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Roscoe Mitchell

It would be hard to overstate the importance of Roscoe Mitchell’s contributions to jazz and improvised music over the last forty years. One of the first and most potent voices to emerge on saxophone in the wake of the free jazz innovations of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and the rest of the movement, Mitchell helped found Chicago’s legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1964. Best known as a charter member of the well-loved Art Ensemble of Chicago, Roscoe’s most recent recording is Song for My Sister featuring his group, the Note Factory. The Pi Recordings release finds Roscoe Mitchell playing a variety of saxophones, wind and percussion instruments, while leading his nine-piece group through nine original compositions. A Madison, Wisconsin resident, Mitchell was in Berkeley, California when I spoke with him by telephone.

Jazz Review: "What brings you to Berkeley?"

Roscoe Mitchell: "I’m here with David Wessel at CNMAT (UC Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies). We’re performing concerts this Friday & Saturday (September 13-14th, 2002) and conducting some workshops. I’ve known David since the sixties. We’ve performed together in Paris, at The Hague we did the National Computer Music Concert together."

Jazz Review: "Are you doing a lot of teaching these days?"

Roscoe Mitchell: "I’m not teaching anywhere regularly at the moment. I’ve taught at CALARTS in Valencia (CA) and at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and had a few residencies; I do occasionally conduct a few workshops."

Jazz Review: "Let’s talk about your new album, Song for My Sister. It’s the third release you’ve done with the Note Factory. A lot of other groups now have names like Art Ensemble and Sound Ensemble, but this one is called the Note Factory. Is there a meaning behind that?"

Roscoe Mitchell: "Well, the Note Factory is actually an outgrowth of the Sound Ensemble. A lot of the musicians in the Note Factory come from that group and form the core of the current group, along with a few other people that are added on. As for the factory part of the name, if you think about a factory, what a factory does is produce things. What the Note Factory produces are notes, and we sometimes work in the area of churning out notes very rapidly."

Jazz Review: "Another thing that strikes me about the group is that the number nine keeps recurring. The group has nine members and each of the three Note Factory records consist of nine pieces. (in addition to the current CD, there are 1991’s This Dance is for Steve McCall on the Black Saint label and 1999’s Nine to Get Ready on ECM)

Roscoe Mitchell: "Is that right? Well, I do like the number nine. It’s a good number. It meshes with any number of things. And the lineup of the group is important. Working with two drummers, two piano players and two bassists is part of what I’m trying to accomplish."

Jazz Review: "I’d like to talk about some of the songs on the current album. The title song is dedicated to the memory of your sister and the title also brings to mind, to some extent, Horace Silver’s ‘Song for My Father.’"

Roscoe Mitchell: "Well, of course, I’m familiar with that song by Horace Silver, but it wasn’t something that I was referencing with mine. Although, I did write that song for my sister because she was important in my life, just as Horace Silver wrote his song for his father because he was important in his life."

Jazz Review: "That seems to be another theme within the Note Factory recordings. The first album was for Steve McCall, and the second album had the song written for (the late Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter) Lester Bowie."

Roscoe Mitchell: "That’s true, but that’s really a theme in my music generally, in and out of the Note Factory. Often times the people that have songs written after them are the greats, famous people that everyone has heard of. There are a lot of people, though, that are just as important, who otherwise might never get a mention, but that doesn’t make them any less important. Different people make an impression on your life and you want to pay tribute to them."

Jazz Review: "The song ‘Wind Change’ uses something you call "The Card Catalog." What is that?"

Roscoe Mitchell: "I found in teaching music that students who were inexperienced playing improvisational music often made the same mistakes, so I developed a series of cards that addressed these problems. For instance, a student that might be following behind another player, which is just like being behind on a piece of written music. Each card gives options for different aspects of music that they can use in whatever order they need to."

Jazz Review: "Is it similar to what John Cage did in allowing performers to choose what parts of a score they could play at what time?"

Roscoe Mitchell: "It is that. You don’t have to follow straight through. You might start going all the way through card one and then skip to the bottom of a different card. The more familiar they become with the cards and with scored improvisation, the more possibilities become open to them."

