An interview with
Roscoe Mitchell (1999)
By Beppe Colli
Jan. 26, 2003

The first album by the Art Ensemble of Chicago that I bought was Fanfare For The Warriors: a "cut-out", already out-of-print LP although the album was fairly recent. Then I started buying all their old albums I could find, while at the same time keeping up to date with their current output. For geographical reasons, I only saw the classic five people line-up once, in 1984: an excellent concert where the group played a lot of material from their Urban Bushmen double LP with quite a few tracks taken from their then newly released album The Third Decade.

Fifteen years later, I had the opportunity to catch the group in a quite different line-up. I interviewed Roscoe Mitchell in the afternoon before the concert: July 3, 1999. The interview was taped in the (extremely noisy) hall of the Sheraton Hotel where the group was staying. The interview appeared (in Italian language) in the issue # 17, October 1999, of the Italian monthly Blow Up. The original English text is published here for the first time. I've updated the discography that appears at the end.

I saw the names of the line-up of the Art Ensemble of Chicago that's gonna play here and I noticed there's a new member in the group, Ari Brown.

He's not a new member, he's a special guest - because Lester Bowie is ill.

I'm sorry to hear about that... The last time I saw the group Joseph Jarman was still in... I've never seen the group as a quartet... By the way, I liked your Nine To Get Ready CD very much...

Thank you...

I'd like to know about the direction of your group, in the flow of the Great Black Music tradition you've pursued till now...

Well, I think now is probably the best time in music - ever; because it's gonna separate, you know, people that really know what they're doing and people who don't... I think this is probably the best time for people that continued to work in this music throughout the years... 'cause if you look at it you're looking at almost, like, forty years... now... this is probably gonna be THE best time of the music. So that's the direction (laughs). I mean, it's gonna be a great time for people that can really do it and for people that can't - not too great. I mean, what I've noticed is that European embraced the music in the sixties and then everybody went commercial... so for people that went commercial... obviously... cannot compete... in this music. For me, you only see me do this with the Art Ensemble, here, in Europe, but there's so many things that I do... and maybe people never ask me to come to Europe because I've always remained very experimental in my approach to music.

But I remember there were some live albums you made in Europe - like at the Moers Festival in Germany in the seventies with a big line-up - so you mean they don't call you now...

No, they don't call me because they think they have people that can do what I do... they think that.

Oh, like people who are European-based...

Yes. Like Peter Brötzmann... he can play a little bit of what Frank Wright plays... that's all. You got a lot of people that can only do... do that.

... a tiny part?

... a tiny part.

Peter Brötzmann... now he is in Chicago?

He is. "Living there. Does he live there? I don't know."

I don't know either...

(laughs) I don't know either... "Keep upputy, mummy." (???) You know, I saw at The Atlanta Arts Festival... it's like some song.

But the American market, from what I've read on magazines like Down Beat, really rewards the more commercial direction...

... yeah, I know that, I know that.

... I was thinking about, to name just one person, Wynton Marsalis, and the things he organizes at Lincoln Center in New York. And I think it was the American critic Francis Davis who said that he reacted against a revolution thinking he was a revolutionary but he was a counter-revolutionary.

Yes. Definitely. Counter-revolutionary. See, there's like... creative musicians, and there's re-creative musicians. Wynton Marsalis is a re-creative musician, because he plays the music of Duke Ellington - he doesn't play the music of Wynton Marsalis. John Coltrane played the music of John Coltrane. Charlie Parker played the music of Charlie Parker. Lester Young played the music of Lester Young. So all of these people that are playing the music of other people, to me they are re-creative musicians. Re-creative.

Since I'm interested in electronic music too I'd like to ask you about two collaborations you've had: the one with George Lewis on his Voyager project with his interactive software, and the one with Tom Hamilton, Off-Hour Wait State, with the interaction with tape.

Well, for me it's nothing new, I've been doing that all the time, because for a long time I've collaborated with a man called David Wessel; David Wessel is the première person in computer music; I knew David Wessel when he spends two or three days to get one note on the computer and he's the man who organizes the Computer Music Conferences in the States and also in Europe the Computer Music Festival in Paris and also the Computer Music Festival in Den Haag. So I mean, I've been doing that for a long time.

