HARD WORK “I didn’t come here for no opposition,” Mitchell told a workshop in 1978.
I was going to say Roscoe Mitchell laughs like Mutley. But that’s not it exactly. I’m hanging around with a few New England Conservatory faculty and students after Mitchell’s master class a couple of weeks ago, and as they exchange stories — about past concerts and encounters — Roscoe laughs. Not the wheezing, heart-attack bronchial collapsing exhale of Mutley. No, it’s less chest, more mouth, the dental-office saliva-sucking sound from the back of the tongue and molars. Completely goofy, completely charming.
And disarming, for anyone who’s followed the career of the now 66-year-old composer, reed and flute player, bandleader, and musical activist. As a founding member of both the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago and the revered avant-garde band the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Mitchell has always had a unusually serious persona. In the Art Ensemble’s ritualistic performances, saxophonist Joseph Jarman, bassist Malachi Favors, and drummer Famoudou Don Moye took to tribal face and body paint. Mitchell and trumpeter Lester Bowie flanked them at opposite extremes — Bowie the centerstage jester, in long white lab coat, growling comically through his horn, Mitchell, at stage right, impassive, in collared shirt, jeans, and skullcap. All business. The cover of one of Mitchell’s early albums, Solo Saxophone Concerts (Sackville, 1973), is emblematic. Roscoe is sitting on a chair outdoors, maybe his back yard, in front of a tool shed, a German shepherd at his side, both looking at the camera, unsmiling. (No, the dog isn’t smiling either.) Around them, amid the scrubby grass, stand all manner of saxophones. A man (and his best friend), prepared to work.
NEC’s Allan Chase remembers attending workshops taught by Mitchell at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock in 1978. Mitchell was handing out reams of carefully prepared materials, far more than any of the other teachers had brought, and that provoked snickers and wisecracks from the students. Mitchell, who hadn’t removed his aviator shades, looked at the class and said, “I didn’t come here for no opposition.”
Not that he was going to get any. “We were extremely in awe of him,” Chase, now chairman of NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation Department, writes to me in an e-mail. “I think he was viewed (correctly) as the bravest explorer of the farthest reaches of improvised music at the time.”
In the wake of an avant-garde dominated by the all-out New York clamor of John Coltrane (in his mystical late period), Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Archie Shepp, the AACM crew, led by pianist, composer, and teacher Muhal Richard Abrams, were doing their own thing. As a collective, they were community-minded, supporting not only one another but various education programs. Their music was as influenced by the aleatory and serial procedures of Western “classical” composers like Stockhausen and Cage as by jazz and blues. In 1966, Mitchell released Sound on the Chicago-based Nessa label, a collection of pieces that deployed silence as an active ingredient, or as he tells me when we get together in Chase’s office, “different sounds other than melodic lines constructed with notes.” That would be squawks, clicks, rattles. As New York Times critic Ben Ratliff has written, “It wouldn’t qualify as jazz but for the important fact that it was what jazz musicians were doing.”
But Mitchell and his peers are also capable of great-stamina defying blowing sessions. The Art Ensemble has assayed blues-dipped anthems as well as Asian quietude and free-blowing. And Mitchell, along with the likes of Anthony Braxton and Steve Lacy, was a pioneer of the solo saxophone concert. In his NEC master class, he demonstrated with recordings of his benchmark piece “Nonaah,” which began as a solo saxophone étude, partly written, partly improvised, with rapid, leaping intervals through every register meant to create the illusion of several horns playing at once.
“I heard Albert Ayler when I was in the Army,” Mitchell tells me, “and I didn’t quite understand what he was doing. I heard Ornette Coleman when I was in the Army — I didn’t quite understand what he was doing. We’d run around the barracks: ‘Oh, I’m Ornette!’ I did notice about Albert Ayler, as another saxophonist, the man had an enormous sound on the instrument. So I got out of the Army still in ‘denial.’ But then ’Trane comes up with that Coltrane record with ‘Out of This World’ and all that on it and I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s using a modal concept to create this improvisation! You can really do that?’ And then I thought, okay, I better go back and listen to Ornette and Eric Dolphy and so on. Back then, I’d be playing these sessions and I’d hear something and I wouldn’t play it — ‘Oh no, I can’t play that!’ And when I finally did give in, stuff started pouring out. But it took me a couple of years to make that transition.”