Monday, February 25, 2008

Roscoe Mitchell--Master Musician/Composer in Residence

Roscoe Mitchell, Musician/Composer


Chuleenan and I attended Mr. Mitchell's talk and musical performance at 'The Marsh' in San Francisco last wednesday evening (February 20). Extraordinary lecture, exquisite music, and very informative question-and-answer session with a rapt and deeply appreciative audience. It was everything I had hoped for and expected and more. Roscoe is one of the most creative, important, and influential American musician/composers in the world over the past 40 years and as always it was a great pleasure to experience him and his music live. I have just about every single album and CD the man has led and appeared on since 1966 I'm very proud to say and it's absolutely thrilling that he will be here in the Bay Area for the next three years as the prestigious Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition at Oakland's Mills College. We are indeed very fortunate to have such a great artist in our midst.


NOTE: For still more information about Mitchell and his music see article by New York Times critic Adam Shatz from 1999 directly following the new SF Chronicle article below. I will also soon be providing a discography of Mitchell's work on this site.

Roscoe Mitchell brings jazz history to Mills
David Rubien, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008

The building that houses the music department at Mills College is undergoing rehabilitation, so Roscoe Mitchell, the saxophonist who was hired last fall as the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition, has been given a temporary office in another hall down the road that winds through the leafy Oakland campus.


The room is large but barely furnished, with a scratched-up '60s-vintage desk, an empty bookshelf and two grand pianos abutting each other. The wooden chair Mitchell is sitting in seems incommensurate with his status as perhaps the most prestigious instructor at one of the most prestigious graduate music schools in the country. Not that this seems to bother him.

"Yes, it is prestigious," he acknowledges nonchalantly. "A lot of great people have been in this chair" - not meaning the one he's sitting on. Previous occupants of the position, named after the French composer who taught at Mills from 1941 to 1971, include Lou Harrison, Iannis Xenakis, Pauline Oliveros and Anthony Braxton.

Talking to Mitchell, you get the sense that sitting in an old wooden chair and being an exalted professor are about equivalent in the grand scheme of things - at least at this particular moment, when he is concentrating on an interviewer with that uncanny focus jazz musicians have when they're listening to each other on the bandstand.

In fact, a cheap chair and a fancy professorship represent the twin poles of what Mitchell, 67, could have become, as a budding jazz artist blazing trails in sonic realms neither understood nor respected by many people - unless they happened to observe the music being performed, in which case they'd likely be tweaked for life.

Mitchell, who teaches composition and improvisation at Mills, is best known as one of the founding members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a quintet that existed with its original personnel for 30 years, and continues with some fresh blood now that two of its members, trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors, have passed away. One of the great groups in all of jazz history, the Art Ensemble had the misfortune of doing its key work from the late '60s through the early '80s, something of a lost era in jazz. You didn't hear much about this incredibly fruitful period in the otherwise excellent documentary "Jazz," a shameful omission on director Ken Burns' part.

"I was lucky to be around people who were so committed to what they were doing, and that's what kept us going for so long," Mitchell says.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago grew out of two bands Mitchell formed in the early '60s, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet and the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. As did many important bands in jazz history - Charlie Parker's and John Coltrane's pioneering groups, for instance - the Art Ensemble embodied exactly the point that jazz had evolved to at the time of the band's existence. The Art Ensemble made and still makes astonishing, joyful, swinging, sometimes difficult music based not only on the revolutions of the '60s, but on bebop, big band swing, kitschy vaudeville, 20th century classical and African percussion.

When Mitchell's sextet released "Sound" on Delmark Records in 1966, it was the birth of a new approach to improvised music, one based on an examination of music almost at the level of wavelength, where the saxophonist set about dissecting individual notes in order to unlock their mysteries. In performance, Mitchell often showed off this approach in hypnotic solo saxophone playing with a remarkable circular breathing technique.

In the few dozen albums he's made as a leader outside the Art Ensemble, he's pursued this from-the-ground-up approach, erecting suites and sheets of sound with various combinations of musicians.

Larry Ochs, a founding member of the Rova Saxophone Quartet who organized the Improv: 21 "informance" series where Mitchell is talking Wednesday, says Mitchell has influenced countless musicians even if they don't realize it.