In these situations, what's the difference in approach with the interactive software, like the Voyager project with George Lewis...

With George's program I learn more and more about it; you know, there's certain things that you can do to get a certain response from the computer - this is what's interesting to me, you know, just to see what the computer can do; and there's certain things that you can do that would cause... certain type of the response from the computer; it's not always the same. You can actually almost communicate with the computer - with George's program.

'Cause it's interactive... and so you cannot predict the response of the...

Sort of... Kind of... I mean, if you play not many notes it does something... lots of notes you get a different response... soft, you get another type of the response... loud, another type of the response... real notes, another type of the response... multiphonics another type of the response, and so on and so on.

I was wondering about this because on your first album, in 1966, there was a piece called Sound and you've always explored this dimension of music even though at that time it was an acoustic experience - so I think that's not, in a certain way, that different from that...

No, it's not. And then I spent a lot of time building the vocabulary to do these things... I spent a lot of time really trying not to play a melody - you know, anything that sounds like a melody I tried not to play it... and I spent a lot of time doing that... I spent a lot of time playing melodies... I spent a lot of time playing things that are very dense... I spent a lot of time playing things that are very sparse... I spent a lot of time studying very complicated rhythms and so on and so forth... so when I played sax solo it was like more than one instrument... you know, that kind of thing... you know, many different studies over the years... and now, all I want to do is study... you know... for me. You know, I mean I love to know, like - all the time.

Since you've mentioned Den Haag I'd like to know if you've heard of a musician up there, whose name is Luc Houtkamp, who plays the saxophone and is into electronic music.


And about younger musicians who live in Chicago, what's your opinion of Ken Vandermark...

I don't know if I even know him...

He's played with John McPhee...

I don't know him that well.

And Rob Mazurek, a cornet player...

I don't really know their music that much... I don't know.

The last album you did with The Note Factory was the second one you did with them - not with the same line-up. I remember the first one on Black Saint, This Dance Is For Steve McCall, I liked it very much - it was the first album on which I heard Matthew Shipp. It was a long time before you made another one.

A long time for everything. It's almost like... I had to endure...I don't even know why...just to keep the band together... and I kept that band together for, like, twenty-five years... they've done everything, including taking my musicians and putting 'em with everybody and everything else. So it's a miracle that The Note Factory even was able to do anything. A miracle.

But do you think that the music of The Note Factory is perceived as being more difficult than, for instance, the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago?

Well, I don't know, I don't know what it is. See, a long time ago there were small record companies, and people with visions about what they wanted to record, and so on, and there still are some people like that. Unfortunately, they are not doing as well, right now, as the big conglomerate record companies. So the banks and the big conglomerates they're taking over everything. A long time ago Down Beat used to be a jazz magazine, you follow what I'm saying? So the market moved in on art - I mean not only in the field of music - in the field of art, in the field of writing, in the field of everything.


Movies? Oh, yeah! Nobody can do anything anymore. Everything that people do is a re-make of something that's already been done. When in fact, if you think about the things that you really like, you know, the people that were doing those were not like that. With me, I come to the point to where a lot of times that is not interesting I find I don't wanna be involved because I don't wanna waste my time with this kind of people, because there's too many other great things to be doing. But what I have noticed is that this music has started to become very, very popular in the States, also, and I never thought that I would see the time...

... I'm sorry, which music?

The more avant-garde, free or whatever you wanna call, contemporary... is really popular in the States now; what people wanna hear, they wanna hear people that can really get up there and fight, that's what people wanna hear now, because it's a direct communication to the mind, and thinkers - that's what they wanna do. So I don't really know what direction people in the end are going in, but I do know which direction I'm going in, and like for a lot of things I don't really have any more time for those anymore, I mean this is my conclusion. Because all the great people that I admire, this is what they did. And the Art Ensemble has remained contemporary throughout the whole scene. People jumped at this music too fast -  they thought they had it (laughs) and they don't. They don't. They jumped at it too fast, they thought they would just jump up there and try to do it. And they don't have it. A lot of people are totally boring. Very boring.

You said "wasting my time", I remember there was a song you sang, I think, You Wastin' My Tyme, on a Black Saint album with The Sound And Space Ensemble. What's the importance of the human voice in your music?

