n 1995, I had the opportunity to interview the master saxophonist/woodwindist/composer Roscoe Mitchell on two separate occasions on WKCR. Although the transcripts have been up for a number of years on the Jazz Journalists Association website, http://www.jazzhouse.org., the occasion of Roscoe’s 71st birthday on August 3rd offered a good excuse to post the proceedings here as well. On the first session, he came to the station with pianist Amina Claudine Myers, his friend since the mid-’60s; he came solo six months later. Ahead of these in the sequence below is the final draft that I submitted to Downbeat of a feature piece on the maestro in 2017.
Roscoe Mitchell, DB Article, Final Draft:
In spring 2014, not long after Roscoe Mitchell received a $225,000 Doris Duke Artist Award, ECM founder Manfred Eicher wrote a congratulatory letter to the iconic woodwindist-composer. Eicher proposed to Mitchell, then represented on ECM by three albums under his leadership since 1999, and by four with the Art Ensemble of Chicago since 1978, that they should start thinking about their next project.
Not long thereafter, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art invited Mitchell to present an on-site concert in September, in conjunction with its second-half-of-2015 exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments In Art and Music, 1965 to Now, mounted to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, of which Mitchell was an original member. Beyond the realm of notes and tones, Mitchell contributed several paintings and his percussion cage, a “sculpture-instrument” comprised of dozens of globally-sourced bells, gongs, hand drums, mallet instruments, rattles, horns, woodblocks and sirens that CMOCA positioned on an installed stage alongside the percussion setups of AEC colleagues Joseph Jarman, Famoudou Don Moye, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors. It was Mitchell’s second AACM-related event in Chicago during 2015, following a March concert with cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Junius Paul and drummer Vincent Davis documented on Celebrating Fred Anderson, on Nessa Records, whose catalog tracks Mitchell’s evolution since 1967.
Although Mitchell “didn’t even have an idea what music I would do” for the CMOCA event, he nonetheless contacted ECM. The end result is Bells For the South Side, a double CD featuring four separate trios embodying a 40-year timeline of Mitchell’s musical production—James Fei on woodwinds and electronics and William Winant on percussionist; Craig Taborn on piano and electronics and Kikanju Baku on drums and percussion; Jaribu Shahid on bass and Tani Tabbal on drums; Hugh Ragin on trumpet and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, trombone, piano and percussion cage. On some of the ten compositions, the units function autonomously; on others, some with Mitchell performing and some not, he assembles them in configurations ranging from quartet to full ensemble.
Mitchell, 76, sat amidst half-packed suitcases in his downtown Brooklyn hotel room, a few blocks from Roulette Intermedium, where, the night before, he’d performed with a new edition of trio SPACE, a unit whose initial iteration, between 1979 and 1992, featured multi-woodwindist Gerald Oshita and vocalist Thomas Buckner. Joining Mitchell and Buckner was Scott Robinson, whose arsenal included such bespoke items as reed trumpet with two-bells, a slide sopranino saxophone, a contrabass saxophone, and a barbell. Robinson elicited authoritative lines from each instrument, complementing and contrasting Mitchell’s own sometimes circularly-breathed postulations on sopranino, soprano, alto and bass saxophones, intoned with precision along a spectrum ranging from airiest subtone to loudest bellow. Buckner triangulated with micronically calibrated wordless shapes, timbres and pitches.
Mitchell’s next stop was Bologna, Italy, where, four days hence, he’d participate in the latest instantiation of the ongoing concert project, Conversations For Orchestra. The title references the transcriptions and orchestrations of improvisations that Mitchell, Taborn and Baku uncorked on some of the 21 pieces contained on Conversations I and Conversations II (Wide Hive), from 2013. As an example, Mitchell broke down two treatments of “They Rode For Them,” originally rendered as a bass saxophone-drums duet. “I took myself off bass saxophone and reinserted myself as an improviser on soprano saxophone,” he said. “I used Kikanju’s very complex drum part, giving one percussionist his hands and the other percussionist his feet. In New York, I took the bass saxophone part and featured bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck as an improviser.”
On site in Bologna would be one-time Mitchell student Christopher Luna-Mega, who transcribed and orchestrated the improvisations on “Splatter,” and current student John Ivers, who, on “Distant Radio Transmission,” in Mitchell’s words, “transcribed the air sounds the soprano is making with these gradual shifts of pitch, and then the real notes involved in that, and then transcribed those for strings, and orchestrated it for the string section.” The interchange not only satisfies Mitchell’s predisposition “to put my students in the same space I’m in when I’m working,” but is congruent with Mitchell’s “studies of the relationships between composition and improvisation.” He continued: “It’s a new source to generate compositions from. I have these transcriptions and can do what I want with them, so it removes the element of ‘What am I going to write?’”
A similarly pragmatic attitude towards the creative process informed Mitchell’s approach towards generating material for Bells For The South Side. He referenced the Note Factory, an ongoing project that debuted on the 1993 Black Saint sextet recording This Dance Is For Steve McCall, and scaled-up to octet and nonet on Nine To Get Ready (ECM-1997), Song For My Sister (Pi-2002) and Far Side (ECM-2007). “Because the Note Factory was big and didn’t work all the time, I’d keep working with different elements of it—a quintet concert here, a trio there,” Mitchell said. “That keeps everybody engaged with the music, so it’s easier when I get the opportunity to put together the larger group. I enjoy long-lasting musical relationships with people. It takes time to develop certain musical concepts.”
Few musicians have known Mitchell longer than Shahid and Tabbal, with whom Mitchell founded the Detroit-based Creative Music Collective along AACM principles after he relocated from Chicago to a Michigan farm near East Lansing in 1974. Colorado-based Ragin joined them in Mitchell’s Sound Ensemble a few years later; Taborn entered Mitchell’s orbit on a mid-’90s tour playing piano with James Carter opposite the Art Ensemble. The Fei-Winant trio coalesced after Mitchell joined them on the Mills College faculty in 2007 as the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition; neighborly proximity has allowed ample rehearsal opportunities, as is evident in the uncanny mutual intuition they display on Mitchell’s epic For Trio: Angel City (RogueArt).
Baku, a Londoner who plays in noise bands with names like Bollock Swine, had contacted Mitchell before a January 2013 engagement at London’s Café Oto with Tabbal and bassist John Edwards. After inviting Baku to sit in on the second night, Mitchell decided to pair him with Taborn for the Conversations sessions 10 months later. About a year earlier, Mitchell first played with Sorey (whose teachers include Mitchell’s AACM peers Anthony Braxton and George Lewis) when he was invited to play duo with the younger musician at a Berkeley house concert. “He sounded so amazing playing solo, I thought, ‘Now, what am I supposed to do with him?’” Mitchell recalled. The answer came that July, when Wide Hive recorded a Mitchell-Sorey duo encounter, with Ragin augmenting the flow on several numbers.
Three years later, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Mitchell assigned Sorey to perform in the percussion cage on “Bells For The South Side,” while having Baku open the proceedings by dancing with Favors’ sleigh bells and ankle bells. The journey continued via the following sonic roadmap, tracing a route along vocabulary signposts Mitchell had heard each musician deploy: “Kikanju is joined by interjections of the hanging wind chimes found on the blue rack of Joseph Jarman’s percussion setup, then is joined by short bursts of rolls on the piccolo snare drum, gradually adding cast iron bells whose pitch will be used to construct a melody for piccolo trumpet being played at the far end of the exhibition space. This melody should develop gradually, starting with long tones, with silence in between the melody consisting of more than one tone. This section should end with a cued gong attack that should be marked, ‘Let Ring.’ Inside each of our percussion setups, we have bells of all different sizes that we can swing, and they will continue to swing and ring on their own. They start very small, and gradually build up to the great big bells. Then the sound of the trumpet, and at the end, under my percussion setup, you hear this huge school-bell with a handle on it.”
“Prelude to the Card Game,” a Mitchell-Shahid-Tabbal trio, is the latest in a series of card compositions Mitchell first developed during the 1970s. In them, he provides material on a set of six cards that fit together to be configured in different ways, whether overlapped, side-by-side, or out of numbered sequence. The intention, Mitchell said, is to help inexperienced classically trained improvisers “to avoid making the same mistakes—that is, following, or being behind on a written piece of music.”
