Houston author Rick Mitchell on Modern Jazz: "There's Too Much Good Music Out There!"
Cassandra Wilson during the Da Camera's 2012/13 season at the Cullen Theater.
Photo by Pin Lim
No matter how great you think your music room is, Rick Mitchell's is better. Way better.
The longtime local journo--who spent a decade as the jazz and pop writer for The Houston Chronicle and even longer as the Artistic Director for the Houston International Festival--settles into a comfy, well-used easy chair in the center of an area the size of a small apartment at his home.
The visages of Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Dizzy Gillespie, and - oddly - the boys from Hanson in their teen dream prime stare down at his stereo setup (featuring two 1972 huge Infinity speakers) and a full drum kit. Bookshelves groan with music tomes. And around him are shelves lined with thousands--maybe tens of thousands--of CDs, cassettes, and vinyl records, so many that they spill onto the floor, albeit in neat piles.
A good chunk of that music is jazz titles. Appropriate, since Mitchell is here to talk about his latest book, Jazz in the New Millennium: Live and Well (160 pp., Dharma Moon Press, $24.95/$9.99 e-book).
In it, he collects close to 60 profiles culled from his program notes and interviews of jazz musicians who have all performed at Da Camera of Houston's jazz series since 2000.
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The book is divided into three sections, "Living Masters" (Roy Haynes, Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd); "Prime Time Players" (Joshua Redman, Joe Lovano, Cassandra Wilson); and "Rising Stars" (Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding). And it presents a complete and insightful portrait into what jazz means now, and who are its key movers.
"Jazz is creatively thriving, despite commercial neglect. It is alive and well," Mitchell offers.
And though he admits that it gets a bit lost among other current genres, he doesn't necessarily subscribe to the theory that modern jazz is constantly competing against its own legacy. And the larger-than-life giants who made their names from the 1940s through the 1960s.
"I do think that a new artist coming up in jazz has the challenge of absorbing the lessons of the past, finding their own voice within that, and then doing something new," he continues. "This is how the music evolves. The tradition of jazz is innovation, not repertoire."
Indeed. Jazz has had is share of incredible innovators from Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk to John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Miles Davis. And in an era where a multi-disc box set of every bleep and blort that emanated from Davis' horn during a particular year (or even run of shows) is big news and sends jazzheads into a froth, is there enough space, time, or attention span to find new jazz?
Mitchell believes so, especially since it's so easy to at least sample the music at the click of a mouse. "This is not music for everybody, like the Beatles or Michael Jackson. But I think more people would appreciate it if they were exposed to it more often," Mitchell says. "There may not be any jazz radio stations anymore, and radio does not have the power that it once did. But there is hip, newer jazz being made out there."
And much of that hip, new jazz is coming from the minds and fingers of natives of Houston, and in particular, graduates from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts who learn first here before heading out to music schools in New York and Boston.
Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, and Eric Harland (all profiled in the book) are examples of this group. Mitchell credits Dr. Robert Morgan, former HSPVA Director of Jazz Studies (who also wrote the book's intro), with encouraging and cultivating this stable of artists.
"I don't know what Bob's secret was, but a lot of talent started coming out of that school in the '90s!" Mitchell laughs. "I think it happened partially because there was a lot of untapped potential with players here, especially African-American musicians. And some of them - like Robert Glasper - came up not just on jazz, but hip hop as well."
And when Mitchell first encountered Harland, he says the jazz man was listening to - of all groups - '80s AOR rockers Toto on his headphones. And in particular, the drumming of Jeff Porcaro. When the scribe asked the musician why he would listen to such a critically unhip band, Harland responded simply with "Man, I'm from Houston. I listen to everything!"
Mitchell admits that the public image of jazz has some issues. The thought of "jazz snobs" who make the music seem more of an intellectual exercise than something that is a sensual, vital music.
It also takes some work for new fans to distinguish, say, a Sonny Rollins sax solo from one blown by Lester Young or John Coltrane. And the way that many histories - including Ken Burns' "Jazz" PBS series, seem to stop the music's story in the '60s. Finally, there's the damage done to ears and reputation since the '70s by purveyors of the oft-maligned and often parodied "smooth jazz" and "New Age jazz."
Nevertheless, as he says both in the book and during the interview, he is confident that the profile of contemporary jazz will increase in the coming years. Enough to boost its share of annual overall music sales from 2 percent to 5 percent.
"I think it will happen. It's the natural ebb and flow," he sums up. "I think the time will come when there is an increased interest in jazz. I feel it coming. There's too much good music out there! A whole world of brilliance just waiting to be discovered."
Jazz in the New Millennium: Live and Well is currently available on Mitchell's website at www.rickmitchell.us. He will read from and sign the book Saturday, August 9, at 3 p.m. at Cactus Records, 2110 Portsmouth. Live music from saxophonist Woody Witt (who will be signing his new CD, Absinthe: The Music of Billy Strayhorn) and guitarist Mike Wheeler will also be featured. Free.
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