Nicole Mitchell Feature
Playing Chicago and the World
by Mark Ruffin
The city of Chicago has quite a diverse music scene that is recognized all across the country. But, in the current climate of the music world outside America, Chicago is revered basically for three forms of music; blues, house music and avant-garde jazz.
There are a number of avant-garde musician in the Illinois big city that actually may get more attention internationally than they do locally. Many of them, including Kahil El’Zabar, Don Moye, Ernest Dawkins, and Ken Vandermark, tour Europe, Africa and the U.S. regularly. Nicole Mitchell and her Black Earth Ensemble can now be added to that list. The energetic flute player will be playing in Munich, Germany this month, May 6-12 with trombonist and McArthur Foundation genius grant winner, George Lewis.
Most all of these aforementioned musicians, including Mitchell and Lewis, belong to an organization called the Association for the Advancement for Creative Musicians.(AACM) Recently this nearly 40 year-old organization has been undergoing a subtle facelift due to Mitchell, a little flute player with a gigantic sound.
Before Mitchell, Chaka Khan and keyboard player Amina Claudine Meyers were the most familiar women with a history with the AACM. But Khan’s association was short and fleeting, and Meyers, like most of the men who pioneered the AACM, left Chicago for New York and Europe.
“Chicago has always felt like home to me,” said Mitchell, who only arrived in Chicago in the early 90’s.
“Chicago was where my mother was born and raised,” said the Ohio born, California raised musician..
“My grandparents moved there in the 20’s from Virginia, and I spent every summer there, and almost every Christmas, and I really hated California.
“They didn’t know what to do with me, the neighborhood that I lived in there were only a few black people in the neighborhood, everyday was a different experience just going to school.”
While she may not have like the west coast, that may be the reason she is having growing success in Chicago and nationwide.
The Chicago school of avant-garde jazz is noted for a hard uncompromising style. Just the word avant-garde is enough to scare many otherwise jazz loving fans away from such music. But there’s a certain spice in both of the albums released by the Black Earth Ensemble that is, for lack of a better term, more accessible. The group’s latest album is titled Afrika Rising.
It’s not that there’s a cheapening of the art in her music, that’s hardly the case. A comparative case would be the late 60’s/early 70’s popularity of avant-garde saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. With a band that introduced the world to pianist Lonnie Liston Smith and vocalist Leon Thomas, Sanders music was as arty as similar groups of the era, but his record sales and concert attendance dwarfed his competitors by a wide margin. His music was still avant-garde.
“I don’t even like the idea of calling myself an avant-garde artist,” Mitchell commented. I don’t want to use that term, because there is some negative impact to it, and many musicians feel they may have not gotten their just due as composers. I try to embrace all music
“But then I hear musicians say that I’m not legit,” who went to San Diego State and Oberlin College before getting a degree in music at Chicago State.. “But, I’m not coming out of a bag where I’m only about one thing.”
Stylistically, she’s a sum of her influences, mainly historic jazz flautists Eric Dolphy and James Newton. Mitchell is also an astute businesswoman, as both her group’s recordings, as well as those of saxophonist David Boykin, has been released on Dreamtime Records, a label co-owned by the two musicians.
In high school Mitchell started as a classical musician.
“My high school even had a jazz band, but playing flute in it never dawned on them to have me play in the jazz band and it never dawned on me either,:” she said by phone from her south side Chicago apartment.
“Then, in college, I took an improv class with Jimmy Cheatem, she said of the San Diego State instructor, who with his wife, Jeannine, made the 80’s jazz hit Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On. “Jimmy kind of pulled me aside. Then he had Doc Cheatem come in to visit the class and of course his wife, and having me in there, he decided to bring James Newton.
“When he visited the class and did a solo, he blew me away.”
After that Cheatem wrote Eric Dolphy and James Moody on a piece of paper and told Mitchell to go to the library and look those people up.
“When I heard Eric Dolphy, it was like, okay!” she said with a resounding laugh.
“I kind of had a big training ground at that point. I was 18, I was trying to find myself. I was playing in these orchestras and pretty serious about playing classical music. I kind of made a big turn and I just stopped playing classical music and started playing on the street, then I ended up moving, changing schools, going to Oberlin, searching, searching, but never found. But at Oberlin, Donald Byrd happened to be teaching there that year. That was another very positive experience.”
When she moved to Chicago, she started as a street musician and was soon recruited by other women to form the groundbreaking all-women group made up of Chicago and Detroit musicians called Semana. All the members belonged to the AACM, and after breaking up Mitchell remained with the organization.
The flute player said she really dislikes being tagged the new voice of the AACM, as more than a few local and national publications have labeled her.
“I really want to stand on my on,” she said adding that despite that she’s deeply committed to the group. “But, I want to have my own legitimacy.
“The AACM is at a very important moment in it’s history where it can really rise and really give a lot to the community and I feel that I am in a position where right now I can give that woman energy and help move in that direction.”
To support her music, check out nicolemitchell.com.