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Jazz saxophonist, composer and educator
After years of performing at small jazz clubs, saxophonist Dennis
Mitcheltree is on the road to realizing the rewards for his years of
work, study and persistence. With an abundance of recent
concert and club appearances, combined with his 3rd CD
release as a leader and constant touring, Mitcheltree is in a
position to do what he does best; play his music.
Things seem to have just taken off these last few years. I've played a few concerts and jazz festivals with Bob Moses, Jim McNeely, Howard Johnson, Gary Bartz, George Cables, Odean Pope, Kenny Werner, James Williams, Don Sickler, Charli Persip, Pete Yellin, Uri Caine and Ronnie Mathews. I've had the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall a few times. My quartet has been touring the U.S. and Europe and the music has never been better. I'm receiving some press attention. That kind of stuff is great for the soul after years of being discouraged by the lack of opportunities available to creative musicians.
The 36 year old tenor saxophonist and composer was born and raised in Milwaukee. Starting on oboe at the age of 12 and picking up the baritone sax for his school jazz band, Mitcheltree was interested in music from the outset. By the time he was in high school he concentrated exclusively on the tenor saxophone and discovering the rich history of jazz through recordings.
The first jazz recording I owned was Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. I'll never forget the chills that travelled down my spine the first time I heard Coltrane play on that album. Like most teenagers, I was looking for something in life that made sense to me and I had this wonderful connection with Trane's sound and attitude.
Mitcheltree became a frequent visitor to Milwaukee's few jazz record stores, using his hard earned cash to discover the music of swing, bebop, hardbop and 60's free jazz.
I tended to lean towards the music of the 60's because of it's spiritual sense, but Charlie Parker showed me the blueprint of the music and it's soul. I was totally into Trane. When I heard A Love Supreme I knew that I wanted to be a jazz musician. It showed me that there were no bounds to the feelings that could be expressed in music; that communicating with people by performing this music can bring about so many ideas and connections. Communication is what I strive for in the performance of my music. It's the ultimate goal.
Turning down a scholarship to the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music's Jazz Program, Mitcheltree headed East where jazz is centered, choosing to enroll at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. There he met like-minded students and could be found in the ensemble rooms of the college working on his music on a daily basis.
I didn't have much of a chance to play in Milwaukee. I would practice about eight to ten hours each day but aside from one or two small jazz clubs where I could sit in, like the Jazz Oasis, there really wasn't much of a scene. There were even fewer young musicians like myself who just wanted to get together and jam. Going to Boston really opened up my eyes as to what's going on in the jazz scene. I was out listening to live music until three in the morning almost every night and up by eight to go to class. It was a blast!
After two years at Berklee, Mitcheltree decided that school was a bit restricting and that he needed a change of scenery. He decided to go to Japan and perform as a free-lance musician while exploring a different culture.
I had more fun in the three months that I was in Japan than I ever had up to that point in my life . I got a chance to do some wild, crazy things and meet and play with some really great musicians. I got to play with bassist Chin Suzuki and saxophonist Tosh Inoue, who are two of Japan's greatest jazz musicians. When I returned to Boston I hoped that I could start gigging with regularity and just perform.
Unfortunately it didn't go quite as planned. With the absence of steady, decent paying gigs Mitcheltree decided to re-enroll at Berklee with the assistance of a hefty scholarship. He graduated Magna Cum Laude with a major in performance in 1987, and then made the big move to New York.
I had performed quite a bit in Boston. My quartet played at jazz clubs like the 1369 Club, Ryles and the Willow, but there weren't quite enough opportunities in Boston. New York presented me with chance to perform more frequently at a higher level of musicianship.
In addition to his free-lance work, Mitcheltree organized his own quartet that continues to perform at clubs, concerts and jazz festivals throughout the U.S. and Europe. He has played at several jazz festivals including the Coleman Hawkins Jazz Fest, the Habana Jazz Festival, the Celebrate Brooklyn Festival, the Hot Prospects Concert Series, World Festival 2000, Brooklyn Academy of Music concerts and the St. Marks Park Music Festival. His composition for jazz sextet and string quartet, Suite No.1, was presented at Carnegie Hall in 1995. His quartet has been featured on a televised jazz special on CNN and various live radio performance and interview programs countrywide.
It's been great to play with musicians of the caliber of the cats in my group. It's an exhilarating experience. I consider myself very fortunate to get to work with these guys. We perform frequently in New York and are touring the country every few months. This gives us a chance to really delve into the music. I'm fortunate enough to be working fairly steadily these days, but since I've started teaching time has become a precious commodity. I long for the days when I would get up at noon and practice and compose and play a gig until three in the morning. I'm still composing but not as frequently because of the time problem. But it's actually easier to write now. It seems to have become a very quick process, the tunes just basically pop into my head, usually inspired by some event. I don't have to agonize over every note like I did a few years ago.
A former student of Joe Lovano, Billy Pierce and Ralph Lalama, Mitcheltree is now a teacher in his own right. He teaches privately and at the Greenwich House Music School and for Long Island University in New York. He also does jazz workshops in NYC at places like the Henry Street Settlement and the East Harlem Music School in addition to clinics at colleges while touring.
As for the future, I'd like to continue performing and composing, developing the musical base that I've established. My music is definitely coming out of today's acoustic jazz scene and a quartet can best represent what I'm trying to do musically. My main goal is to present whatever I'm playing, whether it's standards or original compositions, with the level of intensity and spirituality established by Coltrane and his quartet. It's a real pleasure to perform and have a listener come up to me afterward and tell me that they could really feel my music; that it spoke to them. When I hear this I know I'm on the right track.
Mitcheltree has been a panelist for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Jazz Fellowship program and the Brooklyn Arts Council Regrant Program. He has twice been a recipient of the Eubie Blake Award and the alternate finalist for the 1996 Evansville International Jazz Saxophone Competition. His debut recording, Brooklyn, on the Top Ten Jazz List at KZSU Jazz in Stanford, the Top 40 Jazz List at WNUR Jazz in Chicago and jazz playlists worldwide, is available on CD on the Dengor Music label(DCD 1013) at local jazz outlets. His third CD release as a leader, Union, will be available.