The Racial Profiling of Black CreativityOf all the musicians I’ve met in the last 30 years, James is one of the most brilliant of them all, in every way,” says MacArthur-winning critic and writer Stanley Crouch, who has known Newton since the 1970s.
“As an instrumentalist, he’s extraordinarily gifted. He’s pioneered techniques for his instrument that didn’t really exist (in Western culture) before. As a composer, he’s very original. And in his thinking, his grasp of the differences between jazz and European music, and his ability to articulate them — extraordinary!”
Newton has won Downbeat magazine’s Critic’s Poll for “best jazz flutist” every year for the past 21 years among other numerous honors and awards.
In Newton’s world, African American composers freely traverse the boundaries between jazz, opera, symphonic and chamber music. They travel the globe, forging contacts and creating ground-breaking works of art with an elite cadre of choreographers, performers, painters and poets — many of them African American as well. They create works of art for the ages.
Newton’s real musical education came after he graduated from college. A minority-training program at the Los Angeles Philharmonic deepened his classical vocabulary. And he also fell under the sway of Crouch — then a professor at Pomona College, as well as the alto saxist Arthur Blythe and, a bit later, David Murray, who played tenor sax and bass clarinet.
“They told me to bring my flute,” Newton says. “Even though I was young and green and country with a capital K, they had the patience to teach me, and they taught me the whole jazz tradition — from King Oliver to Billie Holiday to Cecil Taylor. It just opened up an incredible world for me.”
As a younger man, Newton faced criticism from those who “police” Black creativity, notes George Lewis, a professor of music at University of California-San Diego. He calls it a form of racial profiling, visited on the Black creative body.
“There are all sorts of people who become threatened when we write string quartets, which means that they have a fixed and limited notion of what Blackness means. ‘Blackness means jazz. Blackness means hip hop,’ they say. Yes, Blackness means all these things and much more,” Lewis says.
Newton agrees. “We see consistently in our culture a substandard treatment that’s given to Black culture — particularly Black culture that embraces the intellectual. We can be entertainers, and everybody is happy. But when we embrace profound thought, that is not given a resonance.”
Newton admits that it’s a difficult time to be an artist. “We’re like dinosaurs in a way,” he says. But the act of creation — and sharing that creation with the corner of the world that’s listening — is, he says, its own reward.
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