He continued: “Each time the information comes up, it’s done a different way. If you play something I like, I can store that and bring it back, say, when I’m running out of information. By then, you’re in another space. Suddenly, we have an important element—a musical composition. That’s counterpoint. I can take your idea and put my own take on it and bring it in another way. Where we had one thing going on, now we have two. If what I’m doing registers to you and you want to put a different take on that, then we’ve brought three different things.
“Every moment is different. If I can remain aware of what’s happening in the moment, it’s helpful in constructing an improvisation. For instance, I might have done something really good last night, but if I try to do the same thing the next night, it might not work. An improvisation should never be a situation where there’s only one option. To me, improvisation is trying to improve your skills so you can make these on-point compositional decisions. That takes practice.”
“Panoply,” which “deals with different sound textures,” features Fei on alto saxophone, Winant on xylophone, Ragin on trumpet, and Baku, Sorey and Tabbal on drumsets. It is also the title of the Mitchell painting on the back cover of the booklet jacket.
“The art came from my mother’s side of the family and the music came from my father’s side,” said Mitchell, whose father sang professionally until he developed problems with his vocal cords. “When I was growing up, one of my uncles created a kind of comic book structure of myself and my sisters and our friends, where we met all these different people from different planets. He used a crayon and ink, and then he’d put the crayon on the paper and then scrape it and mix colors. My other maternal uncle made a lot of my toys and stuff growing up.”
Asked if his creative process involved synesthetic elements, Mitchell responded: “If you’re an artist, sometimes you just make a choice which way you want to go. You’re using the same thought patterns that create painting and music and writing.” In this regard, Mitchell mentioned early AACM colleague Lester Lashley, who played cello and trombone on Sound, the 1966 Delmark recording that vaulted Mitchell into international consciousness. And he mentioned Muhal Richard Abrams, whose paintings were also on display at the 2015 CMOCA exhibition, as were Anthony Braxton’s graphic scores. Mitchell met Abrams in 1961, not long after he returned to Chicago from a three-year stint as an Army musician during which he developed from acolyte to well-trained practitioner prepared to follow Abrams’ dictum of self-education..
“Muhal was painting then, and we talked about painting a lot,” Mitchell said. “Even now, when we get together, we may go to a museum. We always had a sketch-pad with us. I enjoyed sitting in front of the canvas and trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I still try to keep something going on. I do a lot of drawing, and right now I’m working on a sculpture out of pieces of trees that were cut down at Mills—this thing I call the Cat. It’s a two-faced sculpture—one side, to me, has a male image, and then, when you flip the head around, it’s more of a female image. I made glasses for it, so you can display it in several different ways.”
It was time for Mitchell to finish packing, check out, and catch his flight to Bologna, but he took one more question: Considering the time he devotes to teaching, composing, traveling and art-making, how does he sustain his gargantuan chops on the array of instruments on which he continues to perform as a virtuoso?
“I’m not doing so well with that right now,” he said. “I’m longing to get back to practicing six-seven hours a day, like the old days, when all I did was play and I had a real embouchure. There’s an old phrase, ‘catting on the pass.’‘Oh, you got red together, so here’s red, here’s red, here’s red.’ I’m trying to get out of that. I want to get past the point of practicing just to get my embouchure back together. I need to practice consistently until I can get to a point where I can start learning.
“As we live longer, people don’t want to be categorized. I think the best thing, what I always encourage my students to do, is to study music, not categories, so that you can seek in any musical situation you’re in. Certainly be aware of everything that has happened in music, and study that. But strive to study the big picture, which is music.”
Roscoe Mitchell & Amina Claudine Myers (WKCR, 6-13-95):
[MUSIC: RM/M. Favors “Englewood H.S.” (1994); RM New Chamber Ensemble, “Oh, the Sun Comes Up, Up In the Morning”]
Roscoe, having just heard the two recent releases, a few words about each of them, the continuity of the ensembles, the ideas behind each CD.
ROSCOE: The New Chamber Ensemble, Pilgrimage is dedicated to Gerald Oshita, who was a member of our original trio, which was Space. The New Chamber Ensemble, you could say, is a continuation of that work. Gerald passed, and we dedicated this record to him. On this record there is also a composition by Henry Threadgill with a text by Thulani Davis entitled “He Didn’t Give Up; He was Taken.” For the pieces that we’re going to be doing Saturday we’ll have joining us also two members of this ensemble. Thomas Buckner will be performing with the S.E.M. Ensemble, which is an 11-piece chamber orchestra, in a piece that I wrote entitled “Memoirs Of A Dying Parachutist,” a poem by Daniel Moore. We’ll also be doing a trio piece for piano, saxophone and baritone voice, with the members of this particular ensemble.
In the 1980’s, apart from your work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, you were working concurrently with the Roscoe Mitchell Sound Ensemble and the Roscoe Mitchell Space Ensemble, and sometimes combining the two. Would you talk a little bit about your concepts for each of these groups in terms of the words “sound” and “space” as separate and converging intents.
ROSCOE: If you’ll remember, back in 1966 my first record to come out on Delmark was titled Sound. This is the where the name for the Sound Ensemble came up. Over the years, though, we’ve worked in different combinations with both of the groups, either doing large pieces, which you will find on that CD on Black Saint, Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound and Space Ensembles. Sometimes we would tour with both of these groups, and we would do pieces with one group and pieces with the other group, and then combine pieces.
If I could talk about your question on the scope of the music, I don’t really see that much difference from one to the other. I’ve always tried to work in lots of different areas with both groups.
In the Sixties, when Sound came out, Amina, were you… I know Roscoe played in some of Amina’s ensembles in Chicago in the 1960’s. At that point had the two of you met?
ROSCOE: Yes, we had.
AMINA: Yes. Actually I played… Roscoe did an all Duke Ellington concert, and had me doing vocals, and he did another concert where I played and sang. But he never played in any of the groups that I had organized.
ROSCOE: Except the group we had at the Hungry Eye.
AMINA: Oh, yes. That’s right. That organ group!
ROSCOE: We had a hot group at the Hungry Eye. The first time we had Gene Dinwiddie with us…
AMINA: That’s right. Kalaparusha, Lester Bowie…
ROSCOE: …and Lester Bowie, and then we went to Kalaparusha and Lester Bowie and Ajaramu. I mean, we had one of the hottest organ groups that you wanted to hear back in those days.
AMINA: That’s right.
ROSCOE: That’s when they had the music up and down Wells Street, the Plugged Nickel, the Hungry Eye, and so forth. All those clubs were there. It was like a miniature New York or something.
AMINA: That’s right.
What was your impression of Amina’s music when you first heard it, Roscoe? Do you remember the circumstances?
ROSCOE: I was always knocked out by Amina’s music. At that time, in Chicago, the organ was starting to gain more presence on the scene. Jimmy Smith had come out with that record, The Champ, and so on. And in Chicago there were a lot of organ players then. Baby Face Willette was there, Eddie Buster… So in Chicago at that time, there was music almost every night. So I always knew where to go. You could go out every night and play with somebody if you wanted to, and this is what I did.
Where were some of the places you’d go out to play? Would they be on the South Side?
ROSCOE: Yeah, a lot of them were on the South Side. There was the Wonder Inn…,
ROSCOE: …McKie’s, and then there were clubs that were further over toward the lake. I can’t remember the names of all of them…
AMINA: The Coral(?) Club.
ROSCOE: Yeah, and then that club they had down on Stony Island…
AMINA: Oh, yes.
ROSCOE: …and one on 71st Street. There was a lot of… See, I came from that kind of a thing. I mean, when I grew up in Chicago, not only did I listen to the same music that my parents listened to; I could go right outside of my house and go down the street, and they’d be playing there. My parents and all of us, we all listened to the same music.
What was that?
ROSCOE: That was a wide variety of music. Whatever was popular was on all the jukeboxes. I mean, those were the days where you could go to a jukebox and there was some variety in the music on the jukebox. I mean, now you go to a jukebox and it’s all the same thing. But whoever was popular. I mean, when Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams had that hit out, that was on there. James Moody’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” was on there. I mean, just to give you… It was jazz pieces, popular pieces; whatever was popular at that time was out.
Were these clubs hospitable to young saxophonists coming in to sit in? In other words, were there jam sessions at a lot of clubs? Were you able to get gigs at some of these clubs with the local musicians?
