Roscoe Mitchell Jr. was born August 3, 1940, in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Roscoe Mitchell Sr. and Ida Carter. The family lived on the corner of 60th and State Street, near Washington Park, which at the time was an epicenter of black cultural activity for the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side. For the musically inclined young Mitchell, being so close to the performances in Washington Park—and the adjacent clubs which populated the area of 63rd and Cottage Grove—provided ample fodder for his nascent musical curiosities.
Mitchell’s family was religiously observant and attended the weekly Spiritualist Church, where the services were conducted by Mitchell’s uncle, Reverend Charles Commodore Carter. Mitchell remembers: “I used to really enjoy the music in the church. At that time I wasn’t that interested in the sermons.”1
But this musical interest was more than reinforced at home. Mitchell describes his father as 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.”2 His parents also had open ears to the popular music of the day—which in Mitchell’s telling was quite normal, and indeed “common knowledge.” Played at home were hits by Nat King Cole (Mitchell’s mother’s friend from high school), James Moody’s “It Might As Well Be Spring,” and others.3
Despite Roscoe Sr.’s wish for his son to take up singing, it was Mitchell’s older brother Norman—with his extensive record collection of “many, many 78 records”—who turned Mitchell onto Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and other saxophone innovators and was ultimately responsible for his younger brother’s choice to begin an instrumental practice of his own.
Shortly thereafter, Mitchell’s devotion to jazz became all-consuming. He elaborates: “For me, that was a weird time, because after I started listening to jazz I didn’t want to listen to anything else anymore. There was a certain coolness that went along with that—you understood jazz, that made you cooler.”
During a brief relocation with his family to Milwaukee, Mitchell began playing the clarinet at West Division High School and continued these studies at Englewood High School when the family returned to their old neighborhood in Chicago. It was at Englewood where he first took up the saxophone. By his own admission, he was a “late-starter.” Mitchell offered his services when the Englewood dance band needed a baritone saxophonist4 and then, looking for a further challenge, borrowed a fellow student’s alto saxophone, wherein he truly fell in love—“the alto was the instrument that really caught my interest.”
Although no formal jazz education was on offer at Englewood, Mitchell fortuitously became friends with a peer who was already an esteemed saxophonist, Donald “Hippmo” Myrick, who would go on to gain notoriety as the saxophonist for funk supergroup Earth, Wind, and Fire. Recalling his relationship with Myrick, (whom he later honored on his 1995 Delmark album, Hey Donald), Mitchell recalls: “[Myrick] kind of took me under his wing, because he already knew all the stuff. He was a fully accomplished musician in high school.”
Mitchell’s commitment to music was unquestionable and intense, and consequently he decided to enlist in the Army with the explicit aim of joining the band. Despite his relative musical inexperience, Mitchell was a proficient enough saxophonist to join the U.S. Army Europe Band, stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, where he stayed for three years. The Army provided Mitchell with a congenial atmosphere: several competent saxophonists who challenged him and with whom he could swap notes and refine his technique—like Nathaniel Davis and Joseph Stevenson—and plenty of time to practice. The Army allowed him to “function as a professional musician twenty-four hours a day.” Concurrently, Mitchell began to gain concrete playing experience performing at Cave 54, a veritable wellspring of fledgling talent, including pianist and vibraphonist Karl Berger, trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, and saxophonist Bent Jaedig.
But it was the experience of hearing fellow serviceman Albert Ayler that had the force of revelation: “[Hearing Ayler] 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.”
After hearing Ayler that night and realizing that there “may be another way of doing things,” Mitchell returned to Chicago with a career as a musician set firmly in his sights. The form that this would take was unknown to the young Mitchell, and there’s little way that the saxophonist could have predicted the people he was to meet and the mammoth epistemic changes that those people would occasion for his life and his music.
• Roscoe Mitchell Quartet: Before There Was Sound (Delmark), 1964 (Released 2011)
• Roscoe Mitchell Sextet: Sound (Delmark), 1966
• Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble: Old/Quartet (Nessa), 1967/68 (Released 1975)
• Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble: Congliptious (Nessa), 1968
• The Art Ensemble: 1967/68 (Nessa) (Released 1993)
• The Art Ensemble of Chicago: Reese and the Smooth Ones (BYG Records), 1969
• The Art Ensemble of Chicago: A Jackson in Your House(BYG Records), 1969
• The Art Ensemble of Chicago: Bap Tizum (Atlantic), 1973
• The Art Ensemble of Chicago with Muhal Richard Abrams: Fanfare for the Warriors(Atlantic), 1973
With his tuition covered by the G.I. Bill, and his father providing him a place to stay, Mitchell enrolled in Woodrow Wilson Junior College in 1961. Shortly after matriculation, Mitchell found kinship with saxophonist Joseph Jarman, three years his senior and a musician already armed with a distinct, forward-thinking approach and a penchant for experimentation. The two first met in music theory classes taught by Dr. Richard Wang. A formative teacher for both, Wang possessed practical experience as a jazz musician and openness to integrating the musics of the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg and the innovations of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane into his more compulsory lessons on theory, harmony, and counterpoint.
