The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Institute 2015 Summer Intensive: Interview with James Newton

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Professor James Newton serves as director of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Institute (JCOI), whose 2015 Summer Intensive (July 8-13) was held at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. Staff member Donna Armstrong interviewed Professor Newton about this important role.


ARMSTRONG: How did the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Institute get started and what are its goals?

NEWTON: It is crucial to know that George E. Lewis, the first director of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Institute, Derek Bermel, the Artistic Director of the American Composer’s Orchestra, and Michael Geller, the President of American Composer’s Orchestra, created JCOI in response to the great need for jazz composers to develop the skills to write for symphony orchestra. There is a great need because the door of opportunity is often closed, especially in the U.S., to composers that come out of the jazz tradition, and who have also studied classical music.

Symphony orchestras in the United States are not as diverse as they can be, not only in the representation of minority musicians in the orchestras, but also it is obvious that there is a gross underrepresentation in terms of performing the works of gender- and racially-diverse composers. This is important because greater diversity among composers’ works performed by symphony orchestras in the U.S. will yield a broader understanding of American culture. In contrast, Europeans view jazz as a great art form. It is positioned with all of the other major musical art forms. Europe is also much more aware of the history of jazz as well as its already-established presence in the great pantheon of timeless artistry. As a result of this knowledge, there are greater opportunities for composers rooted in jazz to have access to major chamber ensembles, symphonic orchestras, and occasionally, major European operatic companies.

ARMSTRONG: Please tell us more about the curriculum of the JCOI in 2015.

NEWTON:  Columbia University professor George E. Lewis—composer, trombonist, and scholar—and composer/clarinetist Derek Bermel designed the curriculum used in the first two summer intensives, which took place in 2010 and 2012. I joined the JCOI as a faculty member in 2012. Professor Tim Rice, who was director of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music at that time, approached me to become involved. It was a great honor for me to be a part of such a distinguished faculty, so I agreed (and I loved the goals of this worthy endeavor). In 2013 I was asked to replace Professor Lewis as director since he was then and is still composing an opera.

Bermel and I designed the curriculum for the 2015 intensive. Fortunately, because of previous successes, we did not have to reinvent the wheel. However we did make sure that adjustments were made to reflect the diversity of the 2015 faculty. In addition to Derek Bermel and me, the faculty included Anthony Cheung (composer/pianist University of Chicago), Steve Coleman (saxophonist/composer/MacArthur Fellow), Anthony Davis (composer/pianist University of California, San Diego), Gabriela Lena Frank (composer in residence, Houston Symphony), Vince Mendoza (composer/arranger University of Southern California), Nicole Mitchell (composer/flutist University of California, Irvine), and Christopher Rountree (conductor/composer, founder and creative director for wild Up).

Some of the major topics were an historical perspective on jazz influence in the orchestra; orchestral evolution; commanding rhythm within an orchestral context; folkloric and non-western influences in the 20th/21st century orchestra; spontaneous composition and orchestration; translating improvisation into an orchestral context; operatic influences and orchestral drama; and orchestral innovations in tuning and spatialization. Members of our resident chamber ensemble wild Up provided presentations on their individual instruments covering both traditional and cutting-edge approaches for writing for their instruments. Musical engraving and other practical tools of the trade were also covered in the curriculum.  A great deal of attention was also focused on how the language that is developed in jazz composition and improvisation is a great resource that should not be devalued, but viewed as a strength.  This strength can breathe new life into a modern symphonic context by transferring recent innovations in jazz and using them to create new rhythmical languages and coloristic textures. Most importantly, jazz has always provided new definitions of the human condition in ways that truly reflect the current state of social and political issues and issues related to gender, race, and other relevant topics.

One hundred years ago, Jelly Roll Morton constructed a pathway to notate jazz performance practices in a way that allowed jazz musicians to interpret the composition and improvise off of the composed material while still retaining the composer’s vision. Jazz composers would sometimes blur the lines between composed and improvised material.  In the case of Jelly Roll Morton, the spirit of the great New Orleans tradition breathed through both the written and improvised sections to create a singular language. In many ways we are still building upon Morton’s incredible foundation. The spirit of the music is still thriving and offers new avenues of jazz composition in multiple environments, symphonic and otherwise. If we use the Morton model and place it within a symphonic context, we must create music notation that symphonic performers can interpret and still convey the composer’s emotional and cultural aspirations.

