through playing rich, imminently melodic cello, which was a beautiful experience. Mark Dresser’s teacher Bertram Turetzky came through, and we played with him. His bow work was astounding, as was the rapport between Burt and Mark! Butch Morris also came through playing cornet (heavily influenced by Don Cherry) and bringing some beautiful compositions.
I also just learned so much from Stanley during that period. He would talk about literature a lot, and I was a sponge. I remember a time when four of us were living in a house together in Pomona, David Murray, Stanley, a lady by the name of Monica Pecot and myself. Outside of working and going to school, it was, you know, nonstop creation.
Stanley was incredibly patient with me and gave me a lot of love. He was a very important mentor for David, Mark, and me. When he said, “OK, you can come back next week,” it was the most joyous thing to hear those words.
I said I would bring my amplifier and my microphone. Stanley said, “F– the microphone, F– the amplifier! You put some F–ing wind in that flute!” And it started to make me think about having a big sound that could project and stand up next to the alto, stand up next to the trumpet (or Bobby was playing cornet) and have that kind of power. So that was something I worked on extensively.
Like I said, to hear Bobby Bradford and Arthur go at it: OK, this is what you have to begin to think about to construct a solo. Even though I could not do it at the time, I began to understand that these were some of the parameters about which I had to be thinking.
Eventually, they all moved to New York. I came a little later, and they all looked out for me.
EI: Of course, these New York years would prove very fertile, there would be a lot of recording, a lot of projects, and a couple of records that stuck out to me feature Abdul Wadud.
JN: Yeah, man!
EI: I think he’s kind of a special musician of quite remarkable qualities. I thought maybe I could get you to talk about Abdul Wadud a little bit.
JN: I LOVE ABDUL WADUD! Let me now tell you something. Let’s go back to the blues. Wadud knew how to play the blues and had a deep feeling for it. It’s like if you could imagine Robert Johnson playing the cello, there it is, you know?
Then let’s go to another extreme: I remember when we did Anthony Davis’s piece, Still Waters, written for the trio, with the New York Philharmonic.
(We were all impacted by Toru Takemitsu’s music. Takemitsu wrote a piece for Tashi and then created a second version with orchestra entitled Quatrain. That was similar to what Anthony did: Still Waters could be for a trio or work with trio plus symphony orchestra.)
We were on the stage at Alice Tully Hall. We walked on the stage, and the orchestra was like, “OK, who are these guys?” Almost always, when you work with orchestras, you get to the point where you have to prove something to them. There are very few times when you get the support you need right away. You need to prove to them that you know what’s going on, and you know how to navigate in that environment in a way that can make the music can happen. OK, we started rehearsing a lot of written passages with them, and after about 15 minutes into the rehearsal, the principal cellist says, “Mr. Wadud, could you please tell me the fingering that you’re using for that particular phrase?” Then, it was over. We had won! The orchestra could not believe the three of us. They were like, “Who are these cats? How come we don’t know about them?”
If I had to pick five musicians that I have worked with in my life where I cherished the experience of working with them, Wadud would easily be on that list. He’d probably be in the top three. He could work with so many different composers; he is a composer himself, he is a complete musician and so stylistically diverse and can articulate so many different styles of music with full authority. And just a cat that is so much fun to be around. I read something recently where he said, “Anthony Davis and James, those are my boys!” Well, he’s our boy! I could not imagine the cello doing what it was able to do in Abdul’s hands and hear something else. In that trio we would push each other, and some of the stuff that we demanded the other to play was close to the edge of impossibility. The improvisation impacted the composition, and there was a fluidity. There was almost exponential development with that Trio. I still have in my mind a concert we did in Basel in the early 80s. It was one of those nights where the music was almost perfect. I can’t think of any other experience where I felt that was the case. There was always this long list of things that I think each of us felt we could have done a lot better, but these cats and what we had together was special. And, I think the strongest component in that equation was Abdul Wadud. I really do.
EI: I’ve Known Rivers is great, and if you know this music, it’s known as a classic record. But another cut that is special is the duo of you, “The Preacher and the Musician,” from Portraits, That’s an extended composition that covers a lot of area and flute and cello, it’s a vulnerable situation, but it’s a very compelling listen.