The human voice is the instrument. A lot of people regard the human voice as the main instrument. I did a lot of work with Thomas Buckner over the years - as a matter of fact we just came back - I had a piece for symphony orchestra and baritone and myself on alto saxophone. It was premiered last year in New York in Alice Tully Hall and maybe my next record for ECM will be a full symphony orchestra, and have a piece for solo piano, also a piece for violin and piano, and then I'm also working with The Early Music Orchestra, in Wisconsin - recorders, viola di gamba, viols... I transcribed a lot of my works for that type of an orchestra now.

It's some of your previous work arranged for a different instrumentation?

Yeah, what I've done is like... I had three pieces for voice and piano with the text by e. e. cummings that could be heard on Tom Buckner's Full Spectrum Voice, and one of the pieces is called This, with text by e. e. cummings - what I've done is I've used Renaissance instrumentation; there's another piece that I wrote in 1978 that was dedicated to musician/instrument maker Don Oropio Gerit (???); it's based on a flute that he made for me a long time ago and it's called Variations On Sketches From The Bamboo; on The Sound and Space Ensemble's record you can hear some parts of that. Now, I had it for orchestra, a big orchestra, so now I transcribed that also for recorders, then two triple viols, which are in the range of viola, two gambas, cello and also guitar which functions in the role of the harp, and also a bass. And that takes care of this piece. And then there's another piece called Because It's, on which the flute takes the solo role of the voice in the first part, and it's for baroque flute, harpsichord, there's two viols, the gamba, cello and bass.I mean, there's so much work to do, so to get hung-up in what people are doing commercially, you know for serious people it's stupid. I look to people like Muhal Richard Abrams... see, Muhal Richard Abrams is great, I mean from way back in the sixties he had a large band but people would rather waste their time having people do the music of Duke Ellington. I mean, when in fact, people like Muhal, Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith and myself, we're the people that can take the big band into its next evolution. But people would rather sit up (sings: dee-da...) all night and don't sound as good as Duke. I've never heard any of those men sound as good as Duke Ellington. Never heard it. But this is it, I mean, you've got this kind of people, and when history looks back on them... in fact they're gonna be looked at as people who stunned the development of the music. This is what they've done. That's all. That's all they've done. I mean, our music it's never been like that. It's never been some music that was constantly reproduced. I mean, just look at the history of it. It's never been like that, so why should all of a sudden - it's like that? It doesn't seem to make any sense to me. I mean, Anthony Braxton just come out with his opera; he put it out himself. He spent some $200.000 to put it out. I'm waiting to get home, because it's at my house now, and it looks like Sony or something has put it out - the way it's packaged and everything. I mean, this is the kind of stuff that is worth doing, not a replaying of Take The A Train or something like that.

On what label it's gonna come out, his opera?

On his own label.

Braxton House?

Braxton House.

Because a few years ago I read there were some five albums of his that were gonna come out on that label, but I never managed to get them - in fact, I don't even know whether they really came out. I have some records of his on Leo Records where he uses orchestra and choir, but this is a full opera...

Yes, it's an opera.

Anthony Davis went in the direction, generally speaking, of the opera. I used to like him as a composer and piano player, and then I don't know if he made any more records, after the ones on Gramavision, with orchestra, he made a couple of operas - X...

X, Malcom X, yeah...

... but are these things funded?

Yeah, they are. His are funded. But, I mean, he does things that are more... in the popular market... X... everybody wants to know about Malcom X.

Do you think that it's easier to get funding for things which are in the classical realm today in the States, or in experimental music which is not labelled as classical music?

Well, I mean it depends who you are. I mean, Philip Glass, they get Philip Glass lot of money. They're giving a lot of people a lot of money, and it turns out they don't really do that much. I've seen Philip Glass and some of his things I like, but I mean he's still doing, like, the same thing, I think. I don't know, I haven't seen his last thing that he did but most people that went told me it really wasn't that interesting. Now, I don't know, I mean, 'cause I didn't go there, so maybe I shouldn't say that, 'cause I wasn't there, but, see, there's another thing that time brings about, you know: you can't make somebody a hero. People have to be heroes on their own merits. The media  has tried to do this but it doesn't work like that.

