Roscoe Mitchell: In Search of the Super Musician

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The super musician has a big task in front of them because they have to know something about all the music that went down because we are approaching this age of spontaneous composition.
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.

AAJ: So when you went over to Europe that was like a quartet.

RM: A quartet, that's right. Don Moye was already living in Europe. We had known him before; we had met him in Detroit. It was a guy back there, John Sinclair, who had the Detroit Artists Workshop. They had several concerts that would go on there. They had a whole city block of buildings so when the musicians went there they had some place to stay in and they had the performance spaces. Everybody was in and out of there, you know, back then.

AAJ: Aside from the fact that Don Moye was in Europe, what made you decide to add a drummer, versus staying with the miscellaneous percussion?

RM: Well, we had a drummer before. We had Phillip Wilson, and he left to go with Paul Butterfield's band. He's on that record The Old Quartet, also on some of Lester's recordings. With the Art Ensemble we never really went out looking for people, so after he left we stepped up our percussion set-ups.

AAJ: About your approach to music, when you conceptualize musically are you drawing from a background in free improvisation or do you think in terms of musical structure, like classical music structure?

RM: Everything, you know. Our goal has always been just to study music. I'm a very strong believer to be really a good improvisor you have to understand how composition works also. So, you have to be able to write, you have to be able to play, you have to be able to improvise as a soloist, you have to be able to improvise in a larger ensemble, and so on and so forth like that.

AAJ: And what would you say is your approach to composition?

RM: Oh, I mean, I've got a lot of approaches. I study it, and I like a lot of different people. I was just in the Czech Republic having a piece for orchestra and baritone done. It's a poem that Joseph Jarmon wrote in the '60s, Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City. That was one thing that Muhal did for all of us. He got us really involved in the composition right away. And then we had our own experimental band that we rehearsed every week so different guys would write for the band and come and get a chance to hear their pieces.

AAJ: I read an article where you mentioned the idea of super musicianship. Can you talk about that a little bit?

RM: Well, I believe that the super musician...this is what I would like to be, you know. The super musician, as close as I can figure it out, is someone that moves freely in music. But, of course, that's with a well established background behind you. The way I see it is everything is evolving. Of course we are a band with a lot of instruments but if you look back before the be bop era, if you looked at a big band, it was amazing what the woodwind players were playing, and what the percussionists had, okay? So, the super musician has a big task in front of them because they have to know something about all the music that went down because we are approaching this age of spontaneous composition. And that's what it is. Really good improvisation is spontaneous composition. The thing that you have to do is get yourself to the level where you can do it spontaneously. If you are sitting at home composing, you've got time. You can say, "Oh, maybe I'll try it this way, or maybe I'll try it that way." But you want to get yourself to the point to where you can make these decisions spontaneously.

AAJ: So, at what point would you say that you happened on this idea of the super musician?

RM: Well, I mean, if I look at the way the music has evolved, I figure it takes a long time to be what I'd like to be, probably more than one lifetime because I'm interested in all kinds of music and I want to play it. I have always been the type that if I hear somebody doing something that's really good, I'm challenged by that. You know, I want to do that. Some of my fondest memories are back in Chicago going to different guys' concerts and seeing what they were doing and then going home and preparing your next concert for the next time. And now you've got a lot of people around that have been honing their craft for like a long time, you know. You don't see them but they never stopped. You've got a lot of people out there on a very high level now, very high level musically.

AAJ: Would you say that your music is rooted in jazz or blues versus, say, European avant-garde music?

RM: Everything, everything that I can hear, you know? Also, I mean, I'm very interested in sounds that are, you know, putting sounds together that go where you may not expect them to go through the use of regular instruments and not regular instruments. And, I've been fortunate. I've worked with all kinds of musicians. David Wessel out there in Berkely, he was one of the first guys to start the Computer Music Conference in the States; I was back there with him. That evolved into where we do concerts with computers. Of course, George Lewis also does that. I mean, I've worked with electronic musicians because it was interesting to me to develop a vocabulary that works with that. And every time I go back to the computer, I'm always looking to be challenged to see how that all works.

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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