"The important thing," he says about his instrument, "is to keep growing, to keep changing and evolving, and to be true to what's been given you. That is the best thing to give the people who come to listen. To be as honest as possible. I've never been one to fit in the mode of the times or the fads of the day."
The maverick philosophy carries over to his teaching as well. "Now that the music is moving out of the clubs and into the schools, something is being lost. Music is made of intellect, but also of spirit. Education is not just about notes; it's also about why these artists were compelled to be so original, about what inspired Jelly Roll Morton to create this new art form called jazz, or what drove Mary Lou Williams to develop different harmonies. As you develop a standardization of how music is taught, you feel the conformity creeping in. It's important that young musicians explore who they are and for them to be exposed to the whole gambit of the tradition, what's going on now, and not just stop with bebop.
"We've discussed my great inspiration, Charles Mingus, in classes, and the message is very powerful. He just refused to toe the line, politically, musically. He broke the rules of the day. That spirit of nonconformity is something I try to pass to my students."
The James Newton Quartet performs with Kei Akagi, Roberto Miranda and Sonship Theus at Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787. Fri.-Sat., 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. $30 for 7:30 p.m. shows; $28 for 9:30 p.m. shows.