Last year we saw a little opera of his, here in Sicily, and it wasn't musically that interesting at all: it was like the music he did thirty years ago... just the same...

See, a lot of people don't really have it... but people... they're trying to make it like it's happening and it's not. But you see that in everything, you see it in education, you see it in everything, now, the whole system almost needs to be revamped. One of my heroes is like Telemann, because he put out his own magazine, one week, be a part of the conversation, you want the rest of the piece, you buy the next magazine, and so on and so forth. Mozart, he's out there in the streets all the time, with his quartet, and so on and so forth. Schubert. Beethoveen. So on. On the other side, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro. All of these people. Duke Ellington. If you can do anything, I've said that you owe your debt of gratitude to the people that have really done something, you owe your debt of gratitude to them, because everything has to keep moving on.

About record companies, there's an interview I did in the issue of the magazine I just gave you, with Chris Cutler, a great drummer and owner of an independent label, and we've discussed some of the same things, about the constant struggle of all the creative musicians... but there was a time in the eighties when people like John Zorn were for a minute in the fashion and they had contract with big record companies - Zorn was on Elektra/Nonesuch, if I'm not mistaken...- but they did some records and then the trend changed, they're not in for the long goal...

I think John Zorn has a club, now, in New York; but he's only a student of Anthony Braxton; he used to study with Anthony Braxton, and so did Tim Berne. Now, in fact, they can't even carry Anthony's horn case, in my opinion. They cannot carry Anthony's horn case. But they get more exposure and so on than Anthony Braxton. To me that's totally ridiculous. Anthony is a man of continually flowing ideas, and everybody else is sitting around waiting to see what he does... and the music has developed to such a point now that even the audience knows. Even the audience knows what's going on.

This year two old albums by the Art Ensemble of Chicago have been re-released on CD: Bap-Tizum and Fanfare for the Warriors...

And we're still trying to get our money; they still haven't paid us for doing that - Atlantic. They constantly ignore our phone calls and so on and so forth. They still didn't pay us - correctly. So I say, it's late for Atlantic... (laughs)

I mean, are they late or is it something we could call "strange accounting procedures"?

It's very strange accounting procedures.

Who's at Atlantic right now?

I don't even know...

Is it a part of Warner?

You never know who owns who today... (laughs) you never know... It could be anybody, you know...

So you haven't been paid for those records...

Not for the reissues. And the last record they came out with? Haven't seen any real promotion or anything on that record, either. Did you?

I've just seen a review on Down Beat.

And that's all.

And that's all. ECM seems to be much better in that respect, I've seen something about the Note Factory CD on their site...there were informations about the record.

I have that much press on that album - and they did a better job at promoting the record.

But about the people who'd like to buy this stuff - do you think there's a problem of like a filter from the record companies...

Now musicians start to be more active because a lot of musicians have their own Web sites where they sell their records and so on and so forth - we now have our own Web site up and running - and pretty soon there'll be many, many things for people to select, if they wanna buy scores... or whatever.

You can bypass...

Yeah, you can bypass... and a lot of the big record companies are worried... they're worried. Because they no longer have total control of the market.

You mentioned Philip Glass before and, if I'm not mistaken, in the late sixties Anthony Braxton acknowledged his influence on some of the things he did - I'm thinking about the Kelvin Series, to be specific. Personally, I've never considered some of your work  - like the Nonaah series - to be that much linked to minimalism. Did ever see Philip Glass as a person who did something that was worth doing?

Well, I mean, some of the things that came out of minimalism were good, some were good. I saw Philip Glass do a production of The Photographer and it was a big piece, he had everything, cameras, lights, I thought it was an interesting way he put it together, and everything was constantly recurring, like the music; in one space on the stage, there was a circle, some people were dancing and they danced the same steps over and over again and then gradually changing, like the music did; I liked that piece by Philip Glass. Certainly there were some things by Steve Reich that I liked too; by I never thought that minimalism was the thing or anything like that, you know, that it was the only direction in music, I never thought that, no. But some of the things I liked. I have a piece called Chant, which is sort of a minimalism piece, it was done on the Wildflowers series, that Sam Rivers put out of his place Rivbea.