Wang’s conviction that his students gain practical performance experience was a pointed and indispensable aspect of his pedagogy. To that end, Wang had his Wilson students—who, in addition to Mitchell and Jarman, included soon-to-be-AACM colleagues and collaborators Malachi Favors, Anthony Braxton, and Ari Brown—perform with venerable Chicago musicians like Eddie Harris, Jack DeJohnette, Steve McCall, and Andrew Hill each Friday.
But Mitchell and Jarman were far from satiated. Despite the college’s doors remaining locked until Mondays, the two continued rehearsing their music on weekends, which started as a way to perform Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers repertoire, but soon turned to more rigorous explorations of the “weird records” of Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and John Coltrane. Mitchell credits Jarman as a “very good influence on me” and one who pushed the younger saxophonist towards further reaches of exploration and freer forms.
But Mitchell’s true turnabout came when drummer DeJohnette brought him to a rehearsal of Muhal Richard Abrams and his Experimental Band. Mitchell swiftly became ensconced in Abrams’ universe: one which was predicated on a rigorous and steadfast commitment to originality of compositional ideas, exploration of improvisatory possibilities, and discussions of extra-musical concerns like philosophy, painting, and astrology. Mitchell remembers: “Muhal kind of took me in. I’d go to school, and I’d go straight from school to Muhal’s, when he was living in that little place off of Cottage Grove, down in the basement. I remember he had painted everything that velvet purple color. Sometimes I’d be down at Muhal’s at ten, eleven, twelve at night playing or working on music.”
Taken as he was by his new mentor, Mitchell recruited his Wilson College classmates Jarman and Henry Threadgill to join him in these sessions. Abrams’ generosity was boundless, and he envisioned his Experimental Band as a site for open exchange of creativity; a place for young musicians to compose and perform their own work; and a forum for his own compositions to be played by his mentees. This composition-forward dictum had an immense impact on young Mitchell, who remembers that “[Abrams] always encouraged people to write, write, write. He was showing us all of these compositional methods. He always had a deep appreciation for all kinds of music and studied all kinds of music. He had a lot to draw on and passed it on freely to the people that wanted to learn that.”
Abrams’ premise of compositional and improvisational originality were followed faithfully by his pupils, as is evident when investigating both the early (and later) work of soon-to-be-luminaries Mitchell, Jarman, Braxton, Threadgill and others. Their approaches to composition and improvisation remain indelible and distinct to this day.
Although the definitive history and ideological treatment of this is given in George Lewis’ A Power Stronger Than Itself—and much of it extends beyond the aims of this essay—it is necessary to mention that the spirit motivating the Experimental Band meetings, in conjunction with myriad forces corroding opportunities for musicians in Chicago, gave birth to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The AACM was premised on providing a supportive infrastructure for black musicians to perform (strictly) original composition; for maintaining a workshop “for the expressed purpose of bringing talented musicians together;” to foster equitable working conditions between musicians and record labels; to “stimulate spiritual growth in creative artists through recitals, concerts etc.;” and to provide “free training” to interested youth musicians.
With Abrams’ encouragement, Mitchell began rehearsing his new group, The Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, with bassist Favors, trumpeter Fred Berry, and drummer Alvin Fielder. Fielder recalls at the time that the compositions Mitchell brought in were “very much like Ornette’s music,” but that this quartet also afforded him his first opportunity to practice free improvisation. Evidence of this otherwise undocumented quartet (and Mitchell’s explicit debt to Ornette Coleman) is appreciable from Mitchell’s first recording
session—made in 1964 but not released until 2011 under the title Before There Was Sound (Delmark)—which features boisterous, jagged, swinging pieces like “Mr. Freddy” and “Carefree” alongside the more meditative, elastic “Green” and “Outer Space,” all of which bear the shadow of several early Coleman compositions. Despite that appreciable spiritual antecedent, Mitchell’s alto saxophone playing by this time is fully sui generis and demonstrably unique; laden with spiky, wide-interval phrases, rendered complete with his characteristic tonal acerbity.
Mitchell maintained this quartet until their final concert in August of 1965 and substituted various other AACM musicians in the group after Berry decamped for graduate studies at Stanford. It was not until meeting Lester Bowie, an already decorated Rhythm and Blues trumpet player from St. Louis, that Mitchell relayed to Favors that he had found a worthy replacement. Favors and others were initially incredulous about Bowie’s commitment to their fledgling group, given his commercial success with his wife Fontella Bass, but to Bowie, meeting these Chicago musicians was incredibly fortuitous: “That was what I had been looking for: an opportunity to really deal into the music.” Concurrently, Favors introduced the “little instruments”—collections of idiosyncratic tiny percussion instruments—to what was then known as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble.
