Nicole Mitchell: The Edge of Beauty

by Troy Collins


Nicole Mitchell                                                                                                            © 2019 Lauren Deutsch


Nicole Mitchell is an award-winning improviser, composer, bandleader, and educator, although she is perhaps best known as the most creative flutist of her generation. Downbeat magazine named her Rising Star for flute in critics’ polls from 2004 to 2009. Since then she has repeatedly been awarded the honor of “Top Flutist of the Year” by the Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll and the Jazz Journalists Association.

Although raised in Syracuse, New York, and Anaheim, California, Mitchell is most commonly associated with the vibrant Chicago scene, where she transferred to attend college, earning a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University after meeting members of the AACM. Mitchell worked with percussionist Hamid Drake and saxophonist David Boykin throughout the latter half of the 1990s, culminating in the 2001 release of Vision Quest, her debut album on her own label, Dreamtime Records. Mitchell has since performed with a wide array of creative music luminaries, including Ed Wilkerson, Rob Mazurek, and Mark Dresser; in 2017, she toured and recorded with the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Mitchell currently leads several groups, including Black Earth Ensemble, Black Earth Strings, Sonic Projections, and Ice Crystal, as well as co-leading numerous collaborative ensembles. As a proud Afrofuturist and the former first female president of the AACM, Mitchell celebrates endless possibilities by “creating visionary worlds through music that bridge the familiar with the unknown.” Her most recent work explores intercultural collaborations: Bamako*Chicago features Malian kora master Ballake Sissoko and made its American debut at Chicago’s Hyde Park Jazz Festival in September 2017; Procession Time, a suite inspired by the work of Harlem Renaissance artist Norman Lewis, was performed by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and conducted by Steve Schick in October 2017. Mandorla Awakening, her latest Afrofuturist suite, with Kojiro Umezaki (shakuhachi) and Tatsu Aoki (taiko, bass, shamisen), was released on FPE Records to critical fanfare the same year. Mitchell has also explored multidisciplinary work, incorporating original video art with her music (Mandorla Awakening I and II, Interdimensional Interplay for Solo Disklavier and Prerecorded Flute). In January 2018, Mitchell was Artist in Residence at New York’s Winter Jazz Fest, where she premiered Pteradatyl, a new trio with Sara Serpa and Liberty Ellman.

As a composer, Mitchell has been commissioned by the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Jazz Festival, the Chicago Sinfonietta, Chamber Music America (New Works), the Stone, the French Ministry of Culture, and the French American Jazz Exchange. She is a recipient of the Herb Alpert Award (2011), the Chicago 3Arts Award (2011) and the Doris Duke Artist Award (2012).

Previously a Professor of Music at University of California, Irvine, teaching composition and improvisation in the graduate program of Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology, Mitchell recently moved east to serve as the Endowed Chair and Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. I interviewed Mitchell in the summer of 2019, during her move.

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Troy Collins: Despite your dominance in the polls, some readers might be curious to know more about your early days. How did you get your start playing music?

Nicole Mitchell: One day in junior high school I was suspended for two weeks. In gym class a girl shoved me into the mud, everyone laughed, and I ran off crying to the locker room. Then that same day at lunch, the same girl shoved me from behind again. I whipped around and called her a “b” and she called me an “n.” Next thing I knew I was in the principal’s office with the man screaming at me to tell me what I said, while she sat there prissy and smiling. I told him I couldn’t say it. It was a bad word, and that she shoved me twice. He insisted and when I told him that was the last straw for him. I was suspended. She went back to class. I was always getting into fights, never starting them and never winning! For that two weeks, my parents didn’t punish me, but they put me in a private school, a French school. The kids were friendly, and everything was nice. When my parents asked me what I wanted to do, I told them I’ll go back to that junior high. That way I would have music. In the French school, music class was the worst waste of time I had ever seen. Fifteen minutes setting up, fifteen minutes playing and fifteen minutes cleaning up. Music class in my Jr. High had the only Black teacher I would ever have from kindergarten through high school. I didn’t really take notice of that then. All I knew was that it was a friendly space, the teacher was nice and it was fun. It was the only place I felt seen but not hated. It was just after the civil rights movement, and those kids’ parents weren’t ready for multiculturalism. We came anyway and I was one of the lab rats. Music became my refuge, while living in an environment that didn’t want me around. Besides, I had waited four years to get a flute and I had just got one a few months before. I wasn’t about it give it up then.

