Courtesy of Roscoe Mitchell
Photo by Rod Heinz

Delmark Records

ECM Records


I have made it a personal and Roadshow mission to speak with every living member of the AACM. My first conversation in the series began with Roscoe Mitchell. Talk about multi-reedists, Mitchell was doing this long before it became trendy and a badge of honor. His additions to the Art Ensemble made their music both timeless and essential to all admirers of advanced collective improvisation. The following is the third time I have spoken with Mitchell and although it would seem like it would get old, just like his music, I get more from it each time I read through it. So kick off the shoes, lay your feet up, and welcome the great Roscoe Mitchell into your homes, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: I come from a family that was always involved with music and I got a lot of my early musical experiences in the church. My family always listened to a wide range of music, in terms of styles and so on and so forth. My older brother Norman got me interested in jazz at a young age. I consider myself a late starter because I started with the clarinet when I was twelve years old. I had lessons in school and as I progressed on, I met different people. For instance, when I was in the army, I met Rubin Cooper, who is the great saxophonist who lives in Chicago. He took me under his wing and taught me a lot of stuff. Back in those days, if you showed a person that you were really interested, a person that was doing something that you really wanted to do, people would take time for you and help you out with different things. Like I said, I met him and then I got shipped off to Germany. I was in a band in Heidelberg, Germany and there I studied clarinet for a while with the first clarinetist of the Heidelberg Symphony. It has been like that for me. Now, I take lessons from someone who is well versed in early music and early instruments. As a matter of fact, he has made my flutes and recorders and stuff. I am still taking lessons at this point because there is so much to learn in music that it would take a long time. I want to be one of those guys that can do anything.

FJ: Let's touch on your time with the Muhal Richard Abrams' Experimental Band and how that spawned the birth of the AACM.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: I joined up with Muhal's band when I came back from the army in 1961. Muhal Richard Abrams was there. He was holding rehearsals every Monday night, encouraging people to write and so on and so forth. Joseph Jarman was in the band. It was a large band, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, that kind of thing. That led to people wanting to come together and have more control over their destiny. This is the reason why we formed the AACM. Out of the AACM, several small groups emerged, Anthony Braxton's group, Muhal had groups, Joseph Jarman's group, which was separate from mine, and then a couple of the members of his group died and we asked him to come along with the Art Ensemble. Back then I had groups that led up to the Art Ensemble that we are interested in selling at some point. There is one from 1962 with Fred Berry, who was the trumpeter with the band before Lester Bowie (Fred has played on mostly pop records such as Celine Dion), Fred Berry, Malachi Favors and myself. But a lot of the groups grew out of the AACM. We had our concert series going every week and we were promoting each other in concerts of our own original music, along with maintaining and educational program for the young aspiring musicians in the community. FJ: Why was the AACM so successful in generating the bands and musicians that have heavily contributed a legacy to this music?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: I guess it could have been one of these situations where it was the right place at the right time. There was a lot of people in the right place at that time and then we looked at history, we saw that a lot of musicians, although they were great musicians and stuff like that, they were out there by themselves and then in a lot of cases, they got really taken advantage of by people and we didn't really want that to happen for ourselves and we were always motivators in a sense. We saw what was happening with the clubs. For instance, in Chicago, they had changed the licensing in the clubs so that if a club owner wanted to have something more in a club than a trio, it was a much higher price and we saw that a lot of groups didn't work as much and then there was a coming of the deejays and so on and so forth and we were feeling like we didn't want to have our music in clubs anyway. We just didn't feel it was the right place for it. Looking back on that in retrospect and stuff like that, I see that a lot of the audience comes to wherever we're at anyway.

FJ: The Art Ensemble of Chicago was an offspring of the AACM as well.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: The Art Ensemble became the Art Ensemble of Chicago when it went to Europe in 1969, is when it became the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Before that it was groups lead under my name. Our last record said Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble was what it was called before it became the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It was a thing where we decided to go cooperative because everybody was contributing the same amount of time and everything and nobody was making any money and so on and so forth. This is the thing that held the group together all the time.