The defining constituent elements of their new music now in place, Mitchell and his sextet recorded the first commercially available AACM album, Sound (Delmark, 1966). Chuck Nessa, a young, obsessive music fan and employee at the storied Jazz Record Mart, pleaded with his boss, Robert Koester (proprietor of both the Record Mart and Delmark Records) to sign Mitchell, Jarman, and Abrams to contracts with Delmark. Joining Mitchell on Sound were Bowie, Favors, and Fielder, as well as Maurice McIntyre (tenor saxophone, later known as Kalaparusha), and Lester Lashley (trombone), all of whom supplemented their principals with the aforementioned “little instruments”—harmonicas, small percussion, kazoos, and more.
Sound begins with the dedicatory Mitchell composition “Ornette,” but when compared to his recording date from the year before, its title is almost incongruous. In the intervening year, Mitchell had clearly cemented his own idiosyncratic formal approach and reduced the Ornette-inspired feeling that pervaded the previous effort. In that sense, the eponymous nod suggests something of a maturation for Mitchell, a reflection of the spiritual debt that he owed to Coleman and his innovations yet carrying with it the tacit recognition that to honor his predecessor meant to forge his own music, allowing the similarities to be viewed almost like a palimpsest. The album’s timbral, spatial, and formal severity increase as it progresses, with dramatic use of unaccompanied solo passages; previously unheard and (still) shocking textures, laden with redoubtable technique and self-assurance; and, most importantly, an emphasis on improvisational collectivity.
The reception of Sound was laudatory and immediate, with DownBeat granting it the full five stars and myriad other rave reviews in the jazz press. Chicago critic John Litweiler compared Mitchell to his hero by saying that he possessed, “an Ornette Coleman–like imagination,” and noted his “attention to the use of sound as such.” By 1967, Mitchell’s star was firmly on the rise, and he found himself ranked alongside already-established talents like Lee Konitz, and Marion Brown in the DownBeat Critics’ Poll “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” category.
With its group trajectory set in motion—and with the new addition of accomplished drummer Philip Wilson, who was soon to depart for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band—the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble recorded several additional albums in 1967 and 1968 which took the latent aspects of Sound and compounded them with further studies in humor, theatricality, and extensive formal investigation. Old/Quartet, recorded in May 1967 (although not released until 1975 by Nessa) features two long-form compositions, “Old” and “Trio,” which traverse sputtering thematic recitations, wide dynamic undulations, and labyrinthine motivic movements, all within a dramatic and unpredictable framework. The enigmatic unfolding of these Mitchell compositions are contrasted with a more groove-oriented, propulsive piece from the same session, Bowie’s “Tatas-Matoes,” which is presented as a rehearsal tape—warts, laughter, and all.
Congliptious, recorded in February and March of 1968 (and released in the same year by Nessa) features two Mitchell compositions: “Tkhke,”—a solo alto statement, that begins with a gentle melodic teasing of the theme which is eventually swallowed by entropic overblowing and keenly-implemented multiphonics—and the mammoth, episodic “Congliptious/Old.” This near-twenty-minute rendition of the piece recorded the year before, proceeds with a more nuanced employment of alternate sound sources, vocalizations, cathartic eruptions, and a playful irreverence towards the material, with the horns contorting the theme with quasi-microtonality and bending. In addition to Mitchell’s compositions are Favors’ iconic solo rendering of his “Tutankhamen” and Bowie’s “Jazz Death,” a hysterical, parodic piece in which Bowie impersonates a “Dave Flexenbergstein” from “Jism Magazine” who interrogates Bowie himself with the wry question, “Is Jazz, as we know it, dead?,” while the trumpeter’s answer comes in the form of an extended solo, ending with him saying, “Well, I guess that all depends on what you know,” and tapering off with a demonic laughter, an indication of the limits of the jazz press and the imminent need for a critical revaluation of the music in light of what these Chicagoans were promulgating.
Congliptious, as a whole, shows the Art Ensemble with all of their definable elements firmly in place—a proper foreshadowing of much of their, and particularly Mitchell’s, music to be made in the decades to come. Will Smith, writing for Jazz & Pop (August 1969 issue) astutely observed that Congliptious is “a wriggling mass of glad happenings—the lightning sound of mad sanity contained.”
• Roscoe Mitchell: The Solo Saxophone Concerts (Sackville Recordings), 1974
• Roscoe Mitchell: Nonaah (Nessa), 1977
• Roscoe Mitchell: L-R-G / The Maze / S II Examples (Nessa), 1978
• Roscoe Mitchell: More Cutouts (CECMA), 1981
• Roscoe Mitchell/Tom Buckner/Gerald Oshita: New Music for Woodwind and Voice (1750 Arch Records), 1981
• Roscoe Mitchell: Roscoe Mitchell & The Sound and Space Ensembles (Black Saint), 1987
• Roscoe Mitchell: Four Compositions (Lovely Music), 1987
In Europe, there was already buzz surrounding the innovations of the new music from Chicago, and the Parisian drummer, Claude Delcloo, in correspondence with Muhal Richard Abrams, hinted that there would be money for recordings and work—were the musicians to travel to Europe—with the Actuel-BYG label, which was already active in recording albums by New York luminaries Archie Shepp and Sunny Murray amongst others. AACM founding member Steve McCall had already relocated with his family, first to Amsterdam and then to Paris, in no small part thanks to Delcloo’s encouragement. Indeed, Delcloo had larger quixotic aspirations for a “global federation of free musics,” which would tie in the AACM musicians with forward-thinking progenitors from Paris, Berne, Brussels, New York, Rome, and Philadelphia.