TC: Wow, talk about dedication – you must have really wanted to play music to put up with that environment. Did you have any teachers or mentors growing up that helped foster your love of music, or help lead you down a particular path?

NM: My biggest mentor was my mother, Joan Beard Mitchell. Through her I was immersed in Afrofuturistic sensibilities. I grew up realizing that a blank canvas could be transformed into images both familiar or never before imagined. Reading her stories about Black extraterrestrials and looking at her paintings of triple sunsets had a lifetime impact on me. Her poetry and her desire to express what she called “images beyond” unconsciously became my own artistic mantra. She was born and raised in Chicago, from the same generation as Muhal Richard Abrams and Phil Cohran, yet she never met anyone from the AACM. She moved from Chicago in the 1950s. I witnessed her develop her art as an early member of the Black Folk Art Gallery of Syracuse. The energy of that group stayed with me and attracted me to the AACM in later years. She was a self-taught artist and her paintings of Black women holding babies on Saturn stays with me. She was sitting at the typewriter or standing at her easel for hours every day, even though very few people ever saw or read her work. She was a voice hearer and committed suicide when I was 16. That’s when I decided to be an artist, so that I could try to continue what she started. She really never got a chance.

Another big influence was my brother, who can pull up the chord progression of any song he hears off the radio, and who can play any style on the guitar – rock, classical, jazz, blues. He didn’t like babysitting me when I was little, so he would try to play the scariest music possible to make me run away or scream. That was probably my first exposure to something like “free jazz.”

These two, along with my flute teacher, Cindy Ellis and my band director Gary Lee from Jr. High, were my main mentors/influences in my childhood before graduating high school.

Once I moved to Chicago, multi-instrumentists Maia and Shanta were big influences and we started Samana, the first all-women ensemble of the AACM. David Boykin and Hamid Drake also were central to my development as an improviser and encouraged me to start my own group. Also, within the Chicago AACM, Douglas Ewart, Ernest Dawkins, Ed Wilderson and Arvreeayl Ra and Ann Ward had a big impact on me.

TC: Although I’m unfamiliar with your mother’s work, based on your stories, I can certainly sense a continuum in your efforts. Speaking of the flute, although your technique has precedents (Kirk, Steig, etc.), it goes well beyond what’s already been done, hence your dominance in the polls. How did you arrive at your current sound?

NM: I moved to Chicago in my early 20s, but it wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I started fixating on a concept that I call “the edge of beauty.” It represented a stage of growth for me as a person, to face my fears and also embrace parts of myself that I didn’t want to deal with before. I feel like we as a global society have an unconscious collective agreement about beauty, but when you stretch towards the outer limits of that, and you find yourself in an uncomfortable place, there’s an opportunity for transformation and discovery. That uncomfortableness fascinates me, because, first it was a place I often experienced as a child, but also because the unknown is a doorway into other dimensions or states of being. What would playing ugly sound like? Could I embrace “ugliness” and find something I could deem beautiful? How can my voice become a part of my instrument? How could I rebel from those folks’ idea that the flute was a limited instrument and show how wide the expression could be? Embracing “ugly” and incorporating my voice helped me to forget myself, and to enter the music, to become the music. At that time, I had thought about adding guitar pedals and or electronics to my flute playing but then I decided I wanted to find out what all the possible colors I could express on the flute naturally first.

TC: Thelonious Monk’s “Ugly Beauty” comes to mind, so you’re obviously tapping into a longstanding tradition, but I’m curious, what particular extended techniques or approaches to the flute do you feel best exemplify the concept of “ugly beauty” that you’re after?

