“Music,” says composer and woodwind player Roscoe Mitchell, “is a science.” The octogenarian is in Bergen, Norway, for the city’s annual Borealis Festival of experimental music. In a few days’ time, he’ll bring the weekend to a thrilling close with two sets, one solo (accompanied by several pre-recorded videos of himself improvising at home), and a duet with his former student, John McCowen. Speaking onstage together on the first floor of Bergen Kunsthall, up a winding flight of stairs from an exhibition featuring several of Mitchell’s paintings, McCowen and Mitchell discuss their time studying together at Mills College, the indivisibility of composition and improvisation, and the development of one of Mitchell’s most famous works, “Nonaah.”
The story of “Nonaah” follows the development of Mitchell’s practice over several decades, and stands as a testament to his singular dedication. First composed in 1972, you can hear a group version of the work on 1974’s “Fanfare for the Warriors,” the 14th album by the Art Ensemble of Chicago in the mere five years since the group was formed. A pugnacious solo version, recorded live before a restive audience at a jazz festival in Willisau, Switzerland, became the title track of Mitchell’s solo album of 1977, after he left Chicago for a more rural home in Wisconsin (where he still lives). Later, as Mitchell moved further into through-composed works, collaborating with the likes of Pauline Oliveros and baritone Thomas Buckner, new versions of “Nonaah” were created for flute quartets, strings, chamber ensembles, and—premiered the night before we met—for Bergen’s own 27-piece naval orchestra, in a new arrangement by McCowen.
I sat down with Mitchell in his hotel room shortly after his lecture to talk about the foundations of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Chicago’s rich musical heritage, and why “free jazz” is not really free.
VAN: I’m fascinated by the way “Nonaah” has stayed with you for so long, the way you keep returning to it and finding new ways of exploiting the material. When you hear the different iterations of this piece today–or for instance, last night–do you hear yourself as a young man in that music?
Roscoe Mitchell: Well, if I hit on something, I stay with it. And I emphasize that with my students as well. Not to just be skimming along the surface of something, but to get really into it. With “Nonaah,” I’ve organized a particular system. If you were to say, “I need a new arrangement of Nonaah, can you do it in a day or two?” Yeah, sure. I can do it. It’s my own system, a particular set of mathematics. I have lots of different systems that I have put together over my musical career thus far.
There’s a fantastic set of your paintings over at the Kunsthall at the moment. When did you start painting?
That’s on my mother’s side of the family. My uncle Charles Commodore Carter designed this book of me, my sisters, and our friends. He used crayon and pen and ink, and then he’d layer the crayon on and use his protractor to scrape the color. In the book we were all these people from outer space. [Carter] lived with us most of the time, but then he moved into the church where he was preaching. I don’t know what happened to those books. And then my uncle Arthur made a lot of our toys, so that was a part of it as well.
After I got back to Chicago from being in the army, hanging out with Muhal [Richard Abrams], we were going to all these art exhibits, going around with sketchpads. I remember we went to the Art Institute to see Ivan Albright. When he painted a person, Muhal would say, “Look at that, there are layers and layers of paint, you can see everything in the skin.” So I brought that back with me and I started to work on painting again. I still have some oils that I started a long time ago that I’m finishing up. But what I remembered about that period was: what I enjoyed the most was sitting in front of the painting, trying to figure out what to do next. And then I started to feel like, Wait a minute, I’m going to have to really learn something about this, so I put it to the side for a while. But now I’m back to that point where I can do it and not feel intimidated. I’m back to that level of enjoyment like I used to always get from it. The way I see it, I develop my themes in painting the way that I develop my music.
How do your first experiences of music compare with your development as a visual artist?
I’m a late starter, man. I didn’t start playing the clarinet until my first year of high school. Back then, people had stacks and stacks of these 78 records. They called them killers. My older brother Norman would sit me down and have me listen to all of these records. So that was my first real introduction, but then, also, in Chicago, you had these movie theaters where the movie was over and all of a sudden Duke Ellington’s big band was on the stage playing. And of course it all goes way back to the church for me, as well. That’s all incorporated in it. In my neighborhood in Chicago you had a lot of live music going on so you could always hear that. I can still see Curly—that was his name—in my head out there in Washington Park at the time, by the same tree, every day, running up and down his saxophone on his scales and arpeggios. Or Henry Threadgill and I would sit up under John Pulliam’s window and listen to him play. At my home there was a guy in the next section of the building, George Fullalove. He was sitting out there with his tenor [sax]. Mckie Fitzhugh had his own radio show and he eventually had the club on 64th and Cottage Grove. During the week, on the off nights, there’d be sessions, and then on the weekend—boom!—Coltrane might be there. Dexter Gordon came. He happened to need a rubber band for his horn because a spring broke and I happened to have a rubber band. I gave him a rubber band.
How did the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians emerge out of this milieu?