Given this ascendent international attention, the musicians of the AACM were eager to find further opportunities to expand their audience and increase the impact of their music. Lester Bowie most pointedly viewed it as a matter of “survival” that the music reach new ears, saying that the “only way for us to survive was to develop a world audience.” A trans-Atlantic relocation would also alleviate some of their financial hardships, with Mitchell working at the Victor Comptometer Factory to support himself and Jarman “struggling to survive” in Chicago solely on music.
There were several crucial changes in conjunction with their move that pointed toward absolute collectivity for the Art Ensemble, the first being the change of their name from The Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble to The Art Ensemble (the “of Chicago” would be appended upon their arrival in France) to emphasize a lack of distinct leader and figurehead. Just as significant, if not more, was that the group’s finances would pivot to a collective model, with Bowie fronting the seed money to fund their trip across the Atlantic by selling his Bentley, all of his furniture, even taking out a newspaper ad with the humorous line “Musician Sells Out.”
The newly christened band performed their farewell concert on May 24, 1969, at the University of Chicago’s Blue Gargoyle. This show was also their first with the addition of Joseph Jarman as full-fledged member. At the performance, Bowie boldly pronounced that the “AACM was becoming a world-wide institution” as a way to temper whatever sadness there was in the audience about the departure of this now-beloved group.
Four days hence, Mitchell, Bowie, Jarman, Favors, and Bowie’s wife, Fontella Bass, boarded the S.S. United States for France. When they arrived in Le Havre, Delcloo and his BYG Records colleague, photographer Jacques Bisceglia, were there waiting, and they drove the 200 kilometers to reach Paris, carting with them “an arsenal of nonviolent weapons and several hundred musical instruments that weighed over two tons.”
To this day there remains some debate—and perhaps resentment—around who in the AACM had the initial idea for relocation to Paris, with the Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins trio still claiming that it was their idea to decamp. Bowie, by then the AACM president, dissuaded them from leaving their native city under the guise of “black power” and “solidarity,” only to turn around and convince his Art Ensemble colleagues to prepare to move to France. A conclusive answer to this, of course, will likely never be settled upon. Irrespective of whoever conceived of the idea, the move to Europe was something of a foregone conclusion for all, and the AACM took hold in Paris,
The Art Ensemble arrived in France at a time when it was ripe with artistic activity, talent, and musical innovation. The Parisians were largely receptive to the work of the Art Ensemble, which was markedly distinct from the methods employed by the more New York-inspired music then principally in favor. Immediately upon
arrival—particularly in the club the Chat-qui-Pêche—Mitchell and Jarman were distinctly struck by the ease of access to legendary figures, like Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, and Philly Joe Jones, who would have otherwise eluded them. Paris was also a site for interchange with more contemporary players from outside of Chicago, like Coleman, Ed Blackwell, Archie Shepp, and Grachan Moncur, the latter two of whom Mitchell would record with for BYG.
Only ten days after arriving in the city, The Art Ensemble had their first European performance as a headlining act at the Théâtre du Lucernaire. Backed by several laudatory reviews by Daniel Caux, the Jazz Hot critic, the Art Ensemble was already a known entity in the city, and Caux pointedly noted the Art Ensemble’s “impeccable formal precision” and their change-on-a-dime antics which encapsulated humor, profundity, and their deft use of space. In short, the Art Ensemble was now nothing short of an “immediate sensation.”
After several itinerant housing situations—including a functioning mental hospital where a psychiatric doctor and friend of Delcloo’s was practicing—the Art Ensemble famously took residence in a large, six-bedroom house in Saint-Leu-la-Forêt, which had ample room to store all of their instruments and rehearse in an unfettered environment. They pushed their collective model of living by splitting all of their earnings in an equal way and putting the money back into the group, which allowed for their massive swell of musical proliferation.
Mitchell, to wit: “I saw Johnny Griffin, who to me is one of the giants of the music. He’s over there, and I don’t know if he even had his own band . . . Whereas the Art Ensemble went over there as a unit. When we had a gig, we sat down and figured out what we could get paid out of this and what we needed to do. We went over there as a strong unit. We had our own house. We had several trucks . . . that’s what comes of staying together. I don’t know why people don’t really learn that. I think that people think that ‘Oh, I’m the chosen one’ . . . It’s not even about that. That’s one of the best things I got out of the AACM.”
