Roscoe Mitchell’s voice echoed throughout the classroom of students attending his Exploring Music class as he explained the importance of improvisation in the many disciplines of musical study. He was leading a discussion on the history of improvisational jazz music and students around me were eager to ask him questions about his work. I had heard many faculty members speak about his accomplishments and touring projects and I was grateful to be in a setting where I could ask him about music. I had not had much exposure to the skill of musical improvisation prior to attending Mills College, and I knew that I was in the presence of a world-renowned expert. My hand flew in the air as I asked him how I could begin improvising, and he recommended I sign up for one of his courses focusing on improvisation as well as start practicing on my instrument of specialty, the piano.
“The Mills music department is on the forefront of music, as many of its students are practicing cutting edge forms of real-time improvisation,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell is known internationally for his skilled improvisation compositions as well as for establishing the Creative Arts Collective in Chicago. He has been an icon and leader in jazz music and contemporary music for over 40 years. Much of Mitchell’s work has encompassed revolutionizing conventional thought around what is “music” and formulating creative and innovative patterns around the concept. He has recorded over 100 albums and has written countless compositions, which contain both classical and contemporary pieces.
In the 1960s, he was one of the leading icons in jazz composition and improvisation, and uses his expertise in mentoring and advising young composers. In addition to holding his current position as the Darius Milhaud Chair at Mills College, Mitchell has taught at Stanford University, the New England Conservatory, and at the California Institute of the Arts. Budding musicians and experts alike seek his advice and he has attracted students to his academic institutions at a national and international scope.
Christopher Luna-Mega has studied under and performed with Mitchell since 2011. He sees Mitchell as a master improvisor, and through his knowledge and experience with improvisational music, states Mitchell to be amongst the top five improvisors alive. His mastery of form and improvisation struck Luna-Mega with its uniqueness and Mitchell taught him how to be disciplined in the study of improvisation.
“Something I really respected when I took his improvisation classes was his emphasis on students treating improvised music as compositions in real-time,” Luna-Mega said.
Alexis Segel has also had the opportunity to study with Mitchell while completing her masters degree in music performance. He is the only African American professor she has studied with in her academic career. She thinks that Mitchell has a tremendous talent for understanding where students are in their levels of study and has the keen ability to communicate with students on what they need to focus on in order to grow.
“One of my most memorable experiences at Mills College was being able to work with another black musician,” Segel said. “He helps bridge the gap between student’s college and musical careers.”
Colleague and former head of the music department, Maggi Payne, said Mitchell uses his his accomplishments and experience to inspire students to break racial and musical territory.
“His influence goes far beyond race and musical boundaries,” Payne said. “He embodies Mills College’s mission to fight for social justice.”
Colleague John Bischoff also notes Mitchell as being an inspirational professor and an asset to Mills College. According to Professor of Music David Bernstein, Mitchell’s raw passion for teaching along with Mills College’s international reputation for music attracts students to the school. Bernstein said Mitchell’s efforts to help students succeed go above and beyond what a student might encounter at another institution.
“He pays for students to go to Europe to perform with him,” Bernstein said. “He apprentices students and he loves teaching. He cares about what he is doing at mills and goes to great lengths to help his students.”
Mitchell is currently performing and lecturing internationally across the nation. Recently, Mills has undergone financial difficulties and a prospective budget plan that threatened Mitchell’s position. An article was published this past Friday by the New York Times, addressing this issue.
Mitchell’s position will be maintained at Mills, and he will continue to teach classes under the college’s revised financial stabilization plan.