JN: Thank you, I appreciate that very much. I wrote it for a preacher friend, Dwight Andrews, who did a lot of work with some musicians like Wadada Leo Smith, Geri Allen, Jay Hoggard and many others. He’s an amazing human being and a great inspiration
“The Preacher and the Musician” has a lot of different influences. The swing sections reflect the influence of Monk, and at the end, I was thinking about this incredible duo composition, The Jet Whistle by Heitor Villa-Lobos, that was kind of mixing some of those Brazilian elements with my compositional take on American blues and Brazilian saudade. That’s the thing about Wadud; he was comfortable no matter what diverse places you might go for inspiration.
He is a real master of the bow. The bow is connected to singing. Some cellists can kind of be near Sarah Vaughan and her airstream, which produces a dizzying array of subtle nuances and various speeds of vibrati. I love that Tomeka Reid is moving the cello forward in the younger generation with her enriching, distinctive style.
EI: There’s a lot of records from this era. We won’t be able to go through all of them right now, but I’ll keep listening of course.
Stanley was the voice for this scene; he wrote liner notes for you and David Murray, and then perhaps there’s a change when the Marsalises come in. I wasn’t there at the time, but it feels like that there was a big shift of where the conversation was in terms of what was important in the music.
JN: I always felt that there’s room for stylistic multiplicity. People can develop in different directions. Not everybody is going to be a Miles Davis. If we look historically, some great artists have chosen a primary style and focus and stayed within the area where they were once the innovators. I’ve always thought that that is valid. Then there are people like Mary Lou Williams, Randy Weston, Coleman Hawkins, who go through the different eras and embrace the innovations that occur and are comfortable with them. We can think about Max Roach, Eric Dolphy, and Coleman Hawkins playing together in the 60s, or Hawk and Sonny Rollins with Paul Bley, or Mary Lou Williams and Cecil Taylor.
In the 80s, we have to look at what was occurring politically. There have always been periods where things are really conservative or unwelcoming to innovation. At one point there was a migration of musicians, who were living in New York, moving to Copenhagen and other cities to be able to survive and to develop their art. We know that Tootie Heath, who we both love to the nth degree, also spent some time there.
EI: Tootie told me directly that he felt like he couldn’t live in America anymore at that moment.
JN: Yeah. I know the feeling. There’s been a lot of investment in trying to make this nation a better place, but this is a very distorted period right now. I have my family here, and my roots are here, but if it weren’t for those factors, I might have considered making a change.
It is a shadow-filled period, but the Reagan era was a challenging time also, and I think those challenges permeated an attack on the innovative aspects of the art form.
In the first live Young Lions recording, there was a lot of diversity. A lot of different musical styles coexisted, but I think what happened is that fewer of the major press covered the avant-garde. I can remember before the Young Lions concert, Newsweek magazine printed a feature on David Murray, Anthony Davis, and me, with President Kennedy on the cover. There were also things in Vanity Fair that would crop up that would garner a lot of attention.
EI: Henry Threadgill did an ad for Dewar’s Scotch.
JN: Oh yeah, now we’re talking about one of the great geniuses of the music. I heard Air when I first moved to New York in 1978, I think it was February, Charlie’s Beefsteak House, I sat there and listened to three sets, and I said, Well, maybe I need to go back home to LA and practice another six months and then come back. I mean, they scared me to death. The music was that great, and I felt like that band was golden, and it should have flourished.