On June 23, 1969, the Art Ensemble recorded A Jackson in Your House for BYG, their first of what would be fifteen albums recorded in the next two years. In the three days following, the group would also record Tutankhamen and The Spiritual (June 26, 1969), both for the Freedom label. A Jackson in Your House—which is laden with unhinged intermedia theatricality, almost bordering on the vaudevillian, amidst a panoptic presentation of stylistic devices and biting political commentary and satire—is a seminal Art Ensemble record in substance and execution, and is something of an early masterpiece. That it was one of three records recorded in a single week, with the others being stylistically divergent and complete statements in their own right, makes the accomplishment all the more staggering.
The pieces on these albums were all in the Art Ensemble’s live repertoire at this time, providing insight into the nature of what these early, revelatory Paris performances must have been like—a truly unique, nonpareil ensemble in full force. In the remaining months of 1969, the Art Ensemble would go on to record four more, now-canonical, albums: People In Sorrow (Nessa, July 7, 1969), Message to Our Folks (BYG, August 12, 1969), Reese and the Smooth Ones (BYG, August 12, 1969) and Eda Wobu (JMY, October 5, 1969).
Yet, despite the abundant fruits of their European stay, the exiled Chicagoans still were a quartet in need of a drummer. Although they offered the chair to Thurman Barker and Robert Crowder in Chicago,5 the prospect of a move to Europe was too daunting for both, and they passed on the opportunity. It was at the 1969 Baden-Baden Free Jazz Meeting in West Germany that they were to meet their fifth member, Don Moye, a young drummer then playing with saxophonist Steve Lacy in Paris who had seen Mitchell and Jarman perform in Detroit years earlier, and who “put [his] bid in like everybody else.”
That bid was ultimately successful, and they continued their prolific streak of recorded work—as a quintet—for the duration of their stay in France, with Chi-Congo (Decca, May 1970), Les Stances a Sophie (a soundtrack for a film with the same name, recorded July 22, 1970), Live in Paris (BYG, August 13, 1970), Art Ensemble of Chicago with Fontella Bass (Prestige/America, August 1970), and Phase One (Prestige/America, February 1971).
From the outset, the journey that the Art Ensemble took to Paris was never intended to be a permanent relocation—unlike expat colleagues like Bobby Few and Mal Waldron—and the Art Ensemble felt beckoned back to the United States. With fifteen acclaimed albums under their belts, and a reputation firmly established, their two years overseas seem like an unequivocal success. On April 11, 1971, the quintet boarded the S.S. Raffaello for New York.
• Roscoe Mitchell Quartet: The Flow of Things (Black Saint), 1987
• Roscoe Mitchell: Solo  (Mutable Music), 2003
• Roscoe Mitchell: Composition/Improvisations 1, 2 & 3 (ECM),2007
• Roscoe Mitchell: Not Yet (Six Compositions) (Mutable Music), 2013
• Roscoe Mitchell with Craig Taborn and Kikanju Baku: Conversations Iand II (Wide Hive Records), 2014
• Roscoe Mitchell: Sustain and Run (Selo SESC), 2016
• Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (ECM), 2017
Upon returning to America, Bowie decided to bypass Chicago to return to his native St. Louis. He purchased a house in the University City neighborhood and reified connections made with the Black Artists Group (BAG), a collective of St. Louis musicians modeled on the AACM. Mitchell and Moye followed Bowie and took up residence in the BAG Building in St. Louis, using this time to practice, rehearse with the BAG musicians, and counsel their St. Louis colleagues to travel to Paris.
Mitchell’s stay in St. Louis, though, was short-lived. His friend, the composer David Wessel, had taken a job in the music faculty at Michigan State University in East Lansing, and encouraged Mitchell to relocate to the area. Mitchell says that this move “came at a period when I wanted to get out of the cities and move to the country. I had waited until the Art Ensemble had started to work, and it dawned on me that I could live wherever I wanted to live. But then going and actually moving to the country was terrifying. I got there and I looked in the mirror and I didn’t really see that much.” Although initially daunting, this move to Bath, Michigan—in the Northern East Lansing adjacencies—would prove decisive in Mitchell’s trajectory as both an artist and an organizer.
Shortly after moving to Bath, Mitchell met a group of Wessel’s students from Michigan State. Inspired by their musicianship and dedication, Mitchell chartered the Creative Arts Collective, an organization founded on principles that echoed those of the AACM. Mitchell explains: “What I did was, I took the model of the AACM to construct it—that is, using the basic, fundamental principles that established the AACM to establish a concert series, and present concerts.”6
Mitchell continues: “Working with the CAC has not been difficult for me because we started working together in 1973. And when I first met these guys they were in college. And we decided that East Lansing was the place that we were going to develop into sort of a musical center, you know—similar to the way we had done it with the AACM in Chicago.” “What we wanted to do was establish a place where we could have the music, concerts of our own, and then have an exchange program going on. We started off with AACM members in Chicago because they were close and easier to bring up and then we expanded and to bring in people from wherever they were—New York or whatever like that.”7
The administration at Michigan State was so receptive to this fledgling organization that they granted Mitchell and the CAC access to a theater-in-the-round on campus—and even the Abrams Planetarium—for use as their concert venues. It was through these efforts that Mitchell became associated with several musicians who he went on to have extensive musical relationships with: guitarist Spencer Barefield (who has directed the CAC for decades), drummer/percussionist Tanni Tabbal, and bassist Jaribu Shahid.