NM: Considering my youth, you can probably see why “ugly beauty” resonates with me. I was ugly because I was unkempt, ugly because I was Black, ugly because I was not like everyone else in that population. A sound can represent identity, and I wanted the sound of the flute to wholly represent my being – even the parts that were for some reason scary to others, or scary to myself. The edge of beauty is a little different from ugly beauty, because it starts in the familiar, perhaps, the pleasant, and then reaches out to the edges into the unknown. Again, going back to my mother JBM’s influence, my concept of bridging the familiar with the unknown was my translation of her artwork – which had objects/persona that people could relate to, and yet juxtaposed them with elements that were “otherworldly.” This concept is what I’ve tried to do sonically. I don’t and none of us can fully “know” ourselves or life, so to add elements that seem foreign takes me into that space of “being music” rather than “playing music.” Utilizing my voice with the flute is probably the most clear ways I’ve found to do this, as my voice is a similar range to the instrument and I can do harmonies with the instrument (pleasing) or I can growl, or change the sound into something not familiar. This is also a rebellion from the stereotype of flutes being “pretty” or “delicate.”

TC: We’ve arrived at a moment in history (especially in America) where divisiveness and extremism abound, and where what were once considered fringe ideas have gained greater attention in the mainstream. The downsides of this are obvious, but there are silver linings to be found, and your comments regarding the concept of “ugly beauty” and it’s racial implications brings to mind the current work of film maker Jordan Peele, whose movies Get Out and Us both deal (in different ways) with race and otherness. I’m curious if you’ve seen those films and what your take on them and their current place in popular culture might be?

NM: In my perspective, divisiveness and extremism are not new to our times. What is new is that the age of social media has now forced all of us that own computers and smart phones to be aware of how philosophies of divisiveness and extremism are manifesting in the destruction of human and other life forms on so many fronts. With my piece, Mandorla Awakening, I wanted to bring forth the question “What is progress?” To reinforce the idea that Western society has seduced itself into believing that “progress” = “technological advancement,” when in fact, Western culture has hit a dead end, and people are not treating each other any better than we were thousands of years ago. How can we reframe the paradigm of “progress” to mean striving to sustain all life on the planet? Can we create a technologically based society that supports egalitarianism in balance with the natural world? I think we can, if we don’t run out of time first. The movie Get Out was super powerful, because it was a sophisticated comedy that exposed much of mainstream culture to specific real-life experiences Black folks in America have been going through for generations. You have to know that African Americans have been victims of scientific experiments in this country for hundreds of years – i.e. Henrietta Lacks, the Tuskegee Experiments, etc. You have to know that while Black people are among the most hated, Black bodies have been a topic of obsession, whether as a fixation on the “exotic” or as celebration of athletic amazingness. The expression of the film was lucidly detailed and nuanced to a level of great artistry, especially the way the “zombie” white-possessed Black bodies were portrayed to mimic real-life Black folks that don’t identify with their culture. I could give you a full review, but that would be another article. The fact that the events in Get Out were framed in a horror context was brilliant, because, in truth, much of the Black experience in America has been a real-life horror story. I don’t have much to say about Us. That was just another horror film with an underdeveloped plot.

TC: With so many issues begging to be addressed by artists in these technologically interconnected times, I’ve noticed that you’ve started to incorporate vocalists more frequently in your projects. Would you care to discuss the differences between instrumental and vocally-driven music? What do you find to be the advantages or disadvantages in each case?

NM: My first tribute to Octavia Butler in 2008 – Xenogenesis – was the first time I acted from a strong feeling that vocals were needed. I wasn’t satisfied to only make instrumental music, especially because of a need to respond or acknowledge the times. With a voice, normally comes words, and words are transparent – you can’t hide or be safe. People have more an idea of what you think. I like that honesty. Mankwe Nkdosi expressed human fear and seduction to extraterrestrial strangeness in Xeno and she didn’t need many words. But also, I love the textures that are possible from voices, and how they blend with different instruments. Like Fay Victor’s voice with Tomeka Reid’s cello in Maroon Cloud – haunting. Or Avery Young’s ability to pierce right through your heart in Mandorla Awakening. When I write for vocals I’m fascinated with the singer I’m working with and trying to find the best way to give them an environment that inspires them to fly and also be challenged to navigate something they aren’t comfortable with. I love the idea of hearing musicians attempt something that’s not totally possible. That makes me super happy for some reason. I don’t see any disadvantages of using voices unless the vocalists aren’t given enough focused things to do and then guidance to know good timing to enter and when to exit. Otherwise it can be like a dancer doing jumping jacks because they ran out of choreography.

