For Roscoe Mitchell: Darius, Is That you?

Darius Jones

The first time I met Roscoe Mitchell was in 2013 while on tour in Italy. I was practicing in my hotel room when he knocked on my door and asked, “Darius, is that you?” Over the next two days we discussed individuality, his approach to performance, opera, physical health, and many other things that I still think about today. 

On the night of his solo performance, I walked in late and heard all this sound reverberating throughout the space, but I couldn’t physically see Roscoe yet. I hurried to a spot where I could watch him and was struck by how casual he looked creating the sounds pouring out of his horn. He was seated in a chair while playing and once he concluded the piece he stood up, walked a few steps and remained standing as he started the next piece. The music he created that night had a deep level of focus and attention to detail. I was listening to someone sculpting sound and utilizing techniques that would serve a greater conceptual vision.

As I walked backstage to prepare for my trio set, I asked myself: “What did I just witness?” There was so much to grapple with artistically it was overwhelming. How he navigated the stage, let alone the music, was something that deserved study. At the time I chalked up what I had observed to Roscoe being more knowledgeable and experienced, but looking back on his performance now, I realize my artistic awareness was conceptually too narrow. He was mining every musical gesture and sound, using the saxophone like a paint brush on a canvas. It didn’t feel like a demonstration or performance but more like a visual artist working in their studio. 

Three years after our encounter, I started my solo performance practice. Until then, performing solo was a mysterious space I couldn’t solve for myself. I remember my uncle doing these sax concerts accompanied by an electronic track when I was younger, but I didn’t see them as solo performances. I am not sure why except for the fact that as a young musician I perceived unaccompanied horn outside of a practice room as just a romantic gesture or busking. 

When I lived in Queens, I rode the 7 train into Grand Central Station to go to work. There used to be this saxophonist busking down on the lower level playing jazz standards like “My Funny Valentine” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” I never saw him ask for money or even engage with the people on the platform; he simply played and was visibly high at times. He had a beautiful sound and always did something uniquely personal with the material. After some time listening to him, I started to realize the standard was just a foil for a greater conceptual idea, because he would always seem to create a universe of suspense with each tune. It sounded like he was crawling around inside of each note and phrase which blurred the line between when he was playing the melody or just improvising over the harmony. His sense of tempo was completely mysterious, but I could hear him moving through the harmony in ways I hadn’t heard anyone do during that time. What inspired me most was how he utilized silence as a tool to bring me in closer. 

Watching and listening to him was like experiencing a one-act play or film. It was full of storytelling and humanity which transcended the reality of the situation. He wasn’t busking, but he was using that construct to put on these brilliant solo concerts that would last for hours. 

That saxophonist was the great Maurice McIntyre aka Kalaparush Ahrah Difda. He was a member of the AACM and was on Roscoe Mitchell’s debut album entitled Sound

When I perform solo, I find myself hearing more than just the horn or the chosen material. I hear the possibility of ideas and how any one of those ideas can become a conceptual universe. This is something I notice when Roscoe performs solo; the idea is a starting point or catalyst for the development and manipulation of concept over a period of time and within a musical circumstance. He seems fearless in his pursuit and execution of a concept, even when met with hostility or displeasure from some audiences. This is one of the reasons I chose to perform an excerpt of “Nonaah” from his 1977 album entitled Nonaah

When I listen to the recording, I can hear the frustration of the audience and the relentlessness of Roscoe. One man with a saxophone and ideas against an audience of thousands is how my romantic mind pictures it. In that moment he feels to me like an activist speaking truth to power, and he will not relent until that truth is truly heard. 

Even though this version of “Nonaah” is improvisational in nature, it sounds like a compositional work in the way it is structured. The piece exists in three parts, and the level of detail, commitment to melodic expression, and textural manipulation is breathtaking. It has a raw quality and depth of sophistication that evokes indigenous music throughout the world.