I have some of those records, and I remember that Chant took up one side of an album... yeah, I have it...

Yeah? To me, I just saw minimalism as a part...

... of the whole picture.

... of the whole picture, yeah.

When you consider your series of Nonaah, do you see it as related to minimalism or not?

No. No, no. It started out as a piece for solo saxophone, in a setting where it could be perceived as being more than one instrument because of the long leaps between the high and low melody. A lot of things that I do they're just reference material to generate several pieces; this last series that I'm doing, Fallen Heroes, I've done several pieces with that already, including the one for full symphony orchestra, and I set it up in that way, so that I will be able to go back and generate several pieces from it.

As a generating structure?

Yes, a generating structure, that's right, that's right. I mean it's a source, a material source to generate compositions. So that I set it up, in the same way, and I set up Fallen Heroes in the same way, so I can go back and when I go to sit out to write I will be writing instead of... something like that, you know (scratches his head and laughs).

I have the version that's on the Note Factory CD, are there any other versions that have been released?

There is a version on the Sound Songs CD...

The double one on Delmark.

That's right.

You've also recorded three versions of For Lester B...

Maybe so... see, a lot of songs on Sound Songs were things which came to me, which I developed later; like Leola, is on Sound Songs.

About structures that generate materials: there is, I think, even now, a lot of resistance to conceive music in, for lack of a better word, an objective way, because people seem to perceive this kind of approach as "calculating and cold"...

... there's nothing wrong with that, though. (laughs) Go ahead, go ahead, sorry...

... it seems that if you "let it flow" it's valid, if you conceive of something thinking about it, it's not, which to me is a point of view that's totally strange.

It's strange, but see: you have to know what you're doing. This is why a lot of people are not good improvisers: because they don't know composition; they don't think like a composer. When a composer sits, now, he's maybe thinking three hundred measures; improvisers get up there, they play two measures and they're all be sitting there trying to look around to see what's going on, and in fact when you do that it's the same thing as being behind on a piece of written music, that's the effect you have, because if you know your part, I don't really know my part, I'm playing but I'm listening to see what you do, you do it, and I jump over there real quick - I'm following. See, that's it, a lot of improvisers are not familiar with what makes good composition. They don't know that. But the more advanced improvisers know this. And the more advanced improvisers have studied music in several types of situations. They know how to play one note every five minutes, and they know what makes that note do the right thing. And they know how to play... even when they play in silence you still hear the continuing thought pattern going on. Good improvisers. Inexperienced improvisers, they don't know, that's why they keep playing resolutions all the time, everything is constantly resolved - all the time. Whereas a good improviser doesn't even use resolutions, because what it does is make the music in little squares. What the experienced improviser is after is extended thought, extended thought patterns. This is what makes good improvisation.

I remember when I read the book on Anthony Braxton by Graham Lock, it was refreshing seeing the building blocks of his musical grammar on paper, because these are not structures that's easy to get by listening only...

Well, that's true. You need more advanced people in the schools. See, a lot of people in the schools in the States they're still trying to do the same thing, over and over again, they're not open-minded, they're not open-minded to anything new. Now, to me, that's like opposite education. I thought education was supposed to be about learning. And if all of a sudden somebody knows everything, and can't learn anything else, then it's not interesting. A lot of students are tired of that, because they charge these students all this money, and then they put them in a situation where they're constantly trying to live up to somebody else all the time, instead of focusing on each student as an individual. The only thing you can teach a student is how to learn. That's all. I can't, like, make you  be like me, I can encourage you to be yourself. That's what's teaching is all about. And if it's not about that, it's not interesting.  I mean, to be a good educator and a good student you have to be humble. You have to realize that you're nothing - and then you can grow. But until you do that you can't, you can't grow.

But the schools in the States under the Reagan and Bush administrations were less funded than before. Do you see it as a cultural problem, a political problem...