ROSCOE: Well, that was my musical upbringing. I always went out and sat in with people, so I got to know different people. Like I said, I could go out and play every night. Then it was also at that time when the licensing for the clubs was getting changed. If you had a trio there, it was one price for a license. If you had anything bigger than a trio, then it was a bigger price for a license. So a lot of house bands were working, and people would come and sit in and stuff like that. Because it was right on the verge of the era where people were starting not to have as much live music, and the disk jockeys were starting to become popular in the clubs.
Were you playing alto saxophone all this time? Was that your main instrument back as a teenager?
ROSCOE: I started on clarinet, then in high school I played baritone saxophone. Then later on I went to alto, and so on and so on.
A lot of the musicians in Chicago who came to prominence went to DuSable High School with Walter Dyett, but you went to Englewood High School. Tell me about the music program there.
ROSCOE: Well, that’s where comes this next CD. I was very fortunate in Englewood High School to have met Donald Myrick, who is a founding member of the AACM. He is also a founding member of Phil Cohran’s group he headed, the Afro-Arts Theater, which later on became the Pharaohs, which they did also record under that name, and then after that became members of Earth, Wind and Fire. Now, like I said, I know that DuSable had Captain Dyett, but we had Donald Myrick at Englewood High School. And I was fortunate to meet him at that time, because he was already playing the instrument in high school, and he kind of like took me under his wing and, you know, started to show me about music.
I’d like to talk a bit about your gradual transition from being let’s say a talented apprentice on the instrument to becoming a person for whom music was a life. Did you always see music as your life? Do you recollect when that started to happen?
ROSCOE: Well, I know I’ve always loved music, and like I said, it was always in my family. Through an older brother, I got really introduced and really very interested in Jazz, because he had all of those old 78’s, and we’d spend a lot of time just listening to them. “Hey, come over here, sit down, let’s listen to this, let’s listen to that.” So yeah, music has always been in my life.
Then, when I was in the Army, I started to function as a professional musician twenty-four hours a day, and I was in the Army for three years. So when I came out of there, yeah, I was pretty much on the track to being a musician.
I gather that you were exposed to a lot of interesting music when you were in the Army, stationed in Europe. If I’m not mistaken, I recollect hearing you talk about hearing Albert Ayler play in Germany maybe…?
ROSCOE: I was in the band in Heidelberg, Germany. Sometimes we would go to Berlin along with the band from Berlin and the band from Orleans, France, and Albert Ayler was a member of that band. We’d come together and do these big parades in Berlin. But at that time, when all the musicians got together, there were a lot of sessions and different things. So when I first heard Albert at that time, I didn’t quite understand what he was doing, but I did know that he had an enormous sound on the tenor. I remember that once someone called a blues or something at the session, and I think that for the first couple of choruses Albert Ayler played the blues straight, and then when he started to go away from that, then I started to really kind of understand what he was doing.
But I have to say that, as a musician, when I was in the Army, when I first heard Ornette Coleman, I didn’t really fully understand what he was doing. When I got back to Chicago and met Joseph Jarman, he was already more advanced than I was in terms of listening to Eric Dolphy… As a matter of fact, it was John Coltrane who brought me back into that music with his record Coltrane, which has “Out of This World” on it. That was when Coltrane started to go away from the regular chordal pattern and use a sort of a modal approach to the music. When I started to hear that, I said, “Wait, I’d better go back and listen to Eric,” and then I said, “I’d better go back and listen to Ornette,” and then I started to fully understand. That was like about two years as a musician being able to understand that music.
Talk about the beginnings of your relationship with Joseph Jarman. I gather that you and he and Malachi Favors were all at Wilson Junior College, now called Kennedy-King.
ROSCOE: Yeah, it was Wilson Junior College. Also Jack De Johnette was there, because we played a lot in those early days. Jack was known around town as a pianist, but he always played drums, too, because he was very talented.
Wasn’t Steve McCall the drummer in his trio?
ROSCOE: In Jack’s trio? I don’t remember at that time. I know it was Scotty Holt. Steve might have done some things with him. But it was Scotty Holt, the bass player. So we were all there together, and that’s where we first met. And of course, Muhal was always the person who brought everybody together. He had his big band rehearsals down at a place called the C&C every Monday night, and we all started to want to go down there and be a part of that. This is what brought everybody together to where people started talking about, “Oh, yeah, let’s put together an organization where we can kind of control our destinies a little bit more” and so on and so forth, and this is where the thoughts for the AACM originated.
What was your first contact with Muhal like? What was your impression?
ROSCOE: Well, Muhal always impressed me… Now, he was a guy who would always help out anybody who needed help, and everybody would always come over to his house, and at the end of the week he would still have a piece for the big band! I don’t know how he did that, but he did it! [LAUGHS] For a while, all I did was, I’d go to school, and then after school then I would go over to Muhal’s house. Sometimes I wouldn’t get home until 9 or 10 o’clock at night or something like that. And that’s what a lot of us did in that period.
Amina, you weren’t originally from Chicago. You came there from Arkansas. But when did you get to Chicago?
AMINA: In 1963.
Did you immediately find the AACM at that time?
AMINA: No. I went there to teach school. I taught Seventh and Eighth Grade music. I really wasn’t thinking about playing. And I went out with a young man one time, he was a photographer… He was really a photographer, but he liked to play the hand drums. Unfortunately, he had no rhythm, none. But he would go up on the West Side and sit in, and I went there with him one night and played the organ, and the leader of the group fired his organ player and hired me. Then I went from there, and started working with a guy named Cozy Eggleston. While working with Cozy, Ajaramu, the drummer, heard me, and we formed a group together. He was the one that brought me into the AACM.
Talk about your background in Arkansas. Had you been playing piano and organ since very young, and in church?
AMINA: Well, I started playing the piano… I was taking European Classical music around 7, and then I started playing in the church, leading choirs and co-leaders of several gospel groups in my pre-teens, all the way up through college. Then the organ was introduced in the early Sixties. I was playing the piano in a club, then the organs came in, and then I started playing in the churches, playing church organ.
So you were playing both in the church and jazz as well?
AMINA: Yes, I was.
Talk about your early exposure to Jazz. Who were the pianists who inspired you in the type of music you were trying to play?
AMINA: Well, first of all, I was doing Rhythm-and-Blues and everything. And a young lady when I was in college came up to me and she said, “I have a job for you, but it’s playing in a nightclub.” I’ve told this story so many times. I wasn’t even thinking about playing in a nightclub. I said, “Girl, I can’t play no nightclub.” She said, “Yes, you can. It pays five dollars a night.” And as I have said so often, we called her “the black Elizabeth Taylor,” because she looked just like Elizabeth Taylor.
So I went down there and got this job playing. I copied all of the… Because I was singing. I always sang and played at the same time. I copied all of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Stomping At The Savoy,” note for note. But like Roscoe was saying, the jukebox there had Ornette Coleman, Lou Donaldson, and Ornette’s music was very popular. I always liked it. It sounded strange, but I liked it.
But a lot of the piano players from Memphis, Tennessee, used to come to this hotel which had a room in it… The club was in the hotel. So I picked up a lot of things on piano from the pianists that would stay at the hotel. They played at the white country clubs in Little Rock.
Who were some of the pianists you heard then?
AMINA: Charles Thomas. He’s in Memphis now.
He played a week at Bradley’s in New York a few months ago.
AMINA: Oh, a few months ago. I heard that he had been this way, but I didn’t know when. A young man that’s passed away now, Eddie Collins. There’s a young guy that’s on the scene now, his father is… I can’t think of his name. He’s from Little Rock now. He’s very popular.
So this is how I learned. I started picking up things on the piano, trying to learn how to play “So What” and things like that. But mainly I was copying Nina Simone, Dakota Staton, Ella Fitzgerald.
What was early impression of the AACM after you got to Chicago? What was your first experience like?
AMINA: Well, I was very apprehensive. Because Muhal had those charts! I thought they was… I said, “Oh, my goodness.” There were about two or three piano players on the scene, and I was hoping I wouldn’t be called! Because reading the music, it looked so, so difficult. I was more or less shy. Believe it or not, I was. I was hoping I wouldn’t be called to play. I would worry all while I was up there at the piano! I was worried about playing the wrong note. Because the music looked very difficult to me, and it can be. But Muhal was very patient and very encouraging.