FJ: By your own admission, you were not getting wealthy, so why did you gentlemen continue the Art Ensemble?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Fred, I have always found that if you remain dedicated to what you're doing, it always seems to work out one way or another. Of course, back then, it wasn't quite as expensive to live and so on. Things were a bit easier and we got a few concerts here and there and so on. If somebody were to ask me that question today, I would not be able to really enlighten them fully on that.

FJ: The Art Ensemble pioneered innovative new approaches to instrumentations.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Yeah, because we never thought in a conventional way. I think that a lot of things like when Ornette came out with his group without any piano. That was a big shock to a lot of people. It certainly did show people that that could be done. We always looked for people and we never went looking for them. They just seemed to show up and we dealt with whatever people were there. Like now, the Art Ensemble is down to three players. We had our concerts, which were incredible, at the Bell Atlantic.

FJ: The original incarnation of the Art Ensemble was void of a percussionist.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: We didn't have a percussionist when we went to Europe. After Phillip Wilson left the group, we were so kind of spoiled by him as a percussionist. He was so exceptional and played in such a melodic way because we played in a trio for a long time. One time, we went out to California as a trio with Phillip, Lester, and myself and played that way. After he left, we decided that we wouldn't go out looking for another percussionist. What we did was we evolved into doing percussion ourselves because we knew what we were used to and what we were looking for and we could bring that concept to the music in our own way. Like those records, People in Sorrow (Nessa), those don't even have a drummer on them. In that period in Paris when we reunited with Don Moye is when we took on a real percussionist. In the meantime, I was studying drums.

FJ: With the addition of Don Moye, how did the dynamics of the Art Ensemble ebb and flow?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Well, that came in Paris when were there from '69 until '71. We had been thinking about getting another drummer. So it just kind of fell in and we had known Don before. We met him when we were in Detroit. He used to be around there because he was the type that got out, went places, traveled around, and did stuff. So we hooked up with him there.

FJ: When Joseph Jarman resigned from the Art Ensemble, how did that shift the dynamics of the quintet turned quartet?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: The only thing that it changed was that Joseph wasn't there. Our original thoughts about music and vision about music doesn't change. The only thing that changed was that Joseph was not there.

FJ: The Art Ensemble of Chicago continues its high level of creativity regardless of personnel and instrumentation.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: That is one thing about the Art Ensemble. Everybody in there is an individual and they are strong as individuals. We all continue to study our music and so on and so forth. Like in my case, I can walk out there and do it solo and it still be music. The same with Joseph and Don, all of us, we have done those kinds of concerts and things like that. We have somehow ingrained that vision of the soloist because that moves right into the thinking of the whole improvisational scene because the thing that makes the person a good improviser is that you are able to do it by yourself as well as with a large group and be able to be accountable for all the factors that are factored in as it relates to composition and so on.

FJ: Let's remember Lester Bowie. Lester was an extremely vocal proponent of the music and was quite eloquent in his position.


FJ: That will be missed.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Well, yeah, because Lester is, that is why when people come up to me and say, "Are you going to replace Lester?" I mean, what is that about? You can't do that. From that standpoint of view, you just can't think of it that way.

FJ: What do you remember most about Lester?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Well, Lester has always worked very hard on his music. He is a great musician and he is a great inspirer and a person that inspires you. He was always positive. He was positive right up until the moment he left here. He is always there to try and figure something out or come up with some idea or stuff like that. His inspiration to all of us was just so great. Not that we are not inspired people, we are, and the mixture of all of that together made seem all things possible.

FJ: Did Lester's passing come as a surprise to you?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: You know how it is, Fred. You kind of know that it is going to happen, but then when it does happen, you never are really prepared for it. You're never prepared for it.

FJ: Was there any doubt that you, Don, and Malachi would continue the Art Ensemble as a trio?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: No, no. That is what Lester would have said. When Phillip left the group, he was there for that. When Joseph left the group, he was there for that also. We had no doubt that we would continue.

FJ: Will you add other instrumentations to the current trio inception of the Art Ensemble?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Well, we are not really planning on it. I think our plans really are to work out the situation with the trio, musically because it is a challenge, Fred. When you make these transitions and shifts, it is a challenge. We are all up for a challenge.

