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From Busking in the Loop to World-Renowned Jazz Flutist

Nicole Mitchell returns to Chicago to play Jazz Fest this week.

Nicole Mitchell
Photo: Amanda Friedman

Nicole Mitchell may very well be the greatest jazz flutist alive. For proof, just peep the annual critics’ poll in Downbeat magazine, which routinely puts her on top. But back in 1990, when she moved to Chicago, she was literally playing in the streets at various intersections in the Loop and River North. She would dress up in formal concert attire and, she says, draw inspiration for improvisations by “focusing on pedestrians passing by, looking at their clothes, how they moved, what their mood was, and creating a story about them through my flute.”

Things are a bit different for Mitchell these days. The 51-year-old has a sweet gig teaching music at the University of California, Irvine. She is coming off two widely praised albums last year and a prestigious residency at New York City’s Winter Jazzfest. And now she returns to the city she left seven years ago, to perform at the Chicago Jazz Festival.

Yet the ambitious, creative storytelling from her days busking on the streets of Chicago remains a constant in her work. Case in point: At Jazz Fest, she’ll perform songs from one of last year’s albums, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds. She recorded it live in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art with Black Earth Ensemble, a group she formed in 1998 featuring a rotating cast of largely local musicians, recently including the cellist Tomeka Reid and violinist Renee Baker.

The album was conceived alongside a novella Mitchell wrote, a science-fiction story set in 2099 about a couple who discover an island where technology and nature exist harmoniously. “I was asking these questions,” she says. “What is progress? How do we flip technology in cooperation with what is sustainable for the earth so that we can actually have a new way of doing things? It’s not really so much that we can have a utopia, but where we have a real way of colliding dualities.”

Mitchell performing at the Green Mill, with Frank Rosaly on drums and Joshua Abrams on bass, in 2015
Mitchell performing at the Green Mill, with Frank Rosaly on drums and Joshua Abrams on bass, in 2015 Photo: Lauren Deutsch

To translate that complex narrative into music, she incorporated a wide range of genres (blues, soul, even rock), bringing in musicians who play traditional Japanese instruments (like the celebrated Kojiro Umezaki on shakuhachi, a bamboo flute). She also used the album to address hot-button political issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, through spoken-word passages by the poet Avery R. Young (“Our blood spilling in Baltimore, in Ferguson, Chicago, and Nepal / What do we do, y’all? / I want to pick up my blade / But then again there’s gotta be another way.”).

The other album Mitchell released last year, Liberation Narratives, is a collaboration with one of her mentors, the poet Haki R. Madhubuti, cofounder of the Chicago-based Third World Press, the country’s largest independent black-owned press. Mitchell volunteered at Third World while studying music composition at Chicago State University in the early ’90s and ended up working at the press for 13 years. During that time, Madhubuti recalls, “she bought into the idea of ‘I’m an artist, and I’m a black artist.’ ”

In Chicago, Mitchell found a vibrant African American arts community. She worked her way up through the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a South Side network that has nurtured avant-garde black music for more than 50 years, and eventually became its first female president. “You also had other arts organizations, like the DuSable Museum,” Mitchell says. “Just a really strong group of people who had to come together and problem-solve the things they wanted to see manifested.”

Though she no longer lives here, Chicago is, she says, “still home to me.” It’s why she returns frequently, playing at venues like the Promontory and Constellation. “It’s been a really amazing place for me to develop as an artist. I won’t ever let it go.”

Details:Nicole Mitchell and Black Earth Ensemble Aug. 30. Loop. Jay Pritzker Pavilion. 6:30 p.m. Free. chicagojazzfestival.us

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