This is the extended version of an interview published in the Chicago Guide newsletter on August 30.
As the popularity and influence of jazz waned in the 1960s, Chicago musicians fought back. Roscoe Mitchell—composer, saxophonist, and a founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago—was part of the movement, embodied by the Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians, that turned conventional jazz on its head and brought a new, experimental sound to the world.
When Art Ensemble of Chicago toured Europe in the late ‘60s, “its free-flowing improvisations, unconventional instrumentation, Afrocentric garb and African-inspired face-painting … inspir[ed] sold-out concerts and wide critical acclaim,” according to the Tribune. “Nothing like this had been heard or seen in jazz.”
Mitchell, who now teaches at Mills College in the Bay Area, will return to Chicago for this weekend’s Chicago Jazz Festival and play a Sunday night tribute to the 50th anniversary of AACM-affiliated producer Chuck Nessa’s record label, Nessa Records. We spoke with the South Side native about growing up in the jazz age, the benefit of enduring musical relationships, and the source of his continued productivity.
What are your memories of growing up in Chicago?
I was born at home on 60th and State Street. We later moved to 29 West 59th Street and that’s where I spent all of my younger years. Back then, in Chicago, everybody had a garden. There were fruit trees. There was a market right at 71st and State Street where there were vegetables all the time. And the alleys in Chicago were like a trade route. People could go out on their back porch and pretty soon the vegetable man would come down the alleys with vegetables. We had these cards that were for the iceman, and you could turn the card a certain way in the window, and it would say if you wanted 50 pounds or 25 pounds, 75 pounds or 100 pounds. When the snow fell in the wintertime it was so clean that people used to put buckets out to catch it, and they would make ice cream with it.
You grew up in a time when there were still a lot of jazz clubs scattered around the city.
There was McKie Fitzhugh’s club on Cottage Grove between 63rd and 64th Street. During the off-nights there would be local bands there, Eddie Buster and those people, and then on the weekends you would have the main attractions coming in, John Coltrane or Dexter Gordon. There was Figaro’s [7 W. Oak St.] on the North Side. You’d go there early in the morning, and there would be a session while people were having their breakfast. There was another club called the Club DeLisa [5521 S. State St.] when I was too young to go out.
The Art Ensemble’s been around for almost 50 years. What’s it like to develop long relationships with fellow musicians?
That’s what I enjoy most. If I see Muhal [Abrams, a cofounder of the AACM], it’s like we just pick up from wherever we left off. When we were at Stanford, they gave us practice rooms, and we’d get up every morning, have our breakfast, and head to the practice room. That’s the kind of thing I really cherish so much. And certainly, Duke Ellington and all of them sounded great, because look how long they were together and practiced their music. I feel lucky to be around people that had a similar vision and were committed and still remain committed to that vision. Everything is alive and well at this point.
We’ve got big plans for the Art Ensemble in 2019, which will be the 50th anniversary of when the group became the Art Ensemble of Chicago, upon our departing to Europe, and Paris. We want to do a concert dedicated to Malachi [Favors, bassist, who died in 2004], and I’ve got a song that I wrote for him. We want to do a tribute concert for Joseph [Jarman, saxophone and flute player, who is now a practicing Buddhist priest], and also for Lester [Bowie, trumpeter, who died in 1999]. We’re starting to plan all of that out right now.
The Art Ensemble is famous for its long, improvisational tracks. What do you see as the connection between improvisation and the study of music?
I always teach my students to study composition and improvisation as a parallel. When [Israeli conductor] Ilan Volkov invited me to Reykjavik, I got the idea to get people to transcribe the improvisations off my Conversations I and Conversations II recordings. Not only did my former students want to transcribe some of the improvisations, they wanted to orchestrate them. I took them with me to Iceland so they could communicate directly with Volkov. And when I went to Canada and did the music for a 20-piece ensemble there, they had versions of that piece, of their pieces. So I took them there with me for that.
You see what I’m saying? It’s an ongoing thing. It’s still improvisation. And it adds another layer of variety to everything that is going on. It helps me define more clearly the relationships that exist between composition and improvisation. I think the world wants to hear people improvising that sound like they know what they’re doing. When you’re improvising, you’re honing your skills so you can make musical decisions in real time, in a compositional setting, with other people.
You’re an incredibly prolific musician. Do you ever feel as if you’ve run out of inspiration?
Not really. Everybody runs into a bump in the road. But what I do is, I try to work my way out of it, try something new. The other thing that keeps us all inspired is practicing your instrument, having the time to really practice your instrument and then thinking of it. There’s no lack of things to do. You don’t really have any time to get like that.
This is a very exciting period. A lot of people come up to me and say, “Hey, you know what, this feels like the ‘60s.” It’s always on that circle. Things come around and then, if you’re able to pay attention to what’s coming around, you can get on it. So you can lay around and feel weird, but that’s not gonna help, because there’s a lot of people out there doing some amazing things right now. And that’s what I want to be a part of.