TC: I’ll be the first to admit that contemporary jazz vocals are a hard sell for me. But coming from a punk rock background, politically motivated lyrics have far more resonance than conventional love songs, or more abstract fare – so your use of vocals appeals a great deal to me. But still I wonder, in these divisive times, with creative jazz being generally regarded as mostly left-leaning, do you feel like your lyrical message can reach a broader audience than merely “preaching to the converted?”

NM: I think you are asking if it’s possible as an artist to create work that has impact outside the political divide? I can refer back to that story of my suburban racist childhood as the time that I learned that all people really want the same things – they want attention, acceptance, to be cared about, to find peace in their lives – no matter what political affiliation they have. My music is an energy more than it is a message, and hopefully that energy can touch anyone in a positive way. In the big picture, I wonder at the idea of 3D life being an illusion or a dream for our souls to experience to catalyze our growth. We are all connected, and it’s the division (race, class, religion, etc.) that is an illusion created by the immaturity of our collective minds.

TC: We’re heading into heady, metaphysical territory here, so I’m curious: you think of your music as an energy, more than a message. And you’re not alone: Albert Ayler famously declared that “music is the healing force of the universe.” Do you feel there’s truth to this? Do you think music can be a force for positive change?

NM: I believe music has the power to be a healing force, most definitely. It can also be destructive. It has to do with one’s intent as an artist. That intent, sonified, can have an impact on the universe.

TC: This might seem reductionist, but for the sake of argument, can you give me what you would consider to be an example of each?

NM: I won’t empower the negative, but positive examples include Abby Lincoln and Max Roach’s “Prayer, Protest, Peace” and Coltrane’s “Alabama.”

TC: Speaking of music with a positive influence, tell me about your time spent as President of the AACM. How did that come about?

NM: When I look back on it, the time as president wasn’t as important as the overall time I spent on the board for years as secretary, then vice-chair, then co-chair and finally president. It’s a collective, so leadership is really more about doing the work than it is being the singular person in charge. It was a beautiful challenge for me as a young person and it made me strong. All those roles came about because I was passionate about helping the organization.

TC: Considering your history with the AACM and its focus on collaboration, how do personal dynamics shape the inner workings of your various groups? Do you write parts specifically intended for certain band mates or do you embrace a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes are more open to interpretation by different groups of players?

NM: You’re right, collaboration is really important to me, and has been key to the AACM. A great example of that has been the work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. With my group, Black Earth Ensemble (BEE), it’s definitely not just about me as a flute player. Some people complain that I don’t solo enough in my own groups, but that’s because I’m so much more interested in hearing everyone around me do their thing in the context of my compositions. The most important thing is that we have FUN! I might start with the idea of what I want to make the project about, then handpick the musicians that I believe will resonate with the idea through their sound. Then the composition is made to both feature their original voice in coexistence with others, and also to hopefully challenge them to use their voice in a new way or new context.

TC: Speaking of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, How did your participation in the Ensemble’s 50th anniversary recording We Are On The Edge come about? It’s a fascinating evolution, trading the early small combo sound and audacious agit-prop attitude for a larger, more chamber music-like aesthetic with numerous vocalists and a more serious political agenda. What are your thoughts are on the ensemble’s maturation?

NM: Ha ha! That question would best be answered by Roscoe. I can say that Roscoe and I have an album together from around 2009, called 3 Compositions on Rogue Art. It was a live performance at the Santa Aressi Festival in Sardegnia where he directed Black Earth Ensemble in a performance of his Cards and some of his other pieces. That was perhaps the third time we had worked together, including a time in São Paulo when he was a featured guest in Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra. Since then, we’ve always been in touch and he’s been a great mentor. I had met and played with Baba Moye back in my early Chicago days. Believe it or not, Moye was part of Black Earth Ensemble for the live multi-arts premiere of my Hope, Future, Destiny project back in 2004 and he played with Black Earth Strings from time to time. I used to take my daughter to his house for community drum lessons.