But people like Threadgill, Geri Allen, Anthony Davis, Jane Ira Bloom and some other artists stated, “We are composers.” And that was part of the difficulty. The focus in the early days with a lot of the more conservative Young Lions was on playing standards. They did write their own music, but …
EI: But not experimental music…
JN: …Not experimental music, and we were not ready to let experimental music die on the vine because there’s a conservative shift in what’s receiving attention. The good news during that period was that you could work like crazy in Europe. There were 100s of boutique jazz labels that afforded you the ability to document your music. Over here, Bob Cummins of India Navigation and Jonathan M.P. Rose of Gramavision displayed broad tastes, both paid royalties, and Rose recorded the musicians at a very high technical level and did not sweat on making sure that the music was documented in a very sophisticated fashion…
…But what are you going to do? The shift occurred. I felt very blessed, I felt very fortunate, and some other people were able to do really well, but let’s talk about some of the pain because I think we do have to address the pain. There were attacks on Anthony Braxton that I would put in the category of being just downright cruel, and that bothered me to no end. He is my friend, and his music has consistently been a source of great inspiration. The environment became: either you’re doing it like us, or it’s not happening. There was some manipulation occurring. Being an artist of color is tough in this society. Being an artist in society is difficult, to begin with, as is the struggles that exist for women in the music. Women artists of color have to face both the pervasive racism and the sexism that exists in our society.
Marsalis’s critique of Braxton had an impact on Braxton’s livelihood for a period. This is a man who had the responsibility of co-supporting his family with his wife, Nickie. Braxton really broke new ground. We need people that are on the front line taking chances; otherwise we wouldn’t have Duke, Billie Holiday, Monk, Mary Lou Williams, Gil Evans, Jon Jang, Nicole Mitchell, Steve Coleman, Jason Moran, Kei Akagi, Jen Shyu, Craig Taborn, Aruan Ortiz, and others. Marsalis is a great trumpet player whom I’ve heard on the stage at Carnegie Hall playing side by side, nothing but respect; this guy is playing the mess out of the trumpet. But there’s room for everybody to do what needs to be done, and a stylistically dominant agenda in jazz is like bringing Coca-Cola to a five-star dinner, rather than an excellent vintage of Château Lafite-Rothschild.
This period was also personally challenging because Stanley and I often found ourselves in opposition politically and in our views about what should or should not be happening with the music. Our friendship has remained because we have a bond that goes back to those early days and most of all, Duke Ellington is number one for both of us.
Back to the cultural divide between traditionalism and experimentalism: when I did look back, I saw something different than some of the traditionalists. Innovation has always been the focal point of the tradition. Look at all the different styles of music that Jelly Roll Morton put together to lay down the compositional foundation for jazz. It came out of Scott Joplin (the original blueprint) but also so many other aspects of his unique view of his hometown and his travels throughout the nation. He mixed Blues, Ragtime, French and Italian Opera, and many diverse dance forms. What is called jazz has always been multicultural and has had a fluidity with mixing (on every level) that has always been far ahead of society in which it was created.
In the early 80s, there were times when a lot of us just said, well, we’ll have to spend a little bit more time on the airplane and the trains, and we did fine. As we got further into the ‘80s, there were some tough periods. In 1985, I was a guest artist at Cal Arts. We performed a lot of music from the Luella recording. John Clayton played bass so beautifully; he had just come from Amsterdam where he was principal bassist in one of the orchestras there. The students started a petition for me to join the faculty and I started teaching. I knew that I would lose a lot of money by giving up touring for part of the year, but I knew that long term, it would be the right decision and that’s turned out to be true. Most importantly, it provided me with the gift of being able to have much more time for my family.
And in those first few years at Cal Arts, here are some of the students that I taught: Ravi Coltrane, Ralph Alessi, Scott Colley, Willie Jones III, Marcus Shelby…I can just go on and on, Pedro Eustache, who’s an incredible flute player. I studied with this guy as I was teaching him because he was so great. So I realized that there was a lot I could learn in the teaching process.
EI: In 1984 you made an epic and virtuosic recording called Echo Canyon, which is flute composition and improvisation with crickets and other natural nightlife heard clearly in an amphitheater. I feel like there’s some kind of Afro-American patterning that I can recognize as sort of American Black Experimental Music. Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra.
JN: There’s a lot of discussion now about Afrofuturism, that captures part of what you’re discussing. Hendrix is also in that equation of Afrofuturism. If we look at what Sun Ra did, it was amazing. They had to make sure Sun Ra got one of the first Moogs. Sun Ra had something really special to give the world. And I remember in 1978 in Pisa, Italy, I opened solo flute for the Sun Ra Arkestra in the amphitheater. After my set was over, you know, I was able to spend time with the band that was so beautiful and I got to know different players in the orchestra. It was very powerful and very compelling. I remember another time where Ra held court on a flight from New York to Amsterdam, and we had about a four-hour bus ride to Groningen (I was with David Murray and Anthony Davis), and I just sat there, I barely said a word, I just sat there and took it all in.