Beyond his efforts as an organizer, the freedom to play at any hour—unfettered by concerns of disturbing neighbors or conversely, of being disturbed and distracted by the goings-on in a city—that his new rural environment afforded Mitchell allowed him to “slow [myself] down and do a lot of composing.” In these early Bath days, Mitchell penned what is likely his most notable composition, one which he continues to reconfigure, reevaluate, and recontextualize to this day: “Nonaah.”
“Nonaah,” composed in 1972, was originally conceived of as a way to exploit the multiple registers of the solo alto saxophone, and in-so-doing manifest a polyphony stemming from the clarity of the articulations of those distinct registers. In the liner notes to Nonaah (Nessa, 1977), Mitchell says, “ ‘Nonaah’ is a fictional character that I’ve come up with . . . The thing about ‘Nonaah’ is that once you put yourself in that atmosphere you can ride on forever. The world has the properties of very large skips, and it has notes that have accidental qualities that are kept. The rhythmic values are those of quarters, eights and triplets; in the slow parts all can be extended, the regular triplet to quarter-note or half-note triplets as in the quartet version. I rehearse it in a very strict tempo and very loose, so everyone knows where he is, and I can take the privilege of accelerating certain points. When I do it solo, I do it many different ways.”8
Despite its origins as a solo piece, the first recorded version of “Nonaah” is a sextet arrangement on a studio recording by the Art Ensemble, Fanfare for the Warriors (Atlantic, 1974), which features the addition of Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. Recorded at Paragon Studios in Chicago in September 1973, the AEC delivers a triumphant and raucous recitation of the short piece, which then blossoms into an Abrams improvisation that deviates significantly from the composition’s motivic specificity. Mitchell’s improvised entrance towards the end of the piece refocuses its intervallic intention, stretching, diluting, elasticizing its motives, and acts as a coda, one picked up on by Jarman, Bowie, and Moye to deliver a rather abrupt and unceremonious conclusion to the piece. In many ways, this is a fitting exposition for “Nonaah,” as its tendrils would quickly outgrow its originally intended solo context and function as a modular vehicle for Mitchell’s growing interests.
Around this same time—and likely influenced by the aforementioned isolation of his rural home in Bath—Mitchell began working more intensely on solo material and performed solo concerts extensively. Several of these performances were collected on his The Roscoe Mitchell Solo Saxophone Concerts album (Sackville, 1974), the cover of which displays Mitchell outside of his home in Bath, surrounded by myriad saxophones, flutes, recorders, and his dog, Io. Bookending the double LP are the first two solo renditions of “Nonaah” available for public consumption—the first recorded on November 2, 1973, in Montreal, Quebec and the second at the Pori International Jazz Festival in Finland on July 12, 1974. Both versions are extremely taut (under two minutes each) and intensely focused on the angular, relentlessly articulated written material. The solo in Finland begins with an exuberant audience collectively pounding and cheering, and their hosannas are heard throughout, thrilled by the radicality of Mitchell’s composition.
But the most canonical version of the piece was performed in front of an audience oppositely disposed, at least initially. On August 26, 1976, the Art Ensemble opened the Willisau Jazz Festival and had a warm reception; indeed in a festival-audience poll, the AEC was voted “group of the year.”9 Nevertheless, it was their AACM colleague Anthony Braxton—by then a bonafide celebrity in European jazz circles—who was the unequivocal favorite of the attendees and one who many in attendance had “traveled hundreds of kilometers” to hear perform solo. Given a break in their tour schedule, the Art Ensemble decided to stay and hear Braxton’s solo performance on the 28th for themselves. Travel snafus impeded Braxton’s arrival to Willisau, and as the concert start-time neared, it was abundantly clear that he would not be arriving.
Consequently, the festival organizer, and noted Swiss graphic designer, Niklaus Troxler asked Mitchell if he would perform in Braxton’s stead. Mitchell rushed back to his hotel to retrieve his alto and had “an hour to warm up.” As Terry Martin notes, the concert immediately “begins with a confrontation.” The audience is audibly incensed that their “idol” had been deposed; that Mitchell, something of a cherished celebrity in his own right, would have the gall to replace Braxton was ipso facto offensive to them. Years later, Mitchell claims that he “understood their disappointment—I wanted to see Anthony myself!”10
But in the moment, this ostentatious audience derision only emboldened Mitchell further: “I went out there and got this tension thing. It was a battle. I had to make the noise and whatever was going on with the audience part of the piece. The music couldn’t move till they respected me, until they realized that I wasn’t going anywhere and if someone was going it would have had to be them. It was very interesting, and it helped create the environment the piece was to take place in.”