"When I was a young man, Roscoe's electrifying tenor solos on the Art Ensemble's live recording from a concert in Ann Arbor ("Bap-Tizum") was crucial to my own playing, and the band's recording 'Les Stances a Sophie,' which is probably still in my top 10 albums of all time, showed one critical way to combine forms and feelings that spoke to me," Ochs says. "And certainly the Art Ensemble pointed the way for Rova to see the value of keeping a band together for a long time."

The commitment factor emerged early on in Chicago when Mitchell, along with several other musicians who were rehearsing with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams' big band, decided to form an organization that would teach artists to become self-sufficient. That's when, in 1961, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music was born.

"We were able to establish a unit of people who gave us a foundation, where we really didn't have to be dependent on things that were outside of us," Mitchell says.

The association still exists today, and has spawned such artists as former Darius Milhaud Chair Braxton, reed player Henry Threadgill, trombonist George Lewis, keyboardist Amina Claudine Myers, violinist Leroy Jenkins, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and dozens more.

Mitchell says that when he was a kid, all kinds of music were everywhere in Chicago. "If you went to a movie, after the movie there'd be Count Basie's big band. Duke Ellington. Ella Fitzgerald. Lester Young. On and on like that."

Mitchell took up the clarinet while attending Inglewood High School on Chicago's South Side. "Back then, it was kind of a normal rule that if you wanted to play saxophone, you had to start with clarinet."

In the Army, he says, he started "functioning 24 hours a day as a musician." While stationed in Orleans, France, Mitchell first saw a performance by another Army player, tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler. "He had an enormous sound on his instrument. And though I didn't quite understand what it was that he was doing ... he made a big impression on me - but not enough to deter me from studying a more straight-ahead form.

"It wasn't until I got out of the Army and I heard Coltrane's record 'Coltrane,' when he was doing 'Inch Worm' and 'Out of This World,' that I thought, 'Oh my god, you can do that?' And then I thought, 'OK, I better go back and listen to Eric Dolphy a bit.' And then I said, 'Hmm, I better pull out these Ornette Coleman records.' And then it all started to make sense to me."

Mitchell is much too earnest and self-possessed to indulge in hero worship, but when recalling his early infatuation with the mighty 'Trane, his eyes fog up a bit.

"Man, I used to go around and think: Oh my god, what must it be like to be going down the street, and someone asks you, 'What's your name?' and the reply would be, 'John Coltrane.' I couldn't imagine what that would be like."

Mitchell got to sit in with Coltrane, too. Drummer Jack DeJohnette - who was a friend of Mitchell's when they both played in that nascent Abrams big band - had a brief gig with Coltrane after Elvin Jones left the group. The band came through Chicago, and "Jack told Coltrane you should ask this guy to play. And I was like, 'Wait a minute, Jack, man.' But Coltrane did ask me to come up and play. ... It was a remarkable experience for me. I mean (drummer) Roy Haynes came in that night and sat in, and it ended up with the club owner putting us out of the club because we played so late."

As a scientist of sound, Mitchell seems uniquely suited to teaching. One approach he uses involves a scored-improvisational system he developed decades ago that he calls the "card catalog." It's a series of cards that contain different kinds of cues to help students with improvisation.

"I noticed that when it came time to improvise, my students would often make mistakes. So I derived this system to help them discover some different options."

The big picture for Mitchell as a teacher, though, is to help his students figure out their own paths.

"I think the best thing you can teach a person is how to learn," he says. "And once they discover their own individual approach to that - which is inside all of us - then all of a sudden they've opened up a door of endless resources."

Roscoe Mitchell: "Informance" conversation with Derk Richardson. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets: $10. Call (415) 826-5750 or go to

Roscoe Mitchell with the Stanford Jazz Orchestra: 8 p.m. Feb. 27. Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University. Tickets: $10 general public; $5 students; free for Stanford students. Call (650) 723-2720 or go to

To hear music by Roscoe Mitchell, go to see a video of Mitchell performing, go to

E-mail David Rubien at

This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

MUSIC: A Maestro Of Esoteric Invention Becomes Accessible
Published: March 28, 1999

IN 1937 John Cage inaugurated a musical revolution in three sentences of typically Zenlike simplicity: ''Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.'' In the future, he declared, music would be replaced by a broader field of creativity, which he called ''the organization of sound.''