Cecil Taylor. Ah, man. Unit Structures, Conquistador, those were really important, as were Indent and Spring of Two Blue J’s, those two solo recordings.
That’s my culture. It’s who I am. But my parents always taught me; if you can learn from something or someone else, learn it. On Echo Canyon, there are cuts that are impacted by the Japanese shakuhachi tradition, and the imprint of Toru Takemitsu’s November Steps, where he puts the shakuhachi and biwa in front of the orchestra instead of forcing them to come together still lasts within me. He has them in contrast, not wanting them to come together; he wants the foreignness of the orchestra to hit the shakuhachi and the biwa. Now that’s a conception I can live with! Watazumi Dōso Roshi was a shakuhachi player who had a control of his airstream that served as a great model for me in controlling my airstream as a flutist.
EI: This makes me think of the orchestras of Ellington and Mingus where outrageous characters have their own existence within the symphony in a way that you usually can’t have in European music.
JN: You’re so right. Cat Anderson in that “Madness in Great Ones” in Such Sweet Thunder. Oh my Lord!
Cecil Taylor had a big band. We rehearsed for three and a half weeks. I sat next to Steve Coleman in the band, and he knew everyone’s part and his own because the music was transferred orally. Now, we’re actually getting somewhere. That’s the kind of thing that almost became taboo during that period in the early 80s.
That never bothered me! If musicians wanted to say, “Hey, I’m not so comfortable with writing out music, I’m going to teach the piece to you by ear,” what’s wrong with that? That’s part of the history, that’s a part of the tradition. Now, Cecil’s scores were letters going up and going down as the pitches were rising and falling, and they exhibited his incredible calligraphy. So we learned his music. He would play it; then we would figure it out and know what the rhythms were. One time, he said, “OK, you play this line like this, then I want it to go retrograde,” and one of the musicians said, “What is retrograde?”
I jokingly said, “You don’t know your Schoenberg? What’s up with you, man?”
There’s a way that people say, “This person can’t play because he or she cannot do this or do that.” But my attitude always has been, “Well, let’s look at what it is that they can do, you know?”
EI: I think there’s a Duke Ellington quote about this as well.
JN: Mmm, I really would love to hear that.
EI: I don’t know it exactly, but something like, “If the man can only play this one Bb well, then write that one Bb.”
JN: Yeah, exactly! Plus look at how much music of Duke’s happened at the end of a recording session, when he needed another piece, and he would say, “Rabbit, I want you to do this.” “Rex, play this.” There’s nothing wrong with that, as there’s nothing wrong with coming into a place and reading a whole lot of music because that’s what the composer desires.
EI: This is the transition to the next section, James, because at some point you began producing written scores for European classical musicians. Not too many other major jazz players more or less put down their instrument to became a completely erudite formal composer.
JN: Well, how blessed was I to have Hale Smith as a mentor, you know? And I think we can also go back to Lloyd Reece. Gunther Schuller used to talk about the scores that Mingus would write for orchestra, The Chill of Death and other pieces, so this was just something that LA composers would do. I know you’ve covered George Walker. My friend Anthony Davis: Malcolm X and Still Waters, inspired me when we performed it with the New York Philharmonic and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. But then there is Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, and so many others. Olly Wilson was another important mentor.
I have to tell you something really heavy: I met William Grant Still when I was about 19 or 20. Another composer Eugene Hemmer that knew him well took me to his house in Los Angeles. I had just written my first string quartet at the age of 19; it was 12-tone. We talked, and there were times when he would say, “Excuse me,” and he would talk to someone else in the room that I could not see. And then he would come back into focus; I mean the focus that I could understand. He might have been in more focus when he was talking to people who weren’t in the room. This struck me. I only had about an hour in his home in Los Angeles, but that experience planted a lot of seeds.