The process of jazz composers learning to write for the traditional symphonic orchestra actually began in the 1920s. At that time there were jazz composers writing symphonic music and classical composers writing symphonic music that was highly influenced by jazz. A few compositions from this long tradition include the following:
•    James P. Johnson, grandmaster of the Harlem stride school, wrote his Harlem Symphony in 1932.
•    William Grant Still incorporated blues into his Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American,” in A-Flat Major, (1930).
•    Maurice Ravel included ragtime and cakewalk stylistic practices and rhythms in his Piano Concerto for Left Hand (1929-30) and Piano Concerto in G (1929-30).
•    George Gershwin had strong jazz elements in his compositions, including Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and Porgy and Bess (1935).
•    Aaron Copland wrote his Piano Concerto in 1926-1927. Jazz influences in this work shocked its audiences during early performances.
•    Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45). This was one of the first compositions in which the feeling of swing was successfully written into a symphonic context.
•    Mary Lou Williams’s groundbreaking and harmonically complex Zodiac Suite (1945) had two versions. The second version was arranged for symphony orchestra.
•    Charles Mingus wrote The Chill of Death for symphony orchestra and narrator in 1945.
•    Duke Ellington composed a number of works for the symphony orchestra, including New World A-Comin’ (1945), A Tone Parallel to Harlem (1952), and Night Creature (1955).
•    György Ligeti’s Piano Concerto (1985-1988) combined jazz as well as West and Central African influences with a diversified European palette in a highly original manner.
•    Roberto Sierra’s Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra (2000), written for the great saxophone virtuoso James Carter, successfully merged contemporary jazz and classical languages.
•    Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks (2012), featuring Dawn Upshaw, received much well-deserved acclaim.
•    Geri Allen’s Stones and Streams (2013) moved her highly original and potent musical language into a symphonic context.

Most of these works reflect combinations of jazz, classical, and folk music traditions from many parts of our planet.

ARMSTRONG: Tell us a little about the students who attended the JCOI this summer.

NEWTON: Before discussing the students, I would like to acknowledge that this year there were two other instructors from the UC system: Anthony Davis from University of California, San Diego, and Nicole Mitchell from University of California, Irvine. Also, there were three UCLA alums and students: Christian Euman and Daniel Rotem, current students from the Thelonious Monk Institute, and alumna Hitomi Oba (M.A. ’08 Music/Composition and B.A. ’06 Ethnomusicology/Jazz Studies). In 2012 one current UCLA student, doctoral candidate Dave Wilson, and UCLA alumnus Daniel Marschak (M.A. ’12 Music/Composition and B.A. ’09 Ethnomusicology/Jazz Studies) were JCOI participants.

I should also mention that Derek Bermel and I gave a lot of thought to the representation of women composers, which was very strong this year among the students and the faculty. The gender issue is gigantic for all of us. The number of women composers whose works are performed in our nation is very low, but the number of women in the summer institute was significant. I truly look forward to a time when gender parity is achieved in the concert hall.

The student pool ranged from well-established internationally-known composers/performers to young and upcoming artists who displayed much promise and talent. Derek Bermel and I also decided that a positive factor among our final selection criteria would be whether or not the composer demonstrated a willingness to push the envelope and take risks. The jazz tradition embraces innovation.  Risk aversion can lead to stagnation and atrophy and should that happen, the art form would lose vitality.

ARMSTRONG: I noticed on the website that there is a second phase that comes after the week of training.

NEWTON: Yes. In phase two, ten to twelve of the summer institute students are chosen to write a symphonic work. A professional copyist helps each of them. This year the works will be performed by one of three professional orchestras: the American Composer’s Orchestra in New York City; the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; or the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra in Naples, Florida.

Each of the instructors will meet with two or three of the student composers and participate in one or two readings. It is fun to see the faces of the composers when they first hear their music pour out of the orchestra!

It is all about helping these artists find their own voice.

ARMSTRONG: How are students chosen for the JCOI each year?

NEWTON: They apply online. This year Derek Bermel and I reviewed ninety-eight applications. This process included examining musical scores and listening to recordings.

ARMSTRONG: Is there anything else that you would like to tell us about JCOI?

NEWTON: Having the JCOI in residence is wonderful for the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. We appreciate Tim Rice’s support in facilitating the initial program in 2010. Professors Loza and Becerra and our fantastic staff have supported our efforts in a major way this year. We thank the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for their support.

ARMSTRONG: One more question: do you include any of the same curriculum materials that you used for JCOI in the classes that you teach at UCLA?

NEWTON: Yes, there is an overlap in the curriculum for my UCLA class “Jazz Styles and Analysis: Early Jazz to Swing” and the JCOI topic that I presented this year “Jazz Influence on the Orchestra – An Historical Perspective.”

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Professor Newton.