When I came back to Chicago, I considered most folks were much further along than me. I was exposed to Ornette Coleman’s music in the army, but I couldn’t handle it that much. It wasn’t until I got out of the army and heard Coltrane’s records on Impulse, where he did “Out of This World” and “Inchworm” and all of that kind of thing. I hadn’t even considered that you could use a modal concept to create improvisation. But then Coltrane’s quartet with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison, they broke all that down into a whole different way of approaching improvisation.
We had examples of musical organizations being together for a long time, Duke Ellington’s big band and Count Basie. You had all those geniuses of the piano. We looked at the music of our great masters and a lot of them didn’t fare that well because they were just out there on their own. We wanted to avoid that. We wanted to be in control of our own destinies. I just happened to be in a place where you had several people in that same frame of mind. So that’s what led out of the Muhal Richard Abrams Experimental Band to the formation of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
How did you first encounter Muhal Richard Abrams?
I had heard of their rehearsals at the C&C Lounge and when I went down there they welcomed me with open arms. Muhal would always encourage people to write for the band: “Bring your pieces in and write for the band.” If you hear something you don’t like, take it back home and get things the way you like them. Never leave anything unfinished because if you put something out there that you don’t like, every time you listen to it that’s what you’re going to hear. We were in Wilson Junior College at that time. That’s where I met Malachi [Favors] and Jack DeJohnette was there at that time as well, and Henry Threadgill. We formed the AACM, and then we encouraged people in other cities, and we had exchange concerts. When I moved to Michigan, I hooked up with people in Michigan and we founded the CAC, the Creative Arts Collective, which is still going on today as well.
You set up these networks so that when you go out to play, you can have several different places you can stay and play. That’s the reason—our coming together and organizing ourselves—that you get all this longevity with these different groups. That’s something I always carry forward with me. I don’t think any of us could have achieved that kind of success in music without having these long-term musical relationships.
Speaking of long term musical relationships: When I interviewed your old friend Thomas Buckner recently he told me about how you two first met. It was the Bay Area in the late ‘60s. You and Malachi and Lester Bowie were staying at a house across the street from Buckner’s friend. And when Buckner arrived at his friend’s place he could hear music coming out of the house across the street, where you were staying. All through dinner and late into the evening, he could still hear the music. Then when he woke up the next morning, he could still hear music coming from the house. And he thought to himself, so that’s how you do it: “You just have to play and play and play.” He went right over and introduced himself. How did you develop that kind of discipline for these extended practice sessions?
We had gone to California the year before that, Lester and Phillip Wilson and I. I had done the recording of “A Whole Lotta Soul” with Nick Gravenites. He was out there, and so I hooked up with him. He and Ron Polte were managing Big Brother and the Holding Company. They had a house in Mill Valley that they let us use. So we’d just go there and we’d do the same thing we were doing, practice all day, and then if we ran out of money, we’d take a few LPs into San Francisco and sell them to buy some food, then go back to Mill Valley and continue playing. I’m getting that kind of environment again these days where I can do all that kind of thing. I could practice the whole day, basically."A lot of times, when I’m starting off on something, I don’t know what I’m doing. But if I stay there with it until the piece starts to talk back; then you can go on and relax and start your development from there." Roscoe Mitchell in… Click To Tweet
Do you think your approach to a practice session like that has changed over the last 50 years?
No, I don’t think so. In developing this piece with John [McCowen], we just practiced until we hit on something, til the piece starts talking back to us. We may have some choices that we set up to start with. Then once it starts speaking back, that’s the best part about it. A lot of times, when I’m starting off on something, I don’t know what I’m doing. But if I stay there with it until the piece starts to talk back; then you can go on and relax and start your development from there.
I read an interview between Ornette Coleman and the philosopher Jacques Derrida and they’re talking about improvisation. Coleman said that he didn’t like the word “improvisation” because it implied a kind of natural spontaneity, almost a primitivism that belittles the work of Black artists. Earlier, at the Kunsthall, you said that you saw improvisation and composition as the same thing. I wondered if this is essentially a different response to the same concern.
What I would say is that I don’t like the word “free jazz.” I don’t like that word. It’s not free. And then people do that–like Ornette is saying–to try to put you in a particular category. If you read [Johann Joachim] Quantz’s books on the transverse flute, he’s cold! He says, ”If you don’t get this together, you’re never going to be this and you’re never going to get to be that.” There’s no shortcut. Some folks may be more gifted than others—think of Mozart writing his first symphony when he was six years old or something. But all of these people were improvisers. They weren’t free improvisers. They were dealing with a certain definite set of mathematics. And they clearly defined that for themselves. So I would say to people: Try to find your own set of mathematics so when people hear that, they know that it’s you. You establish your own voice. Once you establish your own voice, then you’ve got mounds of material to select from. It always works better, because we’re all unique. If you go out into outer space, everything out there is unique. I believe it was Hermes Trismegistus who said that we start off and then we travel to all these different places and on the way we’re picking up all this information and when we’ve gathered a certain level of this information, we’re absorbed back into this bigger mind, because we’ve earned our way back there. ¶