In 1966 Roscoe Mitchell, then a 26-year-old saxophonist living on the South Side of Chicago, released a stunning album called ''Sound.'' Mr. Mitchell's band looked like a jazz sextet, but it didn't play like one. For starters, the music had no fixed pulse: the drums were used atmospherically, not rhythmically. The solos were explorations of timbre and noise punctuated by long silences; the overall effect was a trippy suspension of time. ''Sound'' belonged as much to the future Cage envisioned as to the jazz tradition.

Any similarities to Cage, however, were serendipitous. Unlike Cage, a privileged insider who delighted in mischief, Mr. Mitchell was a purposeful outsider, intent on claiming new rights for himself and his peers. ''Sound'' was no mere esthetic experiment. It was a pointed challenge to what Mr. Mitchell's fellow Chicagoan Anthony Braxton has called ''the myth of the sweating brow'' -- the notion that black music is an expression of native grace rather than introspection. And in 1966, the year Stokely Carmichael raised the cry of black power, ''Sound'' had the force of a manifesto.

Roscoe Mitchell, whose album ''Nine to Get Ready'' has just appeared, is a leading member of jazz's forgotten avant-garde. Once hailed as an heir to Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, Mr. Mitchell found himself pushed to the margins in the 1980's by Wynton Marsalis and his traditionalist followers, who viewed free jazz as an evil second only to fusion. Since the early 90's, Mr. Mitchell has been staging a comeback, recording and performing at a furious clip. He might not be welcome at Lincoln Center, where musicians are expected to adhere to blues-derived forms and steer clear of European dissonances. But among younger jazz players who chafe at such restrictions, Mr. Mitchell is increasingly recognized as an elder statesman.

''Jazz,'' he said recently, ''is a part of the whole picture, but the communication lines are all over the place now. If you're truly in love with music, you can't help being affected by that fact.''

A small, wiry man with close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair, Mr. Mitchell, 59, is best known as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of the most important free-jazz groups since Mr. Coleman's 1960's quartet. But it is in Mr. Mitchell's work as a solo performer and as a leader that he has expressed his vision most rigorously.

A saxophonist and flutist with a hard, acerbic sound reminiscent of Eric Dolphy, Mr. Mitchell has a predilection for unusual effects like circular breathing, a technique of simultaneously inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth that allows a musician to blow for marathon stretches. His compositions have been performed by a wide array of ensembles, ranging from his own experimental jazz bands to contemporary classical groups like the S.E.M. Ensemble.

Although he has been accused of making self-consciously cerebral music, he said: ''It does not bother me to hear my music described that way. I am a scientist involved in the study of music, and it may well be that my work possesses some of those qualities.''

On ''Nine to Get Ready,'' the scientist has unbuttoned his lab coat and delivered some of the most lyrically accessible music of his career. Half the album is devoted to Mr. Mitchell's thorny, stylishly polytonal chamber music. But the jazzier half blazes with feelings that Mr. Mitchell once seemed bent on renouncing in his pursuit of sonic invention.

The unusual nine-piece band on ''Nine to Get Ready'' is composed of Mr. Mitchell on reeds, his longtime associate George Lewis on trombone and Hugh Ragin on trumpet, simultaneously backed by two full rhythm sections: the pianists Craig Taborn and Matthew Shipp, the bassists Jaribu Shahid and William Parker and the drummers Tani Tabbal and Gerald Cleaver. As Mr. Mitchell pointed out, the rhythm sections ''can function together or separately.''

Although most of the music on ''Nine to Get Ready'' is notated, Mr. Mitchell's composing methods blur the line between written and improvised music. To preserve the spontaneity of improvised music, he uses written instructions and graphic symbols as well as notes in his sheet music. (In one concert, Mr. Mitchell divided a stage into squares, each containing suggestions for the performers, who would move from one to the next.) At the same time, Mr. Mitchell abhors off-the-cuff expressiveness; he expects musicians to shape each improvisation as if it were composed. As he put it, ''You've got to know your part in improvised music, too.''

