IN THE '60s, when Lloyd McNeill was establishing himself as something of a Renaissance man, Washington was his Florence.
The first person to receive a master of fine arts degree from Howard University, the dapper McNeill was a popular jazz flute player, a frequently show artist and a poet, composer and teacher--a bright fixture on the city's cultural map.
In 1969 he began teaching at New Jersey's Livingston College and in 1970, moved to New York. His last concert here was in 1978, but Saturday and Sunday McNeill will team with another former Washingtonian, dancer-choreographer Carol Fonda, in collaborative performances at the Joy of Motion Dance Center (1643 Connecticut Ave. NW).
Teaching has provided McNeill with a security seldom attained by musicians or artists. "It's flexible--I teach three days a week, nine months of the year--and it has steady, fairly good income. I can pick and choose my exhibitions and concerts; I don't have to go for just for the money."
It has allowed him to have exhibitions at the Whitney Museum in New York and Washington Gallery of Modern Art, as well as in Europe and Africa, and to play selectively in jazz clubs like Sweet Basil's and The Tin Palace in New York City.
McNeill, who grew up in Washington, got his musical feet wet in the D.C. Police Boys' Drum and Bugle Corps (drummer Billy Hart is another grad) and played conga drums with local Latin bands before catching the flute bug via Moe Koffman's kinda-square 1958 hit "Swinging Shepherd Blues."
"It wasn't so much the song but the fact that flute could be played in popular music," McNeill says. "I quickly heard that most of the people who played flute were doublers meaning flute was their second instrument and that they didn't have a distinctively different flute voice; they played the same licks they would play on their saxophones. Eric Dolphy opened my eyes to the seperate and distinct voice of the flute; in a sense, you're thinking 'fluteness.' "
McNeill met Dolphy in 1962 at the first Washington International Jazz Festival at Howard, and studied with him the next summer. But, then as now, there was little literature for jazz flute--one of the reasons there are still so few players compared to the classical side.
McNeill, whose strong, supple playing is marked by a joyful, compelling warmth, studied classical technique with Frank Allbright, John Heard of the Atlanta Symphony, Richard Townsend of the National Symphony (for two years) and for the last nine years in New York with Harold Jones.
He also spent a year in Paris (saxophonist Andrew White, then studying oboe at the Paris Conservatory, was his roommate), playing on the streets with a Guatamalan guitarist. In France, McNeill struck up a friendship with painter Pablo Picasso, then 84. "We got a job playing at a hotel in Cannes, and the manager was a good friend of Picasso; when the weather warmed up, Picasso and his wife and friends would come to the restaurant and sit on the beach and eat lunch. At first, it was a commercial relationship, in that we would play for them, they'd pay us and we'd leave. But then they began to invite us to lunch and we'd sit around as friends. I got to know him, had long conversations about art and bullfighting.
"I make a joke about it, but I say I influenced Picasso. As I grew in art, I learned that Picasso was influenced in his later years by African art: I think that was a spirit already in me, my heritage inspired Picasso."
There is no problem balancing his separate disciplines, says McNeill. "The most difficult aspect is in terms of the professional world--performance and exhibition--because of the great difference between the two. I find more camaraderie, honesty and sincerity in music than I do in art. People are clearer about their tastes. Music is more accessible to the public and that's a more comforting feeling.
"But in my own private space, I have no problem. I do have synaesthetic experiences: I see neon signs and I hear music, I play a phrase on my flute and I see colors, that happens a lot. The only thing that I have to do every day is practice. I try to get in an average of three hours a day."
Expanding his energies even further, McNeill started his own record company, Baobab, in 1977 (a fourth album is about to come out). Three early albums appeared on the Asha label here in the '60s; McNeill recently paid $27.50 to a vintage record store for one he didn't have. "I wouldn't trade the independence for anything right now," he says.
McNeill has worked with a number of dancers, including locals Maida Withers and the Capital Ballet Company. The appearances with Fonda (Saturday at 8 and 10 p.m., Sunday at 8 p.m.) are solo sets, but McNeill would like to come to Washington his regular quintet. It's been too long.