Jazz Review: "Another title on the album I really like is ‘The Inside of a Star.’ That’s exactly what the music sounds like."

Roscoe Mitchell: "Thank you."

Jazz Review: "The name also sounds like the type of thing Sun Ra might have come up with. The Sun Ra Arkestra always seemed to me to have been an influence on the Art Ensemble of Chicago."

Roscoe Mitchell: "Yeah, Sun Ra was still in Chicago when I got out of the army. (Roscoe served as an alto saxophonist in Germany from 1958-61) Some of the guys had moved on, but a lot of them were still in Chicago and you would see them playing at different sessions."

Jazz Review: "It’s interesting to me because I don’t see his name so much in a lot of the mainstream articles I’ve read about you and the AEC. Albert Ayler & Ornette Coleman’s names come up a lot, but Sun Ra is mentioned less often. It seems like he still has trouble being accepted by a lot of people in jazz."

Roscoe Mitchell: "Really, all of those people that you mentioned were important to what we were doing. And, it takes a long time. If you think about it, even thirty years isn’t all that long a period of time if you are thinking in terms of music. It takes a long time to really learn music. I’m convinced that it would take more than one lifetime. And there is more of an audience now; the music is growing and it’s maturing."

Jazz Review: "It’s funny to me because your music, as well as theirs, has a reputation in jazz as being difficult, but when I went to Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio-which I imagine is very similar culturally to the University of Wisconsin in Madison-a lot of my friends who weren’t necessarily interested in jazz, but were more into rock, still liked the Art Ensemble, the Arkestra, Prime Time, things like that. When the AEC or Sun Ra would play, everyone would come, not just traditional jazz fans."

Roscoe Mitchell: "That’s right. Students just listen to music and respond to it. In those days, it wasn’t unusual to have an event at a university where it would be John Cage one night, us the next night, and then Sun Ra, and so on. We need to get back to that. Actually, the University of Wisconsin is a very advanced school in that regard. I’ve held positions there. Cecil Taylor has taught there."

Jazz Review: "An article I read about you in the New York Times mentioned Lincoln Center and the whole controversy about Wynton Marsalis and their concept of what is jazz. As someone who lives in the Midwest and does a lot of work in Europe, how relevant is all that to you?"

Roscoe Mitchell: "There is a lot of controversy about that. What I have to do is stay with my music, with all sides of music. I’m lucky to live in Madison where I get to hear a lot of different kinds of music. There’s WORT, a community radio station with a variety of different programming, and the University’s radio station plays different kinds of music as well. There’s starting to be more exposure for this music in general.

"What’s really going on is that in the next phase in music, this generation of musicians are going to be super musicians. Everybody knows that, and people want to influence that. The future of music is grounded in improvisation. That’s a big word, improvisation. It includes a lot of things, like knowing all about composing. It’s one of those times when we’re on the verge of a new era, and it’s a time when things have to be picked up and looked at. Some of those things will have to be weeded out, and some of them will be advanced."

Jazz Review: "What is the status of the Art Ensemble of Chicago?"

Roscoe Mitchell: "We performed some concerts this year in Italy, and we are playing the Earshot festival in Seattle. We have more shows scheduled in Italy in 2003 and we will be doing a return to Mandel Hall in Chicago as well."

Jazz Review: "It seems like the group is very active again."

Roscoe Mitchell: "Things are starting to look that way."

Jazz Review: "Who is in the group right now? I know Joe Bowie played with you in 2000 at the tribute to his brother."

Roscoe Mitchell: "We’re playing as a four-piece: Joseph Jarman, Malachai Favors, Famodu Don Moye and myself."

Jazz Review: "Is there anything else going on with you that we should be aware of?"

Roscoe Mitchell: "Yes. Next year I’ll be premiering a piece for orchestra and baritone entitled ‘Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City.’ The text was written by Joseph Jarman in the 1960s and the baritone is Tomas Buckner. We will be debuting it in New York and then performing it in the Czech Republic."

Jazz Review: "That’s all very exciting. Thank you very much for your time."

Roscoe Mitchell: "Thank you."

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Roscoe Mitchell
  • Subtitle: Jazz Innovator
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