His vehicle to garner their respect was one line from his recently arranged four alto saxophone version of “Nonaah”; a nine note phrase, relentlessly repeated and varied with peerlessly persistent focus and intensity. By around five minutes of the phrase’s repetition—then laden with harsh timbral inflection—the audience’s hostility had morphed into jubilation; cheering and spurring Mitchell’s further exploration. In Mitchell’s words, he had “cleared the air” and was able to continue on with the concert unimpeded by their jeers.11 After his staunch “Nonaah,” Mitchell had the audience in the palm of his hand; they had acceded to him “on his terms, not theirs.” Mitchell claims to have learned a “big lesson from that . . . hecklers aren’t going to scream me down if I’ve got a saxophone and all they have is their voice.”
Shortly upon returning to the States from this tour, Mitchell was in talks with Chuck Nessa about releasing an album and sent him the Willisau tapes. Nessa said the music “overwhelmed” him, and he consequently decided to release the concert in full, along with additional solo and ensemble material, with the title Nonaah (Nessa, 1977). The LP concludes with the four-alto saxophone arrangement of “Nonaah,” which features Mitchell’s alto alongside Jarman, Henry Threadgill, and (regrettably forgotten early AACM stalwart) Wallace McMillan, who all fully accept the challenge of the piece: its dynamic undulations within its elegant formal structure and the rigor required to convincingly accomplish the insistent repetition of its wide interval phrases.
In the subsequent forty-five years, “Nonaah” has been a consistent reference point for Mitchell and a piece that he’s gone on to rework in many additional contexts—for cello quartet; trio of bassoon, flute, and piano; for the Sound Ensemble; and most recently for the Norwegian Naval Forces Band in Bergen, Norway. In a recent interview, Mitchell describes the piece as “my own system, a particular set of mathematics” and one that is endlessly generative.12
Mitchell’s next significant solo album, which was released the following year, L-R-G / The Maze / S II Examples (Nessa, 1978), featured three distinct modes of Mitchell’s ever-increasing compositional acumen. The first, “L-R-G,” takes its name from the players’ initials (Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis). The piece was written for their idiosyncratic vocabularies—with Smith on high brass, Lewis on low brass, and Mitchell on various woodwinds—collaged to make an organized whole which focused on textural and dynamic affinities between the musicians. “The Maze” was likely Mitchell’s most ambitious piece at the time, and featured the AACM supergroup of Mitchell, Jarman, Braxton, Threadgill, Moye, Favors, Barker, and Douglas Ewart, all of whom were tasked with exclusive performing on various percussion instruments. Lewis took a global view of “The Maze” and remarked that Mitchell’s composition “welcome[s] the blending of personal narrative with complex notated forms. The multiplicity of voices in Mitchell’s multi-instrumentalist compositional palette encourages the timbral diversity of an ensemble to exceed the sum of its instrumental parts, while encouraging individuality to coexist with the collective.”13 The concluding piece, “S II Examples,” is an exploration of the native multiphonics on a curved soprano saxophone. It was originally thought of as a trio with Jarman and Braxton, whose straight sopranos were incapable of playing the piece as-so-conceived.14
In the early 1980s, Mitchell began working with two groups that would both contribute the bulk of his output outside of the Art Ensemble for the ensuing decade plus: the Sound Ensemble (with CAC members, guitarist Barefield, trumpeter Hugh Ragin, bassist Shahid, and drummer Tabal) and the Space Ensemble (with vocalist Tom Buckner and fellow woodwind virtuoso Gerald Oshita). Mitchell debuted the Sound Ensemble—likely a nod to the name of his debut from 1966—with the album Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin’ Shoes (Nessa, 1981), and the music was largely unprecedented in Mitchell’s oeuvre at that time: a still-jarring mixture of deeply funk-inflected, ear-friendly compositions nestled alongside extended textural pieces and a rendition of the Sousa-inspired Braxton march “40 Q.” The Sound Ensemble recorded several more albums in short succession, 3x4 Eye (recorded February 18 and 19, 1981 in Milan), More Cutouts (recorded February 20, 1981, in Firenze, sans Shahid), and Roscoe Mitchell and The Sound and Space Ensembles (recorded June 2 and 3, 1983 in Milan), which combined both groups.
Although he met them close to a decade earlier—in California, during a trip west with Bowie and Wilson—Mitchell only properly began collaborating with Buckner and Oshita in the summer of 1979 while he was the program director of the Woodstock Creative Music Studios. Mitchell invited both to join him in Woodstock, with Oshita even teaching a course on “New Concepts in Composition.” In the summer of 1981, the trio recorded their first album, New Music For Woodwinds And Voice (Wakefield Pressing), not yet adopting the Space moniker. They went on to record their second and final full-length LP, An Interesting Breakfast Conversation (1750 Arch Records, 1984) as Space, and the album is sourced from studio sessions and live recordings made at New York’s Public Theater. Oshita and Buckner also contributed to Mitchell’s Four Compositions (Lovely Music, 1987) with their appearance on “Prelude,” which supplemented Space’s trio with a triple contrabass of Brian Smith.15
This collaboration is significant inasmuch as it clearly reset a direction in Mitchell’s collaborative disposition. And its heightened use of dynamics and more chamber-oriented approach complimented the more jazz and groove influenced aspects of the Sound Ensemble. Mitchell’s association with Buckner would also align him with New York chamber groups like the SEM Ensemble (and their director Petr Kotik), who would go on to be ardent supporters of Mitchell’s chamber and symphonic works in the subsequent decades, notably documented on albums such as Not Yet (Six Compositions) (Mutable Music, 2013).