Art Ensemble has been organically evolving over the years. I believe my invitation to funky AEOC is in connection to Tomeka Reid becoming, I believe, the first woman member. She had featured Roscoe in her Hear and Now project, supported by Chamber Music America. Shortly after that, I think that experience might have inspired Roscoe to bring in Hear and Now to play with Art Ensemble regularly. Then Moye and him expanded the group even more when thinking of what they wanted for their 50th.

Art Ensemble really is a 21st century group. I’m really proud of their endurance and creative flexibility to express endless possibilities in the music.

TC: In reference to Roscoe and Rogue Art, how did All Things Are, your recent collaboration with Matthew Shipp’s trio come about?

NM: I have seen Matt Shipp play live several times and really felt a connection to his music. I felt I could relate to his language and wanted to see what it would be like to play together. Michel Dorbon connected us, and pretty quickly we arranged a studio date for the album.

TC: In regards to performing, how do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

NM: Several of my previous albums have been live recordings: Maroon Cloud, Mandorla Awakening, Liberation Narratives, Intergalactic Beings and soon, EarthSeed. Live recordings are an actual “record” of a space, time, energy that happened with an audience, which makes it special. I also appreciate studio recordings for the clarity and magic of focus you can get, but I do prefer live recordings.

TC: Speaking of recordings, what are your thoughts on the current state of the recording industry, specifically regarding archival documents (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?

NM: I miss the idea of the recording considered a piece of art. As a digital file, it loses that tangible value in many ways. I like platforms like bandcamp, because it helps create a relationship between the listener and the artist. The listener has access to more of the artist’s story for the project and the musicians that work on the project.

TC: Thinking of a platform like bandcamp, do you find musical inspiration in any other technological advances, stylistic movements or particular artists?

NM: Ras G was the biggest inspirational discovery for me when I moved to SoCali. I’m thankful that we made some music together and can’t believe he’s gone. His ghetto-sci-fi music is super original and amazing. Since meeting him and with encouragement from Damon Locks, Val Jeanty and Moogfest, I’ve been doing some solo work with electronics and collaborating on duo projects with Christina Wheeler. Also, I was introduced to telematics (multilocational collaborative performance via internet) by Michael Dessen and Mark Dresser, and that’s something that has a lot of potential.

Some of my favorite artists I’ve been listening to include Moor Mother, Irreversible Entanglements and Sudan Archives.

TC: Looking ahead, what immediate projects do you have scheduled for the future?

NM: In April I will premiere a new work celebrating Angela Davis titled: Radical Transformation, to be performed at Manchester Craftsman Guild in Pittsburgh.

I have a few recordings that will be released in 2020:

  1. EarthSeed my newest project inspired by Octavia Butler, co-composed with Lisa E Harris, performed by Black Earth Ensemble.
  2. A duo project with Moor Mother, my first project with me performing electronics.
  3. A duo project with Christina Wheeler, another project with me performing electronics.

I’m currently working on a commission for a chamber series called Music Now with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (chamber players) to be premiered in May 2020 at the Harris Theater in Chicago.

As you know I’ve just started a new chapter as the William S. Dietrich II Endowed Chair of Jazz Studies at University of Pittsburgh. My first big project is the programming of the 49th Annual Jazz Seminar and Concert, founded by Nathan Davis. This year’s line-up includes a solo performance by Amina Claudine Meyers, and a collaborative concert between Roscoe Mitchell, Jason Moran, Moor Mother, Rufus Reid, myself and Marcus Gilmore on November 1st and 2nd. I'm also excited to bring members of the We Have Voice Collective to do a presentation and concert entitled Music, Equity and Safe(r) Spaces.

I'm really happy about my move to Pittsburgh! It's a lovely city, full of trees and hills, fascinating architecture and warm people that LOVE the arts and especially jazz. There’s an excitement in the air, which in these times is pretty rare!

© 2019 Troy Collins

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