I always listened to a lot of classical music. I felt that moving from improvised to through-composed music is like moving from mixed media or painting to sculpting. There’s something else that can be defined by that specific process shift. Steve Lacy said that the difference between composing 15 seconds of music and improvising it is that you have one chance to improvise it and you have all the time in the world to write 15 seconds of music. I think about that a lot. Mingus said that composition is improvisation slowed down. (I’m paraphrasing both of them.)
Of course I also listened to Duke and Mingus and Mary Lou Williams a lot, and some other people that I’ve been crazy about through the years. What I started to think about as I’m putting this together is: how much I love Duke Ellington, even though I’m operating in a through-composed environment (which he did sometimes create in, not often, but sometimes he would go there, to that space, to get something specific, and Strayhorn certainly would at times also). I felt a need to get that other part of me out. I’m a lot of musicians in one musician, and I wanted to also contribute to that long line of composers that I discussed. Messiaen influenced me, yes I’m influenced by Stravinsky, Ligeti, Toshio Hosokawa, love Toru Takemitsu, Verdi, and Mozart. Henri Dutilleux: his harmony and orchestration just kill me; I’m so into this cat, you know? There are just so many different people from whom I’ve learned.
But then we run up against it. To get my major works done, I’ve had to go to Italy most of the time, or other parts of Europe. It’s very difficult to get my work done in the States. Outside of Wynton Marsalis, I can’t think of any African-American composer that’s getting played all of the time in the United States in the idiom that we’re discussing. It’s like you run up against a brick wall. A number of my mentor composers have faced that, but there was a period in the 60s and 70s where the big five felt a need to program the best African-American composers. I remember Gunther Schuller conducting the New York Phil in Hale Smith’s Ritual and Incantation. That rarely happens anymore.
EI: There wasn’t even a 90th birthday celebration for George Walker.
JW: That’s unbelievable.
At the same time, occasionally, it is not about color. If we think about the way Bartók struggled in our country at the end of his life, we know that composers just have a hard time, period.
But often it is about color, or it’s about gender. In both these areas, we still have a long way to go.
But you know what, this is not going to stop me from writing the music that needs to come out. You get research funds from the institution that you work with, and that’s certainly helped, for example in the case of the large-scale St. Matthew Passion. But I’m compelled to compose this music. The research money isn’t enough; it is what I feel inside.
You recommended Yegor Shevtsov for my piano pieces. We just recorded: he played them so beautifully, he was well prepared, and he embraced the stylistic multiplicity. I feel vindicated when I heard his performance of those piano pieces because some people did not want to take the time to learn them. And that’s just where you have to have the strength to know the value of your music.
EI: What was your first larger piece that was through composed that you were satisfied with and got a premiere of?
JN: Hmm, that’s a good question. I’d probably say the 91st Psalm, which was done on my 30th birthday at the Music Center in Los Angeles with the New American Orchestra, which was an orchestra that did film music and commissioned creative composers. The 91st Psalm, it was for lyric soprano soloist and piano soloist. It was a sister and brother duo (Gwendolyn and Cecil Lytle) and in the orchestra were heavy Hollywood studio musicians that had deep classical music training like great flutist Louise DiTullio: she recorded with Stravinsky and so many others, she was so great, man could she play. I’d say that was the first one.
Getting back to Mel Powell: While I was at Cal Arts, Mel gave me some very good advice about structuring the music and thinking about form in multiple ways. He would sometimes take me and say, “James, come into the room for a minute,” and he’d take out a Brahms Intermezzo and play it and he’d break down the form, and he had a lot of interesting suggestions. The other beautiful thing about him was that he was so soulful. Both of our works premiered during an Ear Unit concert. That was meaningful.
There’s a huge body of music that I’ve been blessed to have come through me. The encouraging news is that Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale are going to conduct my Saint Matthew Passion at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2019. We’re more than halfway now on this new chamber music CD, and I’m really pleased, there’s a solo trumpet work, performed by Daniel Rosenboom, and now 30 minutes of piano music. There’s a solo harp piece that’s going to come next, then some chamber music pieces that we’ll get done between now and the end of the year.
EI: This is all great news. If I can, I’m going to travel out to Disney Hall and see the Saint Matthew Passion, James. It’s an incredible work. I’m touched that you sent me a copy of the score with a dedication, I really treasure that!
