For more than 35 years Roscoe Mitchell's innovation as an improvisor, composer, and solo performer has placed him at the forefront of modern music. He is a founding member of the Creative Arts Collective of East Lansing, Michigan, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He is the recipient of many honors and awards including the Outstanding Service to Jazz Education Award from the National Association of Jazz Educators; the Certificate of Appreciation from the St. Louis Public Schools Role Model Experiences Program; the Certificate of Appreciation for the Art Ensemble of Chicago from the Smithsonian Institution; the Jazz Masters Award from Arts Midwest; and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Image Award. He has conducted numerous workshops and has held numerous artist-in-resident positions throughout the world, and has taught at the Creative Music Studio, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians' School of Music, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Illinois, and the California Institute of the Arts. (Reference: Francois Couture, journalist)
On October 28, 2003, Mitchell and the Art Ensemble of Chicago performed at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley in Seattle where the following interview took place.
All About Jazz: At what age did you start playing?
Roscoe Mitchell: Well, I consider myself like a late starter. My family was always musically orientated, but when I was very young I would sing, you know, because my dad was a singer. But, I started the clarinet when I was like 12 years old.
AAJ: Did you have any early influences?
RM: My older brother turned me on to music because he had they used to call them killers the old 78s. The community I grew up in, there was a lot of music there too, lots of clubs, and everybody was listening to the music. So, it was very musically orientated.
AAJ: Did you study music in school or anything like that?
RM: Yes, I did. I studied music in high school. I studied the clarinet in Milwaukee and then we came back to Chicago and I continued to study at Inglewood High School. I also studied when I was in the Army with the first clarinetist of the Heidelberg Symphony. I would say I started to develop some musician chops when I was in the Army because there you were functioning 24 hours a day as a professional musician.
AAJ: Do you teach also, or are you primarily just performing?
RM: Well, I'm not teaching at any university right now. I have a student in Madison that I teach. I have taught before at different places. I don't know if you remember the Creative Music Studio that Carl Berger had up in Woodstock. I did several workshops there. I taught at the University of Wisconsin for awhile, also at Kellogg's out in Valencia, California, and, you know, workshops and things throughout the States and Europe.
AAJ: Did you originally start playing around Chicago?
RM: Yeah, Chicago.
AAJ: When it was called "Roscoe Mitchell's Art Ensemble," you spent some time in France....
RM: Yeah, well, the Art Ensemble became the Art Ensemble of Chicago when we went to France, but like the Art Ensemble and other small groups like Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Muhal Richard Abrams, all of these groups are outgrowths from the larger organization which was the AACM: the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and this is an organization that came together because musicians wanted to have more control over their destinies and they wanted to sponsor each other in concerts of their own creative music. So, the earlier groups were Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble on Congliptious, but when we went to Europe this is when Joseph joined us we became the Art Ensemble of Chicago. We decided on that name because it kind of let people know, in Europe, where we were from.
AAJ: That was around the early '60s?
RM: Late '60s, yeah. '69 is, I think, when we went to Europe.
AAJ: And you were there for...?
RM: A couple of years, the first time. Yeah, a couple of years. We got ourselves established there and we ended up doing a tour of France, all on Maison de la Courtiers, while we were there. We did concerts in Denmark, in Sweden.
AAJ: What would you say you got out of that, versus if you would have stayed in Chicago?
RM: Well, we never were that type. I mean, we'd be in Chicago for awhile but before we went to Europe we had been out on the West Coast a couple of times, you know, and we had just exhausted our places to go, like in the States. We had been to Canada, and so on. And back then it took, maybe, we figured it would take about 20 years to get known because you didn't have the Internet like you do now. So for us it was the next kind of logical step. At that time, Lester sold all of his furniture to sponsor our trip to Europe and we stayed there for a couple of years and of course that's how we got known in Europe.