During the developmental stage of my solo practice, I decided to interpret pieces by other composers, because I wanted to show an appreciation specifically for Black composers and those whom I considered to be world builders. I’ve been attracted to the opening motif of this version of “Nonaah” for years because of its repetitive minimalistic quality. The idea of playing one motif and manipulating the timbre of the pitches to create a sense of development was profound to me. It made me think about improvisation differently and helped me to see that shifting timbre, rhythmic placement, dynamics, and frequencies are also acts of improvisation. 

Ideas of maximalism and minimalism are compositional concepts that exist within and outside of music. I love concepts like these because they cause the music to take on a multidimensional artistic quality. For years I’ve been trying to figure out how to create authentic minimalist spaces in my music that speak to me. Listening to “Nonaah” reminded me of the vocalists I grew up with that would sonically manipulate a repetitive motif to create a spiritual experience in church. Roscoe’s music shows us that Black culture is avant-garde in nature. Black creativity has this wonderful feature of existing effortlessly in all artistic spaces. This quality in Roscoe’s work has been deeply self-affirming in my development as an artist. 

I think it took me a long time to hear myself doing a solo project because most of the folks around me doing so were coming from a Eurocentric perspective on the subject, and anytime someone veered away from that perspective, their solo work felt conceptually limiting. It felt as if folks were experimenting with two conceptual camps: improvise freely with or without compositional material focusing exclusively on sonic exploration or play a tune from jazz or popular song canon and improvise by navigating the harmony through a set of changes in time. Both spaces required a high level of technical skill and could be approached acoustically or with electronics, but I still didn’t feel either of those spaces would completely embody my personality and artistic aesthetics. 

Ultimately, I didn’t want to choose a camp or a style, I simply wanted to find a way to express myself and the things I love about music. The saxophone is a vessel, and my life experience shapes the ideas that flow through it. Through interpretation I felt my concepts around sound, rhythm, and melody would be heard more intensely, like a painter’s choice in the surface they choose to paint on. Doing this provided a unique challenge of finding myself within the material and figuring out how the concepts I would use would be reflective of my artistic vision. 

Creating one’s own world musically is something that I think about a lot artistically. In 2018, I saw Roscoe play solo for about twenty minutes before Matthew Shipp’s trio came in behind him at Carnegie Hall. His playing enveloped the hall in a sonic universe where only Roscoe knew the language and made me understand what courage truly looked like as an artist. Nothing he played in that twenty minutes could be considered appeasing or inviting to the audience. As I sat there listening to these high piercing spectral sounds bounce around the acoustical space, I chuckled as some people covered their ears. Roscoe’s service to sound is one of the things I love about his musical concept. It’s not about good sound or bad sound; it is about sound and all that it encompasses. 

The ability to sonically take over an environment also figures prominently in my solo practice. It makes me feel like I am not just playing the horn but also developing a relationship with the space I am occupying. Listening to Roscoe sonically and physically navigate space has been one of the greatest influences on my playing. His courage to freely occupy space and follow his conceptual creativity to its natural conclusion is what I am striving for as an artist.

Amongst many of the great solo practitioners, Roscoe’s solo music has held a consistent inspirational place in my life. I believe the reason for this is because it is about more than just music. To me, Roscoe’s solo act isn’t a display of technical prowess or presentation of knowledge, but a representation of artistic creativity. He always seems to approach the event in an unassuming manner like a person walking out on their porch to work. Whether he sits or stands, with or without written music, he is allowing the audience to witness his latest creation. Like a painting hanging in a gallery, it can be interpreted a multitude of ways, but it will always be a Roscoe Mitchell.

Back in 2013 when he asked, “Darius, is that you?” I should have said, “Not yet.” After we left the hotel, we had a long conversation about individuality and the importance of one having their own sound. The way he talked about it wasn’t like I heard people talk about it before. It was bigger conceptually, and I see now it requires a great deal of courage. I am closer to being able to answer that question in the affirmative today, but I still have a ways to go. Thanks, Roscoe, for broadening my awareness and perspective.
Nok Bor Fa Ti Ker.

For Roscoe Mitchell: Darius, Is That you?