Then when we started organizing smaller groups, we all did things. Like, Roscoe and all of them were inspiring. I never felt… You know, I felt that I belonged and that I was, and I realized that I could write, and that I had something to say. Because you know, Roscoe used to walk around with this big tall top hat, it was about five feet high tall! He was painting, Muhal was painting. They were doing all these things. It was very, very creative. So it was like a beehive of activity, and I was inspired.
It sounds like Chicago was a place where you could really actualize anything that came to mind through the work you were doing and put it out there, and it would generate new activity, and it just kept going and going.
ROSCOE: That’s true. Because we were very fortunate to be in a spot where there were so many people that were thinking the same way. It was also very inspiring. Because I remember going to different people’s concerts, and then the way I would feel, I’d be so excited that I felt that I wanted to go home and try to really work hard for my next concert. And so on and so on. You would always be inspired… it was just a great time, a great learning time for music, and you didn’t have to be quite as rushed as, like, for instance, if you had been in New York at that time, where everybody is over here and over there, you know, trying to do this and do that to make some money or whatever. I’m not saying anything about New York. I’m just saying that it was easier to get a bunch of people together there, at that time, then it would have been in New York.
AMINA: Mmm-hmm. It was. It was.
Well, New York seems a much more competitive, cut-throat type of place in many ways. Considering the AACM has stayed together and the relationships have remained over thirty-plus years, it’s testimony to the bonds that formed during that time.
AMINA: Right. Because of our foundation there. I don’t think it could have happened here because it’s too spread out. There’s too much… You have to work so hard to survive here. It was much more relaxed in Chicago.
But I don’t exactly get the sense that in Chicago it was so economically wonderful for the musicians in the AACM, but I guess it was maybe a little easier to live.
ROSCOE: Yeah, that, and then… Well, we’re an example to the world of what musicians can do if they put their resources together. I mean, not only did the AACM exist. I mean, of course, we started it off… The way we got things going was, we paid dues, and we saved our money, and we had our programs for the children in the community, and then we would do our concerts.
AMINA: We had a training program.
ROSCOE: Yes. Then we also went on to an idea beyond that. We thought, like, “Hmm, well, why don’t we encourage people in other cities to do a similar type thing, and then have exchange concerts and things like that.” I mean, we also created work for musicians, in a way. We’d have musicians come up from Detroit, which later became the B.A.G, the Black Artists Group…
AMINA: St. Louis.
ROSCOE: I mean, St. Louis. Sorry.
You were going back and forth to Detroit also, I guess.
ROSCOE: Well, Michigan is where I started the C.A.C., which is the Creative Music Collective. We followed the same format that we had laid out in the AACM. I mean, we did our concerts, and then we’d bring different people in to play. It was like creating employment.
Roscoe, it sounds like you and Malachi Favors formed an instant bond from those days in junior college. And he was a member of your original ensemble, even before the first Delmark recording. A few words about that relationship.
ROSCOE: Well, he was also at Wilson Junior College with us. It was Threadgill, Malachi, Jack De Johnette, Joseph, John Powell, and a bunch of other folks. Yes, Malachi was in some of my earliest groups, that’s true. We did form an immediate bond. Although we don’t always agree on everything, we do at least agree on music, you know! So that’s kept us together through all of these years.
Talk about your earliest groups, before The Sound was recorded. Were you basically working toward the areas that you explored on Sound in those groups in ’64 and ’65?
ROSCOE: Well, like we were talking about before we went on the air here, we’ve got a record way back there with Alvin Fielder and Fred Berry, who is a trumpet player that used to play with us, Malachi and myself, which is a very good record which we might release sometime. But then even before that, Gene Dinwiddie, who I don’t know how many people know of him now, but he went on to be a member of Paul Butterfield’s band for a while; and then Kalaparusha was playing with us a lot in those days. The other night I was playing in Chicago at the Hot House, and a guy came by with some photographs from that period, thirty years ago, with Lester Lashley on there playing cello, and this other drummer that we worked with out of St. Louis — at that time his name was Leonard Smith, and now his name is Fela(?).
In those days, that’s all we did, was play. I mean, we rehearsed every day. When it was warm, we went to the park and played every day. I mean, Chicago was that kind of place. When I was growing up there, if you went to the park, you could always find Curley out there, a saxophonist, playing. And a lot of guys that were really trying to learn how to play and stuff, they would go out there and hang around him. So these groups and the AACM, I mean, they all evolved out of this kind of philosophy.
Amina, what did having musicians available like Roscoe and Kalaparusha and many others do for your writing with your various groups, Amina and Company, in the mid-1960’s?
AMINA: Well, everybody has a different style and approach. For instance, Kalaparusha was playing with us for quite a while. We traveled together. I had this little electric piano, and I would watch how he voiced his chords with the clusters and things. And just observing the scores and hearing the music, I saw that the mind was free to create whatever you wanted to create, and that it would work, you know, if you believed in it, and it would have a meaning to it. I noticed this with all the music, with Muhal… Everyone was different, but yet they were unique within their own. Of course, my background was mostly just Gospel. I never studied technically. So basically, mine was I guess a little bit more simple. I didn’t know anything about chords or anything like that really. I just had some of the basic things. So I just had to observe and listen and watch. I’d see what Muhal would do… I just picked up what I could.
I guess later, when you worked with Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, the chords probably came into play a little more.
AMINA: Yes. They didn’t believe in having music. Sonny Stitt would rehearse something, and then three months later he would call it.
ROSCOE: [LOUD LAUGH]
AMINA: I remember “Autumn in New York,” he rehearsed that, and then I forgot all about the song. But he said, “‘Autumn In New York,'” and just started playing it before…! They didn’t… So it was like you had this on your mind. See, I didn’t know anything about going to the stores and buying sheet music. I was very naive, believe it not; very naive. In doing Gospel music, we never used any music. We picked up all the songs off the radio. There was no such thing as buying music. You know, I was from a little village on the highway, and the quartet singers would come through, so I mean, we never saw music — you just picked it up from what you heard.
So therefore, with Sonny and Jug… Jug did have a few little tunes he wrote on the chord changes on occasion. But basically, they wanted you to hear it up here. You had to hear it. They said, “Use your ears.” Especially Sonny Stitt. He would always say, “Use your ears.”
Roscoe, Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons are really synonymous, in a way, with a certain sound of Chicago. Were they a big part of your early experience as a saxophonist?
ROSCOE: Yeah, of course. And Nicky Hill was also a big part. I mean, a lot of folks don’t know about Nicky Hill. He was also a great saxophonist in Chicago. There were so many people! I mean, Clarence Wheeler was a great saxophonist. There was a guy when I was growing up named George Fullalove(?), who was a great saxophonist. And this guy that I just told you about, Curly; I mean, he’d go out in the park and he’d be out there six-eight hours a day, standing up there, running scales and arpeggios all day, all day long. We’d just go out there and sit and listen to him, and he’d tell us about this and tell us about that, and show us different things and stuff like that.
Chicago has a very rich tradition in music. I mean, there are so many people that you don’t even hear about that are totally great.
And it’s been that way since the turn of the century, since the Pekin Theater was built on 27th Street and Michigan Avenue in 1905.
A center of show business and black artists.
[MUSIC: Amina, “Jumping In The Sugar Bowl” (1986); Roscoe, “Walking In The Moonlight” (1994)]
“Walking In The Moonlight” was a composition by Roscoe Mitchell, Senior. Was your father a musician, a working musician? Obviously he was a lover of music.
ROSCOE: Yeah, he was a lover of music. He was a singer, you know. Not only was it the jazz artists who were real popular in those days, but the Popular singer was also very popular; Nat King Cole, of course, comes to mind…
Did your father know him from his younger days in Chicago?
ROSCOE: Yes, he did. My mother went to school with Nat King Cole. They remember him always going to the church to practice the piano and stuff all the time.
Nat Cole’s father was a minister…
ROSCOE: Yes. And… Oh, what was I saying…?
I interrupted you. Sorry.
ROSCOE: Yes. [LAUGHS]
Your father was a singer…
ROSCOE: Yes, my father was a singer, and he was one… I guess you could group him into the group of singers that they call crooners. He also used to do a thing where he would imitate instruments, you
Would you say you picked up your earliest musical inspiration from him? Did he get you your first instrument?
ROSCOE: Well, I would say that my father always wanted me to be a singer, you know, because that was his first love. I think my brother is the one who got me interested in the instrument. I always loved music.
Well, you have that rich baritone. I’d imagine you could have gone somewhere with it!