JN: Thank you.
EI: I don’t think the recording on YouTube, while well worth hearing, actually does complete justice to the score.
JN: It is the first performance of a large work, which breaks new ground rhythmically and culturally. It is a challenge that traverses the distance across music inspired by spirituals, actual spirituals and jazz-inflected contemporary music that demands many cultural shifts from the performers. Teatro Regio di Torino is a beautiful opera company full of great players and a remarkable chorus. The rhythms in the Passion are written very specifically, and the polyrhythmical language is something that takes time to understand. I thank Stefano Zenni (the curator of the Torino Jazz Festival) and Alessandro Galoppini (director of the artists for Teatro Regio di Torino) who worked hard to support the premiere because of the value that they saw in the work. The musical director Giancarlo Noseda and his wife were also incredibly kind. We learned a lot from that initial performance and we have a good idea about things to focus on in the next. New works that traverse new territory can take time to fully reveal themselves. We learned so much during the rehearsals and premiere. I am also happy to state that almost no score revision was needed after the premiere. Grant Gershon will continue do a really great job with it the second time around, and the singers in the Los Angeles Master Chorale are very flexible. They performed my Mass in their 2011 season at Walt Disney Concert Hall. I am so grateful for the support of Teatro Regio di Torino, Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
We performed Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert music in 2004 at Disney Hall. Grant conducted the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and I conducted the Luckman Jazz Orchestra. It made a lot of sense to co-conduct many sections so that proper focus could be given to both the choir and jazz orchestra. Oh my goodness, it was just a phenomenal experience. Then we did the sacred music of Mary Lou Williams in 2006 with a few of Ellington’s sacred works. The pianist in the orchestra, Lanny Hartley, did a great job orchestrating different sections of Mary Lou’s Mass. The Master Chorale also performed her St. Martin de Porres, which is so beautiful. Then in 2011, we revisited Ellington’s Sacred music.
These experiences really changed me. I began to think more and more about my church roots and leaving behind a body of sacred music. When the call came to me to do this, part of the message was, “Remember the slaves.” Remember the abducted Africans (your ancestors), and remember the Hebrew slaves. That’s what I heard. As artists, we have to obey, and as a person of faith, I have to obey what I’m called to do. I just have to do it.
The language of my fully notated music changes a lot, but as I see it, the folk traditions are there. In the first part of the Passion, there is an a capella choral piece that is a blues.
EI: The second Lament at Gethsemane right?
JN: That’s right!
EI: Uh huh. I’m on to you James; I know what you’re doing! [laughter]
JN: Go on, Ethan.
EI: Ok, I think that’s the right moment to end the interview.
Very special thanks to James Newton for allowing these score and audio excerpts to be reproduced on DTM.
Because there’s so much about Dolphy and Wadud in this interview, James himself suggested “Mr. Dolphy” from Luella. With John Blake and Gayle Dixon, violin; Abdul Wadud, cello; Jay Hoggard, vibes; Cecil McBee, bass; Billy Hart, drums.
The next three are my own selections from the vast Newton discography.
“O’Keeffe” from Echo Canyon (1984) shows an improvisor informed by multiple traditions manipulating a tiny motive (and my god, what a flute sound):
“Kyrie” from Mass (2006) from New World CD Sacred Works (Elissa Johnston, soprano; Tracy Van Fleet, mezzo-soprano; Daniel Chaney, tenor; Abdiel González, bass-baritone; Gary Woodward, flute; Gary Bovyer, clarinet; Ralph Morrison, violin; Kazi Pitelka, viola; Cécilia Tsan, cello; David Young, bass; Vicki Ray, piano; Lynn Vartan, percussion; Grant Gershon, conductor).
Hearing this opening track was one of the most pleasing shocks I have had in recent memory. The blend of idioms is starkly successful. Most formal scores written by musicians best known for jazz associations are not nearly so commanding or detailed.
Gethsemane (2009) is played by Yegor Shevtsov for a CD that is still in production. There are jazz chords and kind of funky atmosphere, but the unusually diverse articulation and endless scroll of mutating material is from another realm entirely. (Great playing, Yegor!)