If you're going to make a career out of playing a not-always-well-received genre of music, one must link with like-minded musicians, says avant-garde woodwind player and Art Ensemble of Chicago member Roscoe Mitchell, who continues to experience financial and artistic success by playing and composing creative, original music.
After returning to his native Chicago in the early 1960s following a stint in the U.S. Army, Mitchell, a musician in the orbit of Muhal Richard Abrams' experimental band, help to get the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians off the ground. The AACM, now in its 48th year, presents avant-garde concerts and recordings and acts as an educational vehicle for inner-city youth.
"It was a time when a lot of people were in Chicago that had similar visions of what they wanted to do with their music," says Mitchell about the 1965 birth of the AACM. "They wanted to have more control over their destinies, create employment for each other, sponsor a learning program for young aspiring musicians in the community, and sponsor each other in concerts of their own original music."
The non-profit inspired offshoots like St. Louis' Black Artists Group and created recordings like the landmark Sound, the 1966 album that (to put it nicely) confused mainstream jazz fans and critics. In the 1970s, Mitchell helped to create the AACM-esque Creative Arts Collective, a Detroit-based organization that's still going strong.
Says Mitchell, "What musicians have to do is be willing to band together and they have to be committed to their vision. I'm hoping that a lot of younger musicians follow through on that idea of the AACM...I think it's important for musicians to stick to their visions and do the music that they're actually hearing."
Mitchell, now 72 years old and a distinguished music professor at Mills College in Oakland, is known for his circular breathing technique. The late Rahsaan Roland Kirk introduced the skill -- which allows a musician to play his or her wind instrument via a continuous and uninterrupted stream of air -- to jazz in the '60s. (See the below video of a circular breathing Mitchell.)
During a June 2004 gig at the now defunct Chicago South Loop club, HotHouse, Art Attack saw Mitchell play a clarinet, without pausing for a through-the-mouth breath, for what had to be 12 minutes straight. It was completely insane.
"For me, it's a tool that lets me extend sonic scenarios even much further," says Mitchell, who adds that it took him about a year to learn how to circle breathe. "If I can do it continuously and if I want to create really long lines that go on and on and on, I can do that.
"It's a constant learning process. Sometimes I'll look back at things that I did a long time ago and now that I can circle breathe, I can do those in different ways."
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On Wednesday, March 27, Mitchell will play saxophone and flute with percussionist Alvin Fielder, Nameless Sound's 2012 Resounding Vision Award holder. Mitchell says that he hasn't played with the fellow AACM member since about 1969, the year Fielder returned to Mississippi and the Art Ensemble of Chicago moved to Europe. The free show is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose Boulevard.
At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 28, Mitchell will be honored during Nameless Sound's 2013 Resounding Vision Awards ceremony at the Eldorado Ballroom, 2310 Elgin Avenue. The $200 ticket includes dinner, drinks, an art auction and music by Silver Slipper house band Curley Cormier and the Gladiators.
At 8 p.m. Friday, March 29, at the Eldorado, Mitchell will perform in a quartet configuration with Houston native and trumpeter Hugh Ragin, bassist Jaribu Shahid and drummer Tani Tabbal. Tickets for 18-and-over folks cost $10 to $13.
For more information about all of these events, check out the Nameless Sound website.