ROSCOE: Yeah. But it was my brother who was largely responsible for me starting to know about people like Lester Young and Charlie Parker and so forth.
A number of the older musicians in Chicago who people might not necessarily think of as being involved in the AACM were early members, like Jodie Christian, the pianist on Hey Donald.
ROSCOE: Yes, he was. Jodie was my idol when I was in high school. I mean, I remember Lester telling a story about Jodie and a group he had with I think Bunky Green and Paul Serrano, and it might have been Victor Sproles or somebody on bass — I don’t remember. He remembered they came down to St. Louis, and they were so great that the people just said, “Oh, they’ve got to stay a few more days,” so they cancelled their whole program and kept them down there. All those people were just a great inspiration to me. Like I said, in Chicago you could just go out and see these kind of people, like, all the time. So there was always something to keep you thinking about something.
Eddie Harris, who is working at Sweet Basil…he and Richard Abrams were actually partnering on a workshop orchestra that eventually became the Experimental Band.
ROSCOE: That’s correct.
Muhal, of course, worked with Eddie Harris’ groups in the late 1960’s and early Seventies.
ROSCOE: Yes, he did.
Now, Eddie Harris is someone who was very much concerned with sound and explorations in sound in similar ways to what you have been doing.
ROSCOE: Of course he is. I mean, Eddie Harris is the only guy that I really know that really has ever done anything with the electric saxophone and all of these different kinds of things. He has always been right on the edge of creativity all the time, I mean, with all the different things that he invented, and his books, and he’s got the ability to be extremely experimental or just walk over here or something and get a big hit — as a Jazz musician! You remember when he came out with “Exodus,” I’m sure. He was always a great inspiration to all of us. I was just in St. Louis, I don’t know, a few months ago, and I was very lucky that Eddie Harris was playing at the hotel that I was staying in, so I got to see him and listen to his music again.
Amina, in Little Rock, where you settled I guess as a young adult, there was a thriving musical community as well. Two musicians prominent on the scene today who come to mind, although I don’t know if you were there exactly when they were there, are Pharaoh Sanders and John Stubblefield.
AMINA: Well, when I was in college I met Stubblefield. His group came over to play. We had originally hired Arthur Porter I believe is his name. His son, Art Porter, Jr., is now very popular on the scene. Art Porter couldn’t make it so, he sent Stubblefield’s band. We clashed the first night, but we’ve been very good friends ever since then. Pharaoh wasn’t there. He had moved by the time I got there.
Tell me about the music that you’ve composed for the concert on June 18th. It’s original music commissioned for this concert.
AMINA: Well, I’ve been commissioned to write a composition for a chamber orchestra of 12 pieces, the S.E.M. Ensemble, directed by Petr Kotik. Then Roscoe and I will be doing a duet, along with other duets he’s doing. This will be original music also.
Roscoe, you mentioned that your Army experience sort of catapulted you into being a professional musician. In the Art Ensemble of Chicago, I think everybody but Moye spent some time in the Army. It seems to me that that experience must have had a big impact on the Art Ensemble’s being able to forge their path during the difficult days of the late Sixties.
ROSCOE: Well, you learn how to survive in the Army, that’s for sure. And it’s true, I met great people in the Army. Like, another guy out of Chicago, Reuben Cooper, was in the Army with me at that time. Lucious White, who is Joseph Jarman’s cousin, who is an excellent alto saxophonist and bassoonist. When I was in Heidelberg, Germany, Nathaniel Davis’s group had won the All-Army competition, so they came and stayed with us for almost about a month or so. I would go around with him and he’d be playing… I remember one time we were down at the Cave 54 in Heidelberg, Germany. There was a great Danish saxophonist there who was in Germany at that time, Bent Jadik, and he’d always be down there kind of running over everybody, and then when Nathaniel Davis came down there that night [LAUGHS], we saw Bent Jadik kind of perk up a little bit!
Like I said, a lot of really talented musicians that were willing to share some time with me and show me different things like that. Some people may have had a bad experience in the Army. Mine wasn’t that bad. I mean, I actually came out of there knowing something about music.
Talk a little about that three-year sojourn in Europe with the Art Ensemble. What was your impetus for going over there?
ROSCOE: Well, we had been all over the States. We were very adventurous, you know. And I think that we’re responsible for a lot of people that go over there now. Because people weren’t really going over there, you know. We went over there and carried the banner of the AACM. We started playing at this club, it was a small theater really, in Montparnesse, called the Luciniere(?) Theater. We played there four nights a week, and sometimes we’d have enough at the end of the gig to go get ourselves a cheese sandwich and a beer. But people started to know about us. And this is how people became interested in us in Europe.
Also Steve McCall was over there at that time, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith was there. But not only them, there were all these people from New York. I mean, Paris was alive with music then. I’ve never seen Paris like that as I saw it in the late Sixties. There was always music all the time. This guy who put out all those records, Jean-George Caracas(?), did this big festival. He was supposed to have it in Paris, and at the last moment they wouldn’t let him have it at the Mall de Mutualité, so he had to change everything around, and he had it in Amiges(?), Belgium. This was like a grand festival, with a whole week, two different stages, one shut down and the next one kicked right up, and so on. He had all kinds of music there.
Then after that was that whole rich time when we did all those different recordings. I got a chance to record with Archie Shepp and Grachan Moncur and Sunny Murray and so on and so forth. I mean, there were concerts almost every night. Every day everybody was at the American Center, playing all the time. I’ve never seen Paris like that.
Well, the records bear that out. There’s a real sort of fire burning through all of them collectively.
ROSCOE: Exactly. I mean, Cal Massey was there. I was hanging out with Hank Mobley, Don Byas, so on… I mean, I couldn’t have asked for a richer experience as a young musician at that time.
One musician who both you and Amina have both mentioned as being right there, and who was at the beginning of Roscoe’s musical explorations, is Henry Threadgill. In the next set we’ll hear compositions by him on which Amina and Roscoe perform. In Amina’s case, she’s featured on organ on a song entitled “Song Out Of My Trees,” the title track of a 1994 release on Black Saint, with Ed Cherry on guitar, Henry Threadgill, alto saxophone, and Reggie Nicholson on drums. Then from Roscoe Mitchell’s new release on Lovely Music, Pilgrimage, the Roscoe Mitchell New Chamber Ensemble, we’ll hear “He Didn’t Give Up; He Was Taken”, music by Henry Threadgill and poetry by Thulani Davis. This is a quartet for baritone voice, Thomas Buckner; violin, Vartan Manoogian; alto saxophone, Roscoe Mitchell, piano, Joseph Kubera.
Amina, a few words about the piece we’re about to hear.
AMINA: Well, on this particular piece, Henry started hearing things for organ. He’s always coming up with various combinations of instrumentation. And it seems like the organ started coming back on the scene again, so I was glad to see that. It was very interesting playing this particular composition with Henry.
ROSCOE: I’ll have to say about Henry, he’s a great musician and a great inspiration. I’d like to start off by saying that. Because Henry was also there back in Wilson Junior College Days. My admiration of him as a composer… I mean, he just completely overwhelms me every time I hear something by him, because I’m always inspired by what he’s actually writing. This piece that we do on this record is a text of Thulani Davis about a guy who was homeless, but despite all of that he didn’t give up, he went on, he was taken, he had a purpose. This piece grew out of a concert that happened in New York at Town Hall, where we had the New Chamber Ensemble and Henry Threadgill’s group both doing separate pieces and combined pieces. So he wrote this piece for the New Chamber Ensemble at that time.
[MUSIC: Threadgill-Amina-Nicholson-Cherry, “Song Out of My Trees” (1994); RM New Chamber Ensemble, “He Didn’t Give Up; He Was Taken” (1995)]
In summing things up, I’d like to talk about current events, current projects. Roscoe, you’ve been living in Madison, Wisconsin, and using it as your base. How many groups are you working with now? Are you teaching…
ROSCOE: For the moment I’m not teaching. The different groups that I’m playing with right now: Of course, the Art Ensemble is one. The Note Factory is another. The New Chamber Ensemble is another. Then, I do different variations of different things. I had a concert in Chicago last Saturday with Matthew Shipp, Spencer Barefield (who is a member of the original Sound Ensemble), Malachi Favors, Gerald Cleaver, who is the new drummer (and an excellent drummer, I might add) that I’ve been working with out of Detroit, and of course myself on woodwinds.