Well, a little bit of both, I think. The first thing you want to take out of the schools is art - and music. All black schools they wanna do. I mean, this is the reason rap was developed, because the students didn't have any instruments, so they had to do something, you know, so what they did was, they took the records and started scratching them and so on and so forth, 'cause you cannot stifle creative energy, you can't do it, because if a person's calling is to be creative they will figure out a way to be creative. But I mean, art touches us all in a very special way, in a way that nothing else can, so everybody should be exposed to art, so to me it's a ridiculous idea to take the music out of the schools, the way that they've done. You know, there are some schools that are run-down, very badly... in fact there was a white banker in the States in upstate New York, somewhere, I saw it on the news, he bought a school to change it, and most of these people at this school are black, and I was touched by that, I was brought to tears almost, and in four years these students have the best averages of any school, their teachers are cramming to get there to teach, so I mean, education is a very important thing... it's a very important thing that people discover the focus of learning, they've got it blurred, they need to get back, they need clear things up again, and really focus on what learning is really about.

What do you think of rap as an art form?

Well, some of it I like, I like it because it represents what I've just said, it really does, I mean - the creative energy. Some people may argue, all they talk about people this, they talk about people that, but these are the conditions that people are living in. People, they don't really know until they live under these conditions. A lot of people they never have to worry about money or anything - at all! So they don't even know what this is like, they have no idea what this kind of lifestyle is really about. They have no idea. So, from a point of view I like it, from another point of view I like it because it broke away from the rock bands, and so on... it set them apart from everybody that had a guitar, all that said: everybody's got a guitar and that's great - and that's stupid, to me. So, that's two things that it did that I really like, you know. And once again it established another direction for that music which comes from that tradition. So, I like those two things about it.

Because you think that the "guitar direction" was like a dead end?

Well, a lot of people were only recording the blues, they say, they say like now they don't wanna record any more blues because the blues is dead, you know? And that is true, you know, in a way. I mean, real people that really do the blues and stuff, now, most of them are dead, now. They're really dead, and a lot of people that do the blues... poorly - are not interesting. I'd much rather listen to a record...

... which was valid and still is...

... yes it is, yes it is, yes it is. That's the thing about real art. That's the only thing that remains, nothing else remains. And for me, like, I'm getting older, so I really don't have too much time (laughs) to be dealing around with people that are not really active in trying to forward themselves or extend their minds and so on and so forth.

Selected Discography

With the Art Ensemble Of Chicago

(5 CD) (Nessa)
People In Sorrow ('69) (re-relased w/ Les stances à Sophie as 1969-1970) (Emi Jazztime)
Bap-Tizum ('72) (Atlantic)
Fanfare For The Warriors ('73) (Atlantic)
Nice Guys ('78) (ECM)
Full Force ('80) (ECM)
Urban Bushmen ('80) (ECM)

Roscoe Mitchell

('66) (Delmark)
Solo Saxophone Concerts ('73/'74) (Sackville) (out-of-print)
Nonaah ('77) (Nessa) (out-of-print)
L-R-G/The Maze/S II Examples ('78) (re-released on Chief)
Snurdy McGurdy And Her Dancing Shoes ('80) (Nessa) (out-of-print)
3X4 Eye ('81) (Black Saint)
New Music For Woodwinds And Voice ('81) (1750 Arch, re-released on Mutable Music)
And The Sound And Space Ensembles ('83) (Black Saint)
An Interesting Breakfast Conversation ('84) (1750 Arch, re-released on Mutable Music)
Four Compositions (87?) (Lovely Music)
Duets And Solos (with Muhal Richard Abrams) ('90) (Black Saint)
This Dance Is For Steve McCall ('92) (Black Saint)
Pilgrimage ('94?) (Lovely Music)
Hey Donald ('94) (Delmark)
Sound Songs ('94) (Delmark)
First Meeting (with Borah Bergman) ('94) (Knitting Factory)
In Walked Buckner ('98) (Delmark)
Nine To Get Ready ('98) (ECM)
8 O'Clock: Two Improvisations (with Thomas Buckner) (2001) (Mutable Music)
Song For My Sister (2002) (PI Recordings)

See also:

Anthony Braxton - Creative Music Orchestra
('76) (RCA Bluebird)
George Lewis - Shadowgraph ('77) (Black Saint)
George Lewis - Voyager ('93) (Avant)
Tom Hamilton - Off-Hour Wait State ('95?) (O O Discs)
Matthew Shipp - Duo ('96?) (2.13.61)

© Beppe Colli 2001 - 2003 | Jan. 26, 2003