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Mitchell convened a modular group under the moniker of The Note Factory, which has included collaborators like Craig Taborn, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and Gerald Cleaver alongside musicians he had worked with for decades like Lewis, Tabal, Ragin, and Barefield. The Note Factory has released several albums with different conceptions throughout its lifespan: This Dance Is For Steve McCall (Black Saint, 1993), Nine to Get Ready (ECM, 1999), Song for My Sister (Pi Recordings, 2002), and Far Side (ECM, 2010).
Mitchell continues to focus on solo performance and the music being presented in that context bears little sonic resemblance to the aforementioned reputation-cementing early albums. Twenty-first century solo recordings like Solo  (Mutable Music, 2003) and Sustain and Run (Selo SESC SP, 2016), with their notable use of circular breathing, overblowing, and timbral severity, are characteristic marks of Mitchell’s later playing, which only has grown in its intensity.
Beginning in the 1990s, Mitchell began teaching at the university level. He started as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison—his adopted hometown—where he taught a large survey course to “over 500 students,” and an improvised music class. He was then a professor at California Institute for the Arts in Valencia, California for several years before being given his longest appointment at Mills College in Oakland, California, where he served as the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition from 2007 until his retirement in 2018. At Mills he joined a prestigious faculty of fellow improvisers and an institution with a robust legacy of experimentation and openness to creativity. Mitchell’s tutelage attracted legions of students to the school to study under him specifically, and his rigorous approach to musical pedagogy has influenced several generations of improvisers.
Reflecting on his retirement, Mitchell said: “I did have one notion while I was at Mills—when the students would show me their portfolios, and I would see how much work they were getting done, you know, and it dawned on me there that perhaps I should be a student and then that way I could get some work done. But in 2018 that happened. And I’ve been having that opportunity to be a student since then and have been totally enjoying it.” This is the situation that Mitchell finds himself in today—as a tireless student of music, with a bottomless desire for discovery and growth, even in his eighty-first year.
1Lewis, George E. A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
2Panken, Ted. “Two Interviews with Roscoe Mitchell from 1995 on WKCR, and a 2017 Downbeat Feature.” Today Is the Question: Ted Panken on Music, Politics, and the Arts, Wordpress, August 3, 2019, https://tedpanken.wordpress.com/2019/08/03/two-interviews-with-roscoe-mitchell-from-1995-on-wkcr-and-a-2017-downbeat-feature/. Accessed June 15, 2022.
3Mitchell recorded his father’s composition “Walking in the Moonlight” on his record Hey Donald (1995, Delmark) with Jodi Christian, Malachi Favors, and Albert “Tootie” Heath.
4Steinbeck, Paul. Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 2018.
5Mitchell, Roscoe, et al. “The Art Ensemble, 1967/68. Nessa Records.
6Weinberg, Sam. “Interview with Roscoe Mitchell.” Conducted between the author and Roscoe Mitchell, July 10, 2022.
7“Roscoe Mitchell on FM NPR’s Jazz Alive (1980-12-27).” Hosted by Max Roach, YouTube, YouTube, May 11, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohKIj7EN6Ao. Accessed 26 June 2022.
8Martin, Terry. Liner notes for Roscoe Mitchell Nonaah (Nessa, 1977).
9Steinbeck, Paul. “Talking Back: Performer-Audience Interaction in Roscoe Mitchell’s ‘Nonaah.’ ” Music Theory Online, September 1, 2016, https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.16.22.3/mto.16.22.3.steinbeck.html.
10Ceccato, Daniel. “Drawn to the Sound: Musical Shepherding in Roscoe Mitchell’s Nonaah.” University of San Diego, 2018. Sourced: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/2z3195td.
11Table and Chairs Music, director. Roscoe Mitchell Interview (2 of 3) – The Evolution of “Nonaah.” YouTube, YouTube, 13 May 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUGAjoSBR4w&t=209s. Accessed July 26, 2022.
12“Personal Mathematics: An Interview with Composer and Performer Roscoe Mitchell.” Van Magazine, April 7, 2022, https://van-magazine.com/mag/roscoe-mitchell/.
Accessed 10 June 2022.
13Table and Chairs Records. “Why Roscoe Mitchell Is Important: George Lewis.” Table & Chairs, May 24, 2013, https://blog.tableandchairsmusic.com/post/51241818820/why-roscoe-mitchell-is-important-george-lewis.
14Litweiler, John. L-R-G / The Maze / S II Examples liner notes, 1978.
15Author uncredited. New Music for Woodwind and Voice liner notes, 1750 Arch Records, 1981.