I’m a composer also, so depending upon what someone is asking for, the size of the ensemble or whatever, I’ll write for that also. Then of course, don’t let me forget, we just had the record come out with the quartet with Jodie Christian, Malachi Favors and Albert Tootie Heath.
You also appear on a recent recording on Delmark with Jodie Christian, a couple of very strong pieces.
TP: You’ve always incorporated extended techniques on the different saxophones, but it seems that your use of circular breathing has really been entering your compositional formats in the last decade. Can you talk about the aesthetics of circular breathing, what it allows you to do?
ROSCOE: Well, if I look at Frank Wright, for instance, and the kinds of things that he was doing in the early Sixties, which I was very impressed by, what I can do now is go back and reflect not only on that situation, but other situations musically. Just his approach to the sound, for instance, I’ve studied that, and now I can extend that through circular breathing. That’s what it allows you to be able to do. It also gives me the opportunity to be able to put more, longer phrases together, and the opportunity to explore when notes really come at you very fast and continuous for a long time.
With me, it’s an experiment. Everything is an experiment. So when I’m out with one of my groups, it takes us at least a week or so playing every night before we really start to get up there, and then it gets so exciting that after a concert is over you can never sleep at night. So sometimes I’ll have a glass of wine and it will calm me down.
But to me, it’s all an experiment. The fun for me is going out and having the opportunity to explore these different ideas that I have in my head.
Of course, I listened to Roland Kirk all the time when he was alive, and I was totally amazed by what he did, because not only did he circular breathe; he was able to play several instruments, you know, out of his mouth and some out of his nose, and so on and so forth. Now, there’s a guy who really had control over that. If you think about circular breathing, it’s a very old tradition. I mean, the aborigines used it, the Egyptian musicians used it a long time ago. I became interested in it through Roland Kirk, and I had to think about it for about a year before I was able to do it.
In regard to everything being an experiment, the Art Ensemble of Chicago must have been an ideal vehicle for workshopping ideas on a consistent basis, night after night, week after week, year after year.
ROSCOE: Of course. I mean, I think that’s the thing that keeps people going, is the opportunity to explore music. I could never be one of those musicians that just plays the same thing all the time, because that’s never been my interest with music. The thing that’s always fascinated me about music is there’s so much to learn, and I like to try to keep myself as much as I can in the forefront of that learning process.
Amina, same question to you as I posed to Roscoe: The different situations you’re working in, current projects, etcetera.
AMINA: Well, right now I’m doing a lot of Blues, Gospel, Jazz and extended forms of music solo piano. Hopefully, I’m trying to organize pipe organ work in Europe, various parts of Europe. They have expressed interest in that.
Talk about the dynamics of that vis-a-vis working with the Hammond or various electric organs.
AMINA: Well, of course, with the electric everything is right there, right at the touch. With the pipe organ you’re dealing with the air. The sound is so vast, it’s like… You work at it more, but the rewards are so much greater with the pipe organ, because there’s phenomenal combinations, and the size of the pipes, you get all the different kinds of sounds. You can’t beat it. I mean, the Hammond, I would say, would be, as far as electric organ, I would prefer that. If I had to play the electric organ, it would be the Hammond B-3. But pipe organ, there’s just no comparison really. It’s very thrilling to be able to play that. I would like to do more with that.
Originally I had done some work with voice choir with the pipe organ, so hopefully I can continue to do that. I’m just working now on Gospel, writing Gospel tunes for the solo performances.
So it’s primarily solo. You don’t really have a working band…?
AMINA: Oh, yes, I have a trio. Well, I do a lot of trio work. Right now I’m getting calls for a lot of Bessie Smith material and the trio format. The solo piano and trio formats.
On the next set we’ll hear separate duos by each of you with Muhal Richard Abrams, who has been such a great inspiration for both of you. I know I asked you for some words about him before, but maybe we can conclude with some comments about you, the AACM, and your relations with Muhal Richard Abrams over the years. Roscoe?
ROSCOE: Well, like I said before, Muhal has like always been a mentor, not only to me but so many other musicians in Chicago. I think it was through his efforts of keeping that Experimental Band going where all these people could get together; it provided a place where all these ideas could come out. Like I said, this was where the ideas for putting the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians came about. We were interested in controlling our own destinies, because we’d read the books and seen what happened to people who were out there on their own. I think they didn’t really treat Charlie Parker that well, or Coltrane. I think Charlie Parker had maybe one European tour or something in his life; I don’t know what it was. But those kinds of things made us want to reassess the situation and try to band together, so that we could create self-employment for ourselves, sponsor each other in concerts of our own original music, maintain a training program for young, inspired musicians. These are the kinds of things that have kept us going throughout the years.
AMINA: Muhal is really my spiritual brother. I think we must have known each other in a past life. You see, Muhal, he never stops creating. He constantly inspires me. He’ll push without pushing. He’ll say, “Okay, Amina, you need to do this, you need…” So he’ll always find ways to encourage me to write and to create and to do things. He’ll bring up some ideas. Because he knows the things that I can do sometimes that I don’t even think about doing. So I mean, he’s very inspiring to me. I didn’t know that he was coming to New York; I don’t know if he knew that I was coming. But we have been in close contact since being here. As I said, he’s my spiritual brother, and I appreciate all the things that he has done to encourage me. He still does that. Not that I depend on him, but I can look to Muhal for any type of assistance, musically or whatever. And he has inspired a lot of people, and people love him because of that. I certainly do.
[MUSIC: Muhal-Amina, “Dance From The East” (1981); Roscoe-Muhal, “Ode To the Imagination” (1990)]
Roscoe Mitchell (Ted Panken) – (12-5-95):
[MUSIC: “Songs In The Wind, 1&2”]
I’d like to ask you about the genesis of the Roscoe Mitchell Chamber Ensemble. You and Tom Buckner have been at least recording together since the late 1970’s, and you’ve known each other now for at least thirty years, I gather.
Yes, that’s true. We met in California in the late Sixties. That’s when we first met. We started performing together when we put our group together, Space, with Gerald Oshita.
Tom Buckner was up here a few days ago, and described hearing the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, I believe it was, several times in the Bay Area in the mid-1960’s. What were your first impressions of Tom Buckner? What was he into at the time you were out there?
Well, let’s just say that when this group came together, I was putting focus on composition and improvisation. And Thomas Buckner interested me because he was an improviser when I met him. I don’t know if you recall any of his earlier recordings with Ghost Opera, but it was a group that was from the West Coast that used improvisation in their music.
I first met Gerald Oshita when I was in California in 1967. He was playing in a group with Oliver Johnson and Donald Raphael Garrett.
All of these people were improvisers at that time, and this group came together to study improvisation and composition as they relate to each other, and that tradition continues today.
When did Kubera and Manoogian start to enter the picture?
I met Vartan at a concert of Joan Wildman at the University of Wisconsin. We were playing together on a composition by Joan Wildman. I think we struck a chord from that very beginning, and we decided that we would go on and try to do some work together. I think our first performance was on a concert of Vartan’s at the Eldon(?) Museum in Madison, where we performed the composition, the duet for alto saxophone and violin entitled “Night Star.”
You’ve been involved in maybe four or five simultaneous ongoing projects over the last number of years, it would seem to me. This ensemble, with Joseph Kubera, Vartan Manoogian and Thomas Bucker, that’s performing Thursday; the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which has been a primary interest for a quarter-century and more; the Sound Ensemble; the Note Factory. Are compositions written or structured for specific musical units, or are they mutable, adaptable to different performance situations?
Well, certainly you can transpose a composition so that it will fit, you know, any situation you want it to fit. Usually how I start off on a composition is first I have an idea, and then I figure out how to get that idea down. Then a lot of times you are given the size ensemble that will perform the work that you’re writing. So it’s determined by lots of things. One composition, “Nonaah,” started off as a solo piece, and has ended up being played by larger ensembles, quartets, trios, so on and so forth.
We could probably do a nice 90-minute presentation on various examples of how “Nonaah” has been formulated.
Yeah, people have done that. There’s a young woman in Madison, whose name slips my mind right now, who did her dissertation on that piece, along with some works by Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, I believe.
When was “Nonaah” actually written or conceived?
In the early Seventies, as a solo piece, like I said.
Putting together a solo piece, does it come from your explorations of the instrument? Does it come from a more conceptual framework…?
