Newton, James

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Newton, James

May 1, 1953

The flutist, composer, and bandleader James Newton Jr. was born in Los Angeles and began his musical career in high school as an electric bass guitarist performing rhythm and blues. In 1971 he switched to saxophones and flute and began to explore jazz with the saxophonists Arthur Blythe and David Murray, the clarinetist John Carter, and the trumpeter Bobby Bradford. He studied flute with Buddy Collette and earned a B.A. in music from California State University, Los Angeles, before moving to New York in early 1978. Focusing exclusively on the flute, he performed and recorded with Murray and Blythe and formed a group with the pianist and composer Anthony Davis. By 1979 Newton had achieved international critical acclaim for his performances and recordings, which featured his distinctive full-bodied tone and exploitation of timbral shadings in the flute's higher registers.

Developing flute vocalization techniques pioneered by Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk and incorporating Japanese shakuhachi techniques into his otherwise classical vocabulary, Newton has expanded the technical and timbral possibilities of the Western orchestral flute, and he is recognized as one of the leading innovators on the instrument. He has also broken new ground as a composer, again drawing on a range of influences that includes the black Baptist church, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, traditional and contemporary Asian repertory, and twentieth-century French and Viennese composers. In addition to his works for large and small jazz ensembles, other compositions include Ninety-first Psalm (1985) for soprano, piano, and chamber orchestra; The King's Way (1988) for chamber orchestra; and The Line of Immortality (1992) for chamber ensemble and jazz quartet. Newton's achievements as flutist, composer, and arranger in the jazz idiom are heard to best advantage on the recordings Axum (1982), Luella (1984), African Flower (1985), and If Love (1989).

In 1994 Newton and the pianist and composer Jon Jang went to South Africa, where they gave workshops in Soweto. The two have collaborated on a number of works, including When Sorrow Turns to Joy: SonglinesThe Spiritual Tributary of Paul Robeson and Mei Lanfang (2000). This ambitious stage work is scored for two voices, flute, piano, and traditional Chinese string instruments and percussion, and it has a libretto by the poet Genny Lim. In 2001 Newton collaborated on a ballet, Cross Roads, which was choreographed by Donald McKayle and performed by the Limón Dance Company. A Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, Newton is professor of music at California State University, Los Angeles, and music director of the Luck-man Jazz Orchestra.

See also Jazz


Birnbaum, Larry. "The Soul of the Church." Down Beat (November 1991): 2425.

Kernfeld, Barry. "James Newton." In New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. London, 1988.

Paget-Clarke, Nic. "An Interview with Composers Jon Jang and James Newton." In Motion Magazine (March 20, 2000). Available from <>.

anthony brown (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005