FJ: The inaugural performance of the Art Ensemble A. L. (After Lester) was at the recent Bell Atlantic Festival in New York.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Oh, that was an incredible performance, Fred. It was really incredible. We had all our instruments, all of our percussion and so on and so forth. It was just exciting musically and our audience responded. The show was packed and people left screaming and hollering. That largely has to do with where the music is evolving to right now.

FJ: What direction do you see it going to?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Well, we are moving into the age of the supermusician (laughing). A lot of people are going to fall because a lot of people have put all their eggs in one basket. They can only do one thing. That is not the plight of music. The plight of music has always been to grow. It just seems that it is logical to me in that we have had so much excellent music throughout the years where people have covered certain categories and things like that. The supermusician is going to transcend all that. The supermusician is going to be able to do all of those categories and go beyond that. This is what it is going into now. It is not even a thing of whether or not you like the music. It is undeniable even if you haven't heard it. If you are exposed to it, the power of the music is undeniable.

FJ: So we shall refer to you as Superman?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: That is right! Exactly (laughing). I am working on it, Fred. I am just saying in terms of the type of concerts that I am going to do. I do all of this stuff with all of these recorders and writing for that situation. I have got my feet firmly planted in composition. It has been a difficult thing to keep on top of everything from my standpoint of view. I love it so and I am really, really glad that I stayed in it for this amount of time because I believe that it takes this amount of time to even get to this point. I am finding that now, I am in the best learning period of my life in terms of actually having the materials available to do what I want to do. Yeah, this is, to me, the most exciting time in the music. Not that a lot of people haven't done great music already, but I see a more coming together of the original members of the AACM doing projects and stuff like that. We have very personal situations that other people cannot even perform in, not to mention the instrumentation. Think about just the instrumental range that it does cover. It is phenomenal. The type of pieces that we could do and the type of musical situations that we could put together. None of them even resemble that kind of bag and do this and that. To me, this is the most exciting period.

FJ: Miles Davis' groups and the John Coltrane Quartet is credited with producing some of the most significant leaders in the music, but the AACM ain't too shabby in that regard, why do you think it hasn't received acknowledgment for that?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Well, that's because people try to hide it, in a sense.

FJ: What is there to hide?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: That the AACM created what it created. The AACM created a lot of music out there. I was looking on the cover of the Down Beat and they've got some people on there from I don't know where, from Canada, saying that they created improvised music. That is what is pulling away from this music like in the Sixties, the late Sixties and the Seventies was established. What I have found in music is that a lot of things have a tendency to try and get covered up and if you are not the type of person that really goes out there and tries to research it and tries to find out what's happening, then a lot of stuff gets blown away. Unfortunately, you can't really cover that up. You can't really cover the truth. In a certain sense, it is still going to rise to the top and everybody's going to find out what's happening. That's always been the measurement for music. When I was growing up, a lot of my schooling came from just going out to sessions and different things like that. It was shown right there and then where you were at with your music because people would present things to you and if you couldn't do then, you just couldn't do them. That is the point it is at now again. People can say this and they can say that and do what they want to do and look this way and look that way, but it is still not gong to stop what is happening at this point. Like I said, it has taken this long to develop to this state. It has taken the time and we have all survived. I am totally excited about music and I see that to get the stuff that I have tried to get to, you need to work on it and stuff like that. When you get it, it is invaluable information.

FJ: Will the current trio incarnation of the Art Ensemble be recording?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Yeah, that's what I plan on, Fred. We're trying now to research the possibility of doing our tribute to Lester Bowie CD. That is what we want to do next. We've sent out a few things to let people know that we are ready to do this. The concert that we did in New York, we did compositions by all of us and Lester. We are still in our same mode of the way we worked all the time in our effort to reach this level of improvisation that we're after.

FJ: The creativity never stops with the Art Ensemble.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: No, no, no, no, not at all. I'm not even trying to play the same thing I played last night (laughing). Realistically, each day is different. Each day is different and that's the way you have to be in your music.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and a distant cousin of Carl Jung. Comments?  Email Fred.