There’s a rumor that says Roscoe Mitchell likes to practice for eight hours a day. To this, he says, “Eight is a great goal to go for. I could do that and a bit more.”
Mitchell, 75, conveys both the steady reserve of someone who has spent decades learning his trade and the enthusiasm of a person who has just recently discovered what will be his life’s passion.
The Darius Milhaud Professor of Music at Mills College since 2007, he lives with his wife Wendy Nelson in the Faculty Village.
Though he’s a master woodwind musician – lately, he has spent time with the bass saxophone and the flute – Mitchell plays percussion as well.
Mitchell’s office is rectangular and uncluttered. Percussion racks — instrument setups he has fashioned from bits and parts of other instruments and things he finds at thrift stores — line the wall opposite his desk.
One setup is the size and shape of the average folding table. Where the tabletop would be, rows of objects sit: wine glasses, bells and disassembled instruments.
“Nobody even had these,” he says, gesturing towards his setups. “I built them for when I wasn’t able to travel with my large percussion setup, to keep my chops up. I’ve traveled all over the world with them.”
He intended for the instruments to be very small. As he made them, he started finding more and more things to go on them, he says, because he’s following the path of the sound.
“I like the challenge of working with whatever’s there, and to have it sound like nothing’s missing,” says Mitchell.
Born Aug. 3, 1940, in Chicago, Illinois, Mitchell started playing music at age 12. Though he now has an international audience, he still considers himself a student of music.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago — a group of influential avant-garde jazz artists, of which Mitchell is a founding member — came to California in 1968. He was also an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Inc. (AACM) in Chicago.
“The AACM is a collective of musicians and composers dedicated to nurturing, performing and recording serious, original music,” says the AACM website.
Mitchell’s colleague James Fei, professor of intermedia arts and music at Mills since 2006, says the Art Ensemble was a group that was skirting the line between jazz, classical contemporary music, improvised music and theater, and was in many ways incredibly popular and successful.
Mitchell, and three trios whom he has worked with, recently traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago to perform as part of an exhibition. The exhibition was set up, in part, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the AACM. According to the museum, the event will showcase “a powerhouse of inventive musicians drawn from Roscoe’s varied musical adventures.”
“[The AACM] is a really big part of both his history as well as this group of mostly African American musicians and thinkers,” Fei said. “It was just an amazing pool of talent who pooled resources and were educating themselves further, leading classes for the community and creating extraordinarily avant-garde work.”
Mitchell was drawn to Mills by its tradition of great musicians and composers.
“I remember the first day he came to my house when he was auditioning for the job,” David Bernstein, department head and professor of music at Mills, said. “He was wearing a beautiful suit. He’s a beautifully dressed man, a very distinguished gentleman — I was wearing dungarees, I was so embarrassed — but I think he dresses like that to show he cares about other people.”
Bernstein knew Mitchell was perfect for Mills as soon as they met.
“The integrity he has is really unique,” Bernstein said. “You have a lot of musicians. Some, they like to talk shoptalk — kind of loose talking about other peoples’ work—and they’re quick to say, ‘Well, I don’t like this or that.’ Roscoe, I’ve never seen him compromise his integrity.”
Around Mitchell, one gets the sense that he believes all is possible.
Mitchell’s uncles were painters, and though he tried painting himself, it became clear during his time at Wilson Junior College that music was his passion.
“My problem with college was that I was always very interested with everything at the beginning of the semester but as the semester wore on I found myself just practicing all the time. In Paris, I wanted to go the Sorbonne to study French but as soon as I wanted to do that, all the sudden we were running all around Europe doing concerts. People don’t want to hear that at the Sorbonne,” Mitchell said.
He went quiet before continuing: “I can always go back, you know.”
“He’s very open to people from many different backgrounds and he’s very eager to learn from them,” William Winant, a professor at Mills since 1984, said.
Larri Parms-Ford has been a student of Mitchell’s for three years.
“We first met when I was a first year and I decided to warm up my baritone saxophone outside of the Music Building before a class. He told me I had a nice tone and he recommended I study with him, so I did,” Parms-Ford said.
Though he has been all over in the service of his music, Mitchell would like to travel some more — this time, not for work.
“I’d like to go on a real vacation where I’m not doing anything,” Mitchell said.
With some hesitation, he tells me he would like to go to Italy again.
“I really enjoyed my trip to Italy last August. It’s like California on steroids,” he said. “Everything is so green. Driving down the highway, I saw rows and rows of agaves in full bloom. They must have all been planted around the same time.”
He explained,“What it does is like it goes on and on and it gets big and pretty. Soon this thing shoots up out of the middle of it and it starts out looking like an asparagus – a big giant asparagus – and it goes way up into the sky and then all these branches shoot off of it and then it flowers and, once it does this, it dies. I’ve got a piece called ‘Agave in Full Bloom.’”
He enjoyed being there. People were nice, he was able to relax, there was good food and no one was in much of a hurry.
Though he might actually take this vacation, he would surely be back to work – back to practice – as soon as it was over.
Everyone who spoke about him contradicted Mitchell’s own belief that “none of us is as big as music.”
It was clear they believed Roscoe Mitchell might just be.