MR. MITCHELL, who was born and reared in Chicago, reached musical maturity at a time when the South Side nearly surpassed New York as a center of jazz innovation. In the early 60's, Mr. Mitchell began playing in the pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams's Experimental Band, which gave birth to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (now better known as simply A.A.C.M.). Drawing inspiration from the music of Mr. Coleman and from the politics of Malcolm X, the collective staged concerts and provided music lessons to inner-city children. ''We knew what happened to people who were out there on their own, and we didn't want to end up like that,'' Mr. Mitchell recalled. ''We wanted to have a scene that we controlled.''

The collective nurtured some of the most significant composers of the 70's and 80's, including Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Braxton and Henry Threadgill. ''There was a feeling of not waiting around for someone to say you're O.K.'' said Mr. Mitchell. ''You'd go to someone's concert, get really inspired and go back home to prepare for your own concert.'' A distinctive regional sound arose, one that valued shadings of color and structural experiments over rhythmic motion and soloing. If New York loft musicians were the action painters of free jazz, these Chicagoans were its constructivists, working through appropriation and collage.

In 1968, Mr. Mitchell founded the collective's flagship band, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, with the bassist Malachi Favors, the trumpeter Lester Bowie and the saxophonist Joseph Jarman. While traveling in France the next year, the Art Ensemble added the drummer Don Moye. Its motto was ''Great Black Music: Past, Present and Future.'' (Early album titles like ''Certain Blacks Do What They Wanna! -- Join Them!'' gave the band a certain radical chic cachet.) The Art Ensemble produced sophisticated pastiches of advanced jazz, big band music, blues, African percussion and reggae that honored -- and sent up -- the black musical tradition.

Mr. Mitchell was the band's intellectual-in-residence. (Mr. Bowie was its jester, Mr. Jarman its mystic.) He was also the only member to appear on stage in street clothes. Since Mr. Moye, Mr. Favors and Mr. Jarman covered their faces with tribal paint and Mr. Bowie wore a physician's suit, Mr. Mitchell's appearance was a symbolic rejection of ornament. It reflected the lean, analytic style he was cultivating as a composer.

Although Mr. Mitchell still performs with the Art Ensemble, since the late 70's he has focused on his work as a composer and leader. In 1976, he moved with his family to a big farm in Wisconsin, where he could finally hear, he said, ''silence and the way things move in nature.'' As he explained: ''When you're in the city you're always being influenced by what's going on around you. I needed to get out of the city to find myself, though I admit when I first looked in the mirror I didn't see all that much. I found that I wasn't all that great and I kept working, from morning to night.''

On his records, Mr. Mitchell has painstakingly documented this process of self-examination. Although he has produced marvels like the 1981 album ''Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin' Shoes,'' some of his records demonstrated that avant-garde jazz could be as arid as academic serialism. With ''Nine to Get Ready'' -- his best record since ''Snurdy'' -- Mr. Mitchell has succeeded in fusing his scientific investigations of sound with the humanism of his Art Ensemble work. The chamber pieces have an unusual suppleness; the ballads are almost voluptuous. The opening track, ''Leola,'' is a breathtaking requiem for the composer's stepmother. In ''Jamaican Farewell,'' a beautiful, cloud-like formation, Mr. Ragin's trumpeting sounds virtually Coplandesque.

Mr. Mitchell, who now lives in Madison, Wis., leads a fairly ascetic life for a jazz musician. He often wakes up early to run through Bach's flute sonatas with Joan Wildman, a pianist on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, where he occasionally teaches. He spends most of the day composing, studying and practicing. Baroque music is his latest obsession, and he has been transcribing some of his compositions for a recorder orchestra. ''Berkeley Fudge, a saxophonist, gave me my recorder, and it felt so natural, just the one key and the six holes,'' he said. ''And of course the sound is just incredible. I've been in a lot of halls in Italy that were just built for that sound.''

If all of this seems a long way from his Chicago jazz roots, Mr. Mitchell continues to uphold what he calls ''A.A.C.M. philosophy.'' His dream, he said, is to set up a collective of his own -- in the country, of course: ''I'd love to have a school and a big performance space. And I'd love to have a state of the art video studio because the only example we have is MTV.'' He paused, then added: ''I'd never have to leave the house. Can you think of a hipper life than that?''

Adam Shatz's most recent article for Arts and Leisure was on DJ interpretations of Steve Reich's music.