Well, let’s look at it. One part of “Nonaah” is set up so that it has wide intervals. One of the thoughts that I had when I was composing it, I wanted to have a piece that was played as a solo instrument that would give the illusion of being two instruments, and with the wide intervals like that, you can get that, because the instrument sounds different in the lower range and the mid range and the high range, and then there’s also the altissimo range, of course, which sounds different from any of those other registers. So if you construct a melody that moves in that way, in taking advantage of the intervals, then you will achieve that goal at the end. And that was one of the thoughts that I had when I was constructing the composition.
But then, of course, after that, you use that same basic formula to structure other movements of the piece. So for me, I guess, I am at the point now where if I needed to do anything in that particular system of music, I could do it, I feel like I could do it, because I have built the vocabulary related to that structure.
I saw the Art Ensemble of Chicago perform in Chicago on December 1st, and you were performing on soprano, alto, tenor sax, and you had the bass saxophone as well, although I don’t think you got to play it…
No, I didn’t play it, actually. I just brought it along, because it was going off to Jamaica where we’re going to be for the next month, and I guess I just kind of forgot to play it. I mean, a lot of times I don’t really get to instruments, but I like to have them there if I’m moving in that direction.
What determines which instruments you’re playing at a particular time? Your main concentration over the last number of years seems to be with the soprano and the alto saxophone. It doesn’t seem like we get to hear you always on the tenor, but when we do, it seems like you’ve really been putting a lot of work or thought into a particular area. Has that been happening lately?
Well, I mean, what determines what sounds I get to is, like, a lot of times I’m trying to just move different sounds around, and then whatever I hear that can add on to the structure I’m working on, I’ll select the instrument based on that. So this is how these things get determined. Unless, of course, there’s a specific composition which calls for a specific instrument. Then that would be played on that instrument.
How long has multi-instrumentalism as a way of getting to the plethora of sounds that are at your disposal been a major preoccupation of yours? Did that begin with your exposure to the AACM and that group of musicians?
Well, I think that, like, in the late Sixties I wanted to explore other sounds. But then, if you notice, in the history of the music, before the Bebop era, in the larger bands, a lot of the woodwind players doubled.
Yeah. If you see some of those pictures, they had quite a variety of instruments that they played. I think the music at some point moved to where it was a one person, one instrument type focus.
With smaller combos, sure. I mean, Harry Carney played baritone sax, bass clarinet and clarinet, and Jimmy Hamilton…
And so on, yeah, sure.
But in terms of your preoccupation, you weren’t really coming up in Chicago in an environment where that sort of multi-instrumentalism was a common thing as such.
That’s true. But I think my fascination with sounds drew me toward that. For instance, the Art Ensemble is an outgrowth of a quartet of myself and Malachi Favors and Philip Wilson and Lester Bowie. When Philip left the group, we were drawn more to percussion sounds. That was because we didn’t really have anyone that we thought could come into the group and function in his place in terms of the type of melodic structure that he dealt with. So that drew us more into percussion.
It just kind of added on to my fascination with the exploration of sounds. I mean, sometimes I don’t really hear like a scale per se. I might hear one note, and then the next note with a whistle, or a whistle with kind of a wind instrument, or a whistle and a bell. There are so many different possibilities to explore.
When did your obsession with the saxophone begin? When did it become evident to you that music was going to be your life?
Well, I guess I kind of knew that in high school. And I was fortunate enough… If you remember the record, Hey, Donald!, that’s dedicated to my friend Donald Myrick, who went on to help establish Earth, Wind and Fire. Donald Myrick was an excellent musician when I met him in Chicago, and he was a big motivation for me — you know, to see someone, one of my peers actually doing that. So I guess I kind of knew it then. And I had an older brother who had many, many 78 records, and he would get me to sit down and listen to them, and that really…
What kind of records were they?
Oh, you know, all of the old ones — J.J. Johnson, Charlie Parker. Everything was on 78 then. Billie Holiday…
In the late 1940’s, early 1950’s?
Who were the people who really caught your ear first as far as stylists, specifically as saxophone stylists?
That’s hard to say, because I liked different stylists from different records. If I were to look at the tenor saxophone, I’d look at like our history of many styles. And this is how the tenor is represented in my mind. And then I always listened to, you know, the same music that my mother and father listened to. So it was a wide variety of music.
What were they listening to?
Oh, everybody listened to everything that was popular then. It could be a popular song or… Oh, and it was always on the jukeboxes, too. The jukeboxes actually had a variety of things that you could select from. For instance, when James Moody’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” was popular, everybody listened to that, not just a select group of people from here or a select group of people from there. Everybody knew about that. Everyone knew of that duet with Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams. You know, whatever, whether it was a song by Nat King Cole, or even when Johnnie Ray had his hit, “Cry.” All of these different things were common knowledge. So for me, I had a wide variety of music to select from.
Did your choice to pick up a saxophone at an early age… How old were you when you first began playing?
Oh, I was a late starter on saxophone. I mean, I started clarinet first when I was 11 years old. That’s late-starting.
How was that inspired? Through your family or through school?
I guess mostly through my older brother, Norman. I was always interested in music, and I used to sing a lot when I was younger. But I guess mostly influenced by him to want to go on and actually pursue an instrument.
What was your first more or less formal tuition? Was that in high school or in the elementary schools?
That was in high school. I started clarinet in Milwaukee, at I think it was West Division High School. I don’t remember the teacher.
Did you further that in high school in Chicago?
Yes, at Englewood High School.
I’m sorry to keep putting you all the way back in the Fifties, but there are some things I’ve been curious about for a long time, so I’m taking the opportunity. Were you playing in a lot of teenage combo situations, gigs for money and so forth then, in high school…?
Well, no, not that much. I mean, we had our regular obligations that we did in high school, with the concert band, and I was also a member of the dance band. I think that I started to function probably more as a professional musician when I was in the Army, from 1958, I believe it was, to 1961. So by the time I got out of the Army, it was pretty much solidified that I was going to be a musician.
I gather that the Army was a real mind-bending experience for you musically, and you were exposed to many different ways of playing music. I think one account I’ve read has you encountering Albert Ayler in Germany in the early Sixties.
That was a big influence on me. Because at that time, I was aware of Ornette Coleman’s music, but I have to say, even as a musician at that time, I didn’t fully understand what Ornette was doing. The thing about Albert Ayler, when I first met him, one thing I knew about him, I knew basically what was happening with the saxophone, and I knew he had a tremendous sound on the instrument, and that lured me in to want to try to figure out what it is that he was doing on the saxophone. I remember once there was a session. They were all playing the Blues, and Albert Ayler, he played the Blues straight, like for two or three choruses, and then started to stretch it out. And that really helped me. That was kind of a major mark for me musically, just to be able to see that that could really be done.
Again, referring to interviews, you’ve described being impressed at that time by Sonny Rollins, by Hank Mobley, by Wayne Shorter — I think those are the three names that come to mind in terms of playing in a style. Were you playing tenor, alto…?
I was playing alto. I mean, in the dance bands I played baritone.
So the multi-instrumentalism started there.
Well, you could say so. I mean, my first encounter with the saxophone was baritone in high school. The guy who was playing baritone in the dance band graduated, and I was moved up to that position of playing the baritone. But I think the alto was the saxophone that really caught my interest.
Describe the ambiance of being in an Army band in Germany, in 1959, 1960, 1961. The regimen, the musicians, and the off-base scene that was happening in Europe at that time.
Well, that was a really good time to be where I was in Germany. I was in Heidelberg, Germany, which is the place of the famous Cave 54. Now, that was a club where most of the local musicians would play in, and everybody that was coming from out of town would play there. There were a lot of sessions there. Some of the people that you’ll know now were there. Karl Berger was there, Albert Mangelsdorff was there, Bent Jadik (who when I was in Denmark at this time I didn’t see him, but I was talking to the guy at the music store, and I asked about him, and he said he was still around). Many things happened there. Then Nathaniel Davis stayed in our barracks. He was in a quartet that won the All-Army competition, and they stayed with us for a while, and they were going around Europe playing. And then names that you don’t know. Joseph Stevenson, who was a Sergeant, who now I’ve heard is a Warrant Officer, was a great musician, an alto saxophonist and composer. Many, many people. William Romero. Just a lot of people that made influences on me. I mean, there was a guy there, Sergeant Mitchell. Palmer Jenkins, a tenor saxophonist. So there was a lot of music and a lot of opportunity to learn.
