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Jazz on a big scale

Special to The Times

James Newton, tall and prepossessing on the podium, raises his arms, condor-like, then brings them down to his sides in a sudden, sweeping motion. The Luckman Jazz Orchestra, positioned before him in a wide arc, responds with a thunderous chord.

Newton lifts his arms again, waving two fingers on his right hand, then moves them in semicircles, his body waving slightly with the motion. This time the 17-piece orchestra responds with an array of sounds, fluttering randomly from high to low, surging and receding with Newton’s movements.

Gathering himself together for a climactic ending, he clenches his fists, leaps into the air and slams home a final, clanging eruption of sound.

Welcome to the sometimes clamorous world of the Luckman Jazz Orchestra, one of the country’s very few stable, continuing, professional large jazz ensembles. It is the remarkable product of a plan that has been long on inspiration and relatively short on funding.

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“Nine years ago when I opened the Luckman, James was one of the first persons I talked to,” says Clifford Harper, executive director of the Luckman Fine Arts Complex on the Cal State L.A. campus, a center that includes the 1,152-seat, state-of-the-art Luckman Theatre.

“I wanted to establish a jazz orchestra,” Harper continues. “I knew we’d have to take the money out of our hides to do it, and we did. But I was convinced it would be a worthwhile project. And it has been.”

Founded in November 2001, the Luckman Jazz Orchestra has already established its presence in the community via a string of nine concerts at the Luckman Complex and other Southern California venues. Its rendering of Duke Ellington works at the Festival of Sacred Music in September 2002 was both historically important and critically well-received, and will be reprised with the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Disney Hall in March 2004.

Tonight at the Luckman Complex, the Jazz Orchestra will offer its 10th performance, “Jazz Impressionism: Dances, Blues & Ballads.” The program, which includes music by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Wayne Shorter, Billy Strayhorn and Newton (including the U.S. debut of his “Blues for Pasolini”), further underscores the unique diversity of the orchestra’s goals.

Although it includes a collection of players -- including Benny Maupin, Ndugu Chancler and Oscar Brashear -- arguably as talented as those in Wynton Marsalis’ celebrated Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, its mission, as Newton describes it, is to go boldly into areas that the Lincoln Center group has not yet chosen to explore.

“From the very beginning,” explains Newton, who is the Jazz Orchestra’s director as well as a professor of music at Cal State L.A., “the concept was to have an ensemble that can play really modern, cutting-edge music, taking a lot of risk, and then turn around and do early Ellington. A band that could go all the way through the tradition of the music without excluding the events and the innovations that occurred in the late ‘60s, the early ‘70s and beyond.”

Newton, 50, also believes that the Jazz Orchestra approach to repertory is fundamentally different from that taken by other jazz organizations. Rather than simulate original performances in a kind of carbon-copy fashion, he looks instead to the interpretive life that he feels is continuously present in the music.

“Listen,” he says. “Duke had 19 arrangements of ‘Mood Indigo.’ He loved change. So why shouldn’t we do ‘The Mooche’ with a reggae beat? Even when we play the best repertoire written for the medium there’s no reason why we can’t play it in a fresh way, change it, and not look at it as a museum piece. And when we do that, we do it not out of disrespect, but out of very deep respect for the music’s innate potential.”

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The Luckman Jazz Orchestra’s broad perspective is a direct reflection of Newton’s own far-ranging musical career. The Los Angeles native started out as a bassist, dipping deeply into rock music before taking up the flute in his junior year at San Pedro High School.

Balancing performances and recordings with such cutting-edge jazz artists as Cecil Taylor, Arthur Blythe and David Murray with a full schedule of classical appearances, he began to win a string of Down Beat magazine polls in the early ‘80s. His catalog of compositions includes works for solo flute, chamber and chorus groups and orchestras, all influenced by the full panoply of European classical styles while embracing a colorful array of world music elements.

So is Newton’s dramatic conducting style a new approach to jazz? Is it classical? Is it some sort of John Cage-inspired chance music?

Newton laughs for a moment, then replies by describing a process he calls “conduction.”

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“It’s a little of all those things,” he says, “a sort of a combination of conducting and group improvisation taking place at the same time.... It’s a real team effort, with everyone working in tandem together, imagining the music together. In fact, we have this motto: It takes a village to make some music.”

It also takes considerable funding. Seventeen-piece jazz orchestras are not inexpensive to maintain. Established concert orchestras generally rely on a guaranteed number of weeks to retain the best personnel, and the Jazz Orchestra is not yet capable of providing that sort of assurance. Instead, it has relied on the commitment of the individual players to sustain its consistently high level of performance.

In addition, Cal State L.A. lacks the high visibility of other academic institutions in the Southland. Nor has the Luckman Complex, despite the high quality of the facility, yet established the presence it would seem to deserve as a major arts center. “We’re getting there, though,” says Harper, “and the jazz orchestra will play an important role in the process. At the moment, the LJO budget is folded into the overall Luckman season. But we have a fund-raiser who is actively exploring various sponsorships beyond the current grant from American Express. And there are several significant possibilities in the works.... I’m very optimistic about them.”

Also in the works is the Jazz Orchestra’s first recording, which will also be paid for and produced by the Luckman Complex. And Harper has high hopes for a planned music festival that will bring large, international jazz orchestras to the complex.

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But the fact that the Jazz Orchestra has succeeded as well as it has makes it a model for institutions receptive to establishing a permanent large jazz ensemble. “Just as in Europe you have established ballet companies because that’s their art form, there’s no reason that ... can’t happen in this country,” says Harper. “Jazz is our art form, and we should be willing to make the same sort of investments to ensure its survival.”


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