AS A PHOENIX rises from ashes, sometimes it takes a tragedy to reveal one’s greatest talent. If that is true, my clarinet teacher, John Neufeld, would be a good example. He began his career as a young clarinet prodigy. At 25 he was the victim of a devastating automobile accident and, as a consequence, in his mid 40s had to begin a new career as a largely self-taught composer whose superb arrangements and orchestrations actually eclipsed his instrumental superiority.
John taught me for about two and a half years, when I was in high school. He must have found me a frustrating student. My parents rigidly forbade me to be a professional musician. That limited my practice time, my exposure to music, and John’s ability to bring out whatever potential I had. I graduated from high school at the age of 16, already had taken a class at UCLA and, as I faced another four years of rigorous undergraduate classes and was expecting a few more years in graduate school, John explained he could be of no further help to me. I lost touch with him for almost fifteen years. I spent those years trying to find my place in the world and realizing I was a poor fit. At the age of thirty I became a professional jazz clarinetist and was able to earn a meager and inconsistent living.
So one day in 1983 I was at the clarinet repair shop and ran into John, the first time we had seen one another since he’d given me my final lesson. We both had some time to kill so he suggested we get a lemonade at a restaurant up the street. When I asked him what he had been doing John answered in his usual evasive fashion, “Oh, you know. The usual.” What that meant was he had been playing clarinet and other woodwind instruments for countless television shows and movies and performing at the occasional high level concert. When I told him I had turned pro, he showed mild surprise and asked me some tough questions, the most important “music lesson” of my life.
I followed him to his house and we continued our visit. That is when he dropped the bomb: He had been having trouble with his left hand. Some kind of nerve damage. He was going to have to give up his career as an instrumentalist and try to compose, arrange, or orchestrate.
Some months after that my own work as a clarinetist all but ended; I had to move to another state and earn a living as a TV reporter. I returned to Los Angeles a few years later and ran into John during the holiday season at a model train store. We had little time to talk. He was working as a composer and arranger; I had started a publishing company.
A couple of months ago I was practicing the clarinet and watching a movie, Seven Years in Tibet. As the credits rolled I noticed two familiar names: Score by John Williams; orchestration by John Neufeld. Two days later I picked up the phone and called John. We talked a long time. A couple of weeks later I went to visit him and we continued our conversation for another six hours. That is when I learned how the phoenix rose from the ashes.
The injuries John had sustained in that car accident gradually had destroyed his ability to play an instrument at a professional level. He said his hands were never the same after the accident; things he once had done easily had become difficult. He lived with a chronic fear that he might be unable to play the music in front of him. By the time he was about 44 it became necessary to find another way to earn a living.
John asked everybody he knew to give him a chance to compose, arrange, or orchestrate and one after another dismissed him as nothing more than a washed up clarinetist. As he developed his writing skills and exhausted his savings a succession of fools refused to consider him. Finally a few composers gave him a little work but far less than he needed to earn a living.
One day, a few years later, a colleague and prominent studio pianist, Artie Kane, hired John. Artie had moved from playing to composing music for movies and network television. Artie and John had compatible personalities and, as Artie listened to John’s approach to music, everything fell into place. John began to earn a living as Artie’s assistant and co-composer. Time passed. Synthesizers began to limit the use of acoustic instruments in television orchestras. Artie found himself with fewer assignments, each with fewer minutes of music, and no longer able to employ John as a composer. John continued to work as an orchestrator in television but that provided too little income for a living. Fortunately Artie’s wife, Jo Ann, was very influential in the music industry and recommended John to the very successful movie composer, John Williams. Williams liked what John showed him and offered him some work.
John Neufeld ultimately orchestrated every movie John Williams worked on between 1988 and Neufeld’s retirement in 2005. At first John spent countless hours working against the clock because he was still learning. Raw talent and good taste produced top results and an increasing flow of work. Word spread. Others hired John and, over the next twenty years, he became one of Hollywood’s top orchestrators. John Neufeld himself may never have thought so but he had evolved into something of a bigshot.
After John retired he remained active in music. He plays flute and composes. In the middle of 2009 he collaborated with a friend to produce an album of movie and television themes. Its title is Silver Screen in Blue and that friend, and clarinetist, is another former Neufeld student, Marty Kristal. John arranged and conducted the entire album. He gave me a copy.
Although he began with other composers’ basic melodies John expanded and developed them into something unique, almost as though they were original compositions. The way he extrapolates a theme and weaves it into an instrumental tapestry seems to advance the original concept into a new dimension.
My reaction? I think John Neufeld is a genius.
“Genius” is a term I rarely use and nobody else I know has earned that status. The substance of John’s music transcends its form with the help of a superior string section and Marty Kristal’s virtuosity.
So that is the story of John Neufeld, musician, teacher, intellectual, philosopher, composer, arranger, orchestrator, occasional lunatic, genius, and an inspiration to us all.
But wait. By coincidence John called just as I was ready to post this story so it may require another chapter: He casually mentioned an interest in creating an album of his original compositions.