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James Newton is a thoroughly contemporary artist, making elegant, sometimes eccentric, always high-minded albums that reflect a wide variety of jazz and classical influences without giving a fig about what happens to be popular at a given time. Besides producing a lovely tone quality, his flute work is highly resourceful, making use of flutter-tonguing, birdlike effects, and simultaneous vocal/flute lines, trying to push the envelope of his instrument. As a composer, Newton finds wellsprings of inspiration in John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Duke Ellington -- the latter whose music he transformed completely on the adventurous The African Flower album -- and he writes charts for all kinds of combinations of instruments.
Newton's first musical experiences were on the electric bass as part of a Motown cover band in San Pedro, which he quit to form a Jimi Hendrix-style trio. However, he also picked up alto and tenor saxophones while in high school, not discovering the flute until he was 16. Heavily influenced by Eric Dolphy -- to whom he has been compared -- and Roland Kirk, Newton began to lean toward the avant-garde in jazz while studying classical music at Cal State Los Angeles. Soon after moving to Pomona, he joined a local band, Black Music Infinity, that was led by then free jazz drummer Stanley Crouch, with Arthur Blythe and David Murray as co-conspirators. Feeling the competitive heat on saxes, Newton decided to concentrate totally on the flute at age 22. A year after graduation (1978), he made a move to New York with Murray, where he hooked up with Anthony Davis on three LPs, played in Cecil Taylor's big band, and started recording as a leader on several small and large labels. He moved back to San Pedro in 1982 and started teaching jazz history, composition, and jazz ensemble at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Over the years, Newton has also written several classical commissions for various-sized ensembles, and in 1990, he published a book, Improvising Flute. Alas, not enough of his recordings are currently available to give one a decent idea of his wide-ranging tastes.
James W. Newton (born May 1, 1953, Los Angeles, California, United States) is an American jazz and classical flautist, composer, and conductor.
From his earliest years, James Newton grew up immersed in the sounds of African-American music, including urban blues, rhythm and blues, and gospel. In his early teens he played electric bass guitar, alto saxophone, and clarinet. In high school he took up the flute, influenced by Eric Dolphy. In addition to taking lessons in classical music on flute, he also studied jazz with Buddy Collette. He completed his formal musical training at California State University, Los Angeles.
From 1972 to 1975, together with David Murray, Bobby Bradford, and Arthur Blythe, Newton was a member of drummer (and later critic) Stanley Crouch's band Black Music Infinity. From 1978 to 1981 he lived in New York, leading a trio with pianist and composer Anthony Davis and cellist Abdul Wadud. These three played extended chamber jazz and Third Stream compositions by Newton and Davis. With Davis, Newton founded a quartet and toured successfully in Europe in the early 1980s. Afterwards, he performed with a wide variety of musicians, including projects by John Carter and the Mingus Dynasty. Newton has released four recordings of his solo improvisations for flute. Since the 1990s Newton has often worked with musicians from other cultural spheres, including Jon Jang, Gao Hong, Kadri Gopalnath, and Shubhendra Rao, and has taken part in many cross-cultural projects.
Newton has performed with the New York Philharmonic, Brooklyn Philharmonic, L'Orchestre du Conservatoire de Paris, Vladimir Spivakov and the Moscow Virtuosi the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Southwest Chamber Music, California EAR Unit, New York New Music Ensemble, and the San Francisco Ballet.
He served for five years as Musical Director/Conductor of the Luckman Jazz Orchestra and has held professorships at the University of California, Irvine, the California Institute of the Arts, and California State University, Los Angeles. In 1989 he wrote and published a method book entitled The Improvising Flute. In 2007 he published Daily Focus For The Flute.
He has also composed classical works for chamber ensemble and orchestra, as well as electronic music. In 1997 he wrote an opera, The Songs of Freedom. Based on the knowledge of the deep tradition of "extended" jazz compositions and European contemporary music, Newton uses post-serial methods in composing. His compositions may be judged as specifically African-American not solely because of the presence of crucial idiomatic elements such as rhythm, pronunciation, and transformation of sound, but also because of their dialoguing between different cultures. In his compositional output, he specializes in chamber music and writing for unconventional instrumentations. He has also written a symphony and composed for ballet and modern dance. In 2006 he composed a Latin Mass which premiered in Prato, Italy, in February 2007.
In 2002 Newton sued the rap group Beastie Boys for using a sample of his "Choir," a 1978 composition for flute and voice, in their song "Pass the Mic", stating that the group should have contacted him personally for permission. The group argued that they had contacted ECM Records, the record label who held the rights to the original recording, paid a one-time fee of US$1,000 for the use of the six second, three note sample (which recurs numerous times during the course of the song), and they believed that to be sufficient. Newton lost the case.
The sample of James Newton's original "Choir" composition was used over 40 times in the Beastie Boys "Pass the Mic." The Beastie Boys tried to settle out of court but Newton's lawyers believed this decision to be critical in possibly protecting the rights of other Jazz composers, musicians in the future. The presiding Judge who ruled in favor of the Beastie Boys stated the 3-note section used by them to be "unoriginal" in terms of composition.
He has received Guggenheim (1992) and Rockefeller fellowships, Montreux Grande Prix Du Disque, and Down Beat International Critics Jazz Album of the Year. He has also been voted the top flutist for 23 consecutive years in Down Beat magazine's International Critic's Poll.