Saxophonist, clarinetist, flutist, teacher, and composer Roscoe Mitchell comes to Ann Arbor this month to play at the twenty-second annual Edgefest, this year dedicated to the sounds of Chicago. He grew up in that city, eventually becoming a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Mitchell studied and played within AACM’s Experimental Band, and it was out of this milieu that his own groups began to develop.
Mitchell’s 1966 recording Sound met with much critical acclaim and provided him and the Chicago experimental jazz scene with national and international exposure. Looking back, it is apparent that much of Mitchell’s subsequent work developed logically from that project. He rigorously rehearsed the group, providing meticulously crafted compositions that explored multiple themes and shifting sound textures, with written and improvised passages wound together as kindred elements, often without a pronounced rhythmic pulse. As opposed to much of contemporary East Coast “free jazz,” Sound did not continuously resound with fury but exploited the power of silence. Indeed, years later, Mitchell says “music is 50 percent sound and 50 percent silence.”
In 1969 Mitchell, trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors, and a new member, woodwind player Joseph Jarman, moved to France, where they reorganized as the cooperative Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC), eventually solidifying the group with the addition of percussionist Don Moye. The AEC’s motto was “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future,” and it incorporated not only American and African elements, but also Western classical, Asian, and South American components. Dramatic visual effects and the integration of myriad saxophones, clarinets, flutes, and small sound makers contributed to a universalist musical and political hybrid. With face paint, costumes, and enormous bass drums, and flanked by two large bass saxophones, they were a sight to behold.
After three years in Europe they returned to this country to pursue their individual paths but have regrouped regularly over the years. In 1974 Mitchell cofounded the Creative Arts Collective (CAC) in East Lansing with young musicians from Detroit.
He will perform twice at Edgefest: with his Detroit friends in a celebration of the legacy of the CAC on October 17 at the Kerrytown Concert House, and leading a large ensemble in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the AEC on October 20 at Bethlehem United Church of Christ.