I gather in the Art Ensemble, you, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors and Lester Bowie, all had Army experience. Lester has stated that that experience helped you survive as a unit on your travels and travails particularly in Europe in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and in the years before that in the States.
Well, that’s very true. I mean, no one has ever done anything for us. We’ve always done everything for ourselves, in a way, so far as the Art Ensemble is concerned. I don’t think the Art Ensemble gets any recognition now. And we’re still going on, and still doing concerts, and still filling houses, and everybody tries to act like we’re not doing that. So yeah, I guess our Army training did help us get to this point.
A lot of discipline entailed that I’m sure was retained and is retained in the way the Art Ensemble functions.
Yes, that’s true.
When you got back to Chicago after the Army, what sort of scene did you find?
Well, that was when Muhal had the Experimental Band there… In ’61 Muhal Richard Abrams had the Experimental Band. It met once a week, and it was a great opportunity to go down and meet all these great musicians, and get a chance to really be in a big band that was rehearsing. This year at the Chicago Jazz Fest Muhal put together that band as closely as he could for a performance there. It would be great to do more things with that band. After I had been in Israel and heard everybody sounding the same, and then got back and I was in a band where everybody sounded like themselves, it was a very interesting phenomenon.
You’re talking now about 1961?
I’m talking about Muhal’s big band. Everybody in there sounds like themselves. They don’t sound like anybody else. They all have distinguishable sounds, their ways of phrasing, their different ideas about music… I think this is one of the things that stimulated me over the years, to be fortunate enough to be associated with people like that. So that was a great experience. That band was rehearsing every Monday night, and I would have to say that that band was the place where started the thought, you know, of the AACM — to actually put together an organization that would function in promoting its members and concerts of their own original music and maintain an educational program for younger, inspired musicians. These things we carried on from there, as you know. Like, when the Art Ensemble went to Paris and we carried the banner of the AACM.
At that time also you encountered a number of musicians with whom the relationships have maintained for three decades and more. Malachi Favors at Wilson Junior College at the time, Jarman, I think Henry Threadgill was around then…
Threadgill. Jack De Johnette was there.
Braxton before he went in the Army.
And Jack De Johnette at that time I gather had a piano trio with Steve McCall on the drums.
Yeah, he did. But he was starting to play drums then. Because he and I used to play drums and saxophone all the time.
So was there a lot of interplay and experimentation and workshopping amongst you, working with different ideas and so forth?
Well, you could say that Muhal’s place was like the meeting place for people. We’d kind of all show up over there, and then Muhal would be bothered with us, you know, for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band. Amazing.
So Muhal’s place was really sort of the clearing house where all these ideas could come together and be formulated.
That’s right. And we studied music, art, poetry, whatever. It was like a school. It was a school.
Talk a little bit about how your first band that recorded, which recording I believe will be issued for the first time on Nessa… A 1964 recording which I think you mentioned last time…
Yeah, I did mention that. I still don’t have a release date on that record. That was an early quartet with Alvin Fielder, Fred Berry, Malachi Favors and myself.
Was that quartet performing all original music by you, or was it a more collectively oriented thing?
The music was mostly by me. I remember on that one tape there’s a piece by Fred Berry also.
Are there any pieces that you wrote at that time that you still perform to this day, that have lasted?
Oh, certainly. There’s many. We still perform “Ornette.” I still perform “Mister Freddie,” which was recorded on a recent Jodie Christian disk. We intend to perform “Sound” again. To me, any music that you do is just a kind of work in progress, so to speak. So you can at any time go back to that work and extend it or… As for me, I mean, some things that I did with “Sound,” for instance, become more interesting to me now that I could apply maybe circular breathing to those situations, and do something, I don’t want to say more, but do something different with it in the way of expanding it. So to me, it’s a work in progress.
The Art Ensemble’s Friday night Chicago concert concluded with Malachi Favors’ “Magg Zelma,” but before that you performed “Ornette,” if I’m not mistaken.
“Mister Freddie,” I think it was.
At any rate, I’ve given Roscoe Mitchell the third degree now for about half an hour, so we’ll give him a break right now and play some music.
I thought it was a talk show!
[MUSIC: Pilgrimage, “He Didn’t Give Up; He Was Taken” (1994); R. Mitchell Quartet, “Hey, Donald,” “The El” (1994); Art Ensemble of Chicago, “The Alternate Express” (1990).
The next set of music focuses on Roscoe Mitchell with some musicians who played a very important role in his music of the 1980’s, Detroit-based Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal, Hugh Ragin was part of some of your quintet music, and Michael Mossman is another trumpeter who was involved with you. I’d like to talk about that aspect of your music-making in the 1980’s with Michigan- and Wisconsin-based musicians.
If you look at Michigan, there we had the CAC, which is the Creative Arts Collective, which is a group that followed the same basic fundamentals as the AACM in its structure. It was a group of musicians that came together; you know, we did our own concerts, we had our small groups and things inside of that larger group and we had concerts for them. We also brought in musicians from Chicago and New York to do concerts. We had the help of the Abrams Planetarium on the Michigan State University campus; they let us use their hall for concerts…
This was in the Sixties, the Seventies…?
In the Seventies it was, yes. So this is another ongoing work in progress, my work with the Detroit musicians.
Do you recollect your earlier meetings with Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal?
I was living in Michigan at that time, and that’s where we met. Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal weren’t there at that time. It was Spencer Barefield, one of the musicians who I saw the other night at the AACM 30th Anniversary, Dushan Moseley was there, and other Michigan musicians, William Townley… Guys who…we had put together an organization that, like I was saying, was similar in philosophy to the AACM — for that purpose.
I guess interplay between the AACM and the Detroit-based musicians goes back to concert exchanges in the 1960’s, when Chicago musicians would go to Detroit to present concerts and vice-versa.
That’s true, but that was largely due to John Sinclair, who at that time was the leader of the Detroit…God, what was it… It wasn’t the White Panther Party then. It was another name. Then he went on to be the leader of the Rainbow People in Ann Arbor. But they had their own newspaper in there, and they had like maybe a whole city block there, where they had places for performances, for musicians or artists to come and be involved in the program that they had there.
This group developed in some very interesting ways, and I guess was the kernel for several offshoot groups — the Note Ensemble and various editions of the Roscoe Mitchell Sound Ensemble. I’ll repeat a question I asked earlier: In working with these particular groups, what are the dynamics of each of them that impact your writing or arranging or structuring of sound for either the musicians or the overall ensemble?
Well, I’m hearing different things for different situations. Like you said, those groups can be broken down, because I’ve worked with different varieties of those groups. But the Note Factory is getting closer to I guess this grande sound that I’m hearing. That’s why we have like the two basses and the two drums and piano and myself as the bare bones of it. Eventually we’d probably like to have two pianos, and then I’ve thought of a couple of other horn players to go with that sound — it would probably be Hugh Ragin and George Lewis.
You recently were on a record of George Lewis, in acoustic duos and interactions with the Voyager computer program.
That’s true. We also did a concert at IRCAM this last summer in June, which was a concert at IRCAM for the Voyager program.
[MUSIC: Mitchell/Ragin/Tabbal, “Fanfare For Talib” (1981); Note Factory “Uptown Strut” (1987); Bergman/Buckner/Mitchell “Looking Around” (1995); Mitchell (solo) “Sound Pictures #3: Solo For Winds and Percussion” (1995)]
Our thanks to Roscoe Mitchell. One final question about solo performance. Your solo work on record goes back to the 1960’s, and continues to this day, I gather, with some frequency.
Yes, that’s true. I’ve always been interested in solo playing as one of the options.
What’s attractive to you about solo playing?
Well, one thing I can say about solo playing, if you’re listening to me, and I sound like an orchestra and not a saxophone, then I’m successful to some degree. When you’re playing with someone else, I guess you can always blame them for messing up. But if you’re playing with yourself, then you have to blame your own self. So it’s a challenge, of course… Well, it’s a challenge playing with someone else, too. So to me, I just see it as one of the parts that make up the whole picture.
Is there a process of trying to transcend the saxophone, whatever limitations there are in performing it?
Well, I think everybody does that when they are really successful at whatever it is that they are doing. You actually do transform the instrument that you’re playing. I mean, the instrument is just the vehicle by which you are able to transmit the sounds.
[MUSIC: RM (solo) “Nonaah” (1976)]