interview by Damon Locks
I have had the opportunity to perform alongside flutist Nicole Mitchell on many occasions in the group Exploding Star Orchestra. We generally set up right next to each other on stage so we can work together and bounce ideas off each other during a performance. This has given me the rare opportunity to enjoy her work from a mere few inches away. As a musician, she is an incredible talent. Her tone is lyrical and soulful, like a beautiful story that should be told again and again. Her musical intuition is always on point. Her achievements and accolades are many (Downbeat magazine’s “Rising Star Flutist 2005-2008, and awarded “Jazz Flutist of the Year 2008” by the Jazz Journalist Association, to name but a couple). She fronts the Black Earth Ensemble and Black Earth Strings. She is a tireless musician and a hard working mom as well. One of the great things about Chicago is that there is a wealth of talent and creativity and sometimes you are lucky enough to be standing right next to it.
What encouraged you to pursue music?
My mother’s artwork, the wonder of creation, and my love for the sound of the flute.
I started playing the viola in 4th grade. I chose it to be different, because everyone else wanted the violin. I was the only viola so I had learned how to read music, because there was no hiding! Then in 5th grade, they introduced us to the wind instruments and it was an instant thing when I heard that sound. I asked, “What is that?!” and the answer was “It’s a flute, stupid.” I wanted to play it so bad, but my parents were like, “We already bought this viola and you’re going to play it.” For four years I begged and bothered them for a flute. I had entered a drawing contest that was in the TV Guide, so some artist lady came to the house to talk to my parents about how I could be a gifted visual artist and they should pay a bunch of money for me to take art lessons. They were thrilled and asked me if I would like to do that. That was my chance. “Could you take that same money you’d pay for art lessons and get me a flute and some lessons?” Bingo! So then I was playing flute and viola. I still practiced viola and played in orchestra. That same year, when I’d only been playing a few months, there were auditions for all-city orchestra. I auditioned on flute and viola and ended up making 1st chair viola. I was miserable, looking at those flute players having a great time. I went in the back room and I found the judges’ sheets on the floor of the bandroom. I was shocked to discover that I had made 2nd chair flute, but they decided to put me 1st chair viola because they needed me there. At that very moment I decided that I was NOT going to play viola again. So I stopped. Too bad…it would have been nice to continue on. It’s interesting how experiences shape you.
When you are working on your music do you think in terms of genre?
I really don’t think much about genre. There are different musical styles that swim in my veins, that I’ve been attracted to and absorb. They subconsciously influence my creativity. I consider myself to be a “creative musician,” because with “creative” music people don’t have a specific expectation and they can be open to receive what you bring.
As a member of the musical community of Chicago you work in a medium and within an idiom that has a rich history and tradition. Do you feel a responsibility to respond to that tradition and work within that tradition?
Chicago does have a rich legacy in jazz and creative music and I definitely feel that my work is part of that continuum. As a musician and composer, it’s not so much a feeling of responsibility, but a spiritual connection to those musicians that have come before me. My responsibility is to be myself and express my own voice. This is really clear also for members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a collective that I’m a part of (that will have its 45th birthday in 2010). The AACM is one of the great entities that has shaped musical history in Chicago and internationally, through the ideas of supportive community, self-help, and the encouragement to create original music. I do feel a sense of responsibility to carry the torch for the AACM, because many musicians before me struggled to make a name for it, and because of all the gifts of guidance that mentors like George Lewis, Fred Anderson, Hamid Drake, Arveeayl Ra, Ed Wilkerson, Douglas Ewart and Ernest Dawkins have given me and others. One of the great things about the AACM is the relationship between so many generations playing music together, with members in their twenties to members reaching toward eighty. I just recently was named chairperson, and our new executive board is all younger folks, including cellist Tomeka Reid: treasurer, drummer Mike Reed: vice chair, vocalist Saalik Ziyad: secretary and percussionist Coco Elysses: Dean of AACM School. It’s a big change and I feel a heavy responsibility to serve the organization, its members, our neighboring communities that are music-starved and to keep getting AACM music out there so the world can hear it.
How important is recorded material versus playing live?
When music is recorded, I feel a sense of completion with it, because evidence has been made that it exists. It represents a moment in time captured of a musician or project that allows us to know and go back. It creates a sense of history. Honestly I think recorded music can never be as special as live music though. Live music is something special between the musicians and the people that were there–something that begins and ends. There’s a mystery to that.
How do you approach releasing your music?
I started out by making my own label with my life-partner, saxophonist David Boykin. We put out my first three albums. Since then I’ve realized that it’s good to pass it around, so that other ears can hear your music, so I enjoy working with other labels like Delmark, Greenleaf and Firehouse 12. It’s good to have a balance. I’m curious how long the CD thing is going to last, and if we’re heading to download as the only answer. Long story short, I’m open to try new things. It all comes down to sharing the sound and getting it out there.
How has Chicago, as a place or as a musical community, shaped your artistic trajectory?
Chicago has had a huge impact on my life and my art. I have many childhood memories here, from visiting my grandparents on the southside. I romanticized my mother’s presence here, as she was born and raised in Chicago and she passed when I was a teenager. I never really felt at home anywhere until I made Chicago my home. It was where I needed to be. There’s so much culture here and community.
Is it difficult to survive as a full time musician in Chicago?
I think it’s near impossible anywhere! Most the musicians I know have other jobs and do music because they love it. I’ve been blessed to be a full-time musician, but I never live with any expectations of things being easy, or the same! Things can change at any moment for better or worse, so I appreciate the positives in the moment.