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Roscoe Mitchell: In Search of the Super Musician

By Published: January 8, 2004

AAJ: What could you suggest to help listeners to understand outside music better? "Outside" meaning more — actually that's kind of a difficult term — free improvised music...?

RM: I think exposure plays a big part in it. This music doesn't get the exposure that it should get. A long time ago there was more exposure. A concert that kind of reminded me of the way concerts were a long time ago — and that was, like, you might go to a college and there would be Cecil Taylor, John Cage, Richard Teitelbaum, I mean, just straight across the board because there was an audience out there for that, you know, but the concert that I just did recently, La Benelli in Valencia, was like that. I saw a lot of the people that had been around for awhile. You've got a lot of people around that are really good, you know, Alvin Lucier. All these people are around. There's a conductor in Europe, Zolt Nagy, who is an incredible conductor. I saw him do the Stockhausen three orchestra piece all in his head. The scene is really ripe for something to really happen now. What you need is more exposure for these things, and more things going. There's a wealth of music that you would never see. You've got guys around that can do pieces that nobody else can do simply because other folks don't even have the instruments. It's a great, great time in music. I'm just hoping that I'm around to see it all unfold. I know what it was like when it was really happening, though, because I lived through it.

AAJ: What do you suggest for musicians who are playing free improvised...?

RM: Study music. Study music because you are going to need that. You're going to need to know how everything works. Of course, you are working on extending your ideas just like you do in composition. You should be able to think that way. You should be able to think composition, you know, if you are putting a piece together. I mean, I've developed all sorts of practice methods for doing things. Sometimes I get one of those big clocks, you know, with the minute hands, and I may do a series of one minute pieces and then structure these so that, like, in 15 seconds something changes, in 30 seconds something else changes, 45 seconds or somewhere in between you're reaching the middle of the piece and then at the end you're going down. I mean, if I'm working on a 15 minute solo piece I may practice up to 30 minutes so I know I've got a good 15 going there. You see what I'm saying? So, you have to always challenge yourself, all the time. You always have to challenge yourself, all the time. You get one thing down then you go to the next. And then a lot of the stuff is made up by the individuals, you know, your own practice methods because you have to figure these out for yourself. I mean, you figure out what area you want to look at and then you start, you know, you go for it.

AAJ: I attended a workshop with Jack DeJohnette a couple of years ago and he said to stay focused on the concept that you are putting together with your group. That's how you make the situation work.

RM: Exactly. Jack was around in Chicago all that time. Him and I played together a lot in the early '60s. We all were in college together and he was also a member of the experimental band for awhile. He's an excellent drummer, Jack DeJohnette is.

AAJ: With Lester Bowie's passing it's a very sad time in music right now. With what's been happening with commercialism, how do you feel about the current state of improvised music?

RM: I have to remain optimistic. Like I said earlier, it takes a long time to get to be what I'm trying to be. A lot of people won't waste their time. They'll be right there so when the thing happens, it happens. This is what I'm seeing. The people that have laid in there with their focus and stayed true to their path, these people are starting to really emerge now. I'd certainly like to see things move away from all of this commercialism, because it's silly for anybody that's really thinking. Who wants to be bothered with that? I'd like to see it get back to the way it was when I was growing up where everything was out there and a person could make up their own mind about what they wanted to listen to. Hopefully that will come about.

AAJ: Would you say that, with a lot of the changes that are happening, is that kind of what prompted Joseph Jarmon's return?

RM: Well, I think Jarmon wanted to get back into music. He was very busy with his Buddhist temple and so on, but he felt as though something was missing in his life and that was music. That's what he told me. I think that's probably what prompted him. He was doing a few isolated concerts for awhile but now he is more or less back full time.

AAJ: Are you feeling good about what you are doing right now?

RM: Oh yeah, yeah. Definitely feeling good. Just need to do it more, that's all. Just need to do it more. You know how it goes, man. I mean, you know, with music, the more you do it the better you get at it.

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