Once you stop being a student, you’re dead: Saxophonist/composer Roscoe Mitchell

While many lament the isolation and other problems caused by the Covid pandemic, saxophonist/composer Roscoe Mitchell sees it as an opportunity. Away from his teaching job at California’s Mills College, Mitchell, who was recently named a 2020 NEA Jazz Master, tells SFJAZZ staff writer Richard Scheinin that with more ideas than ever, he now has the time to try out new concepts.I can play the same note for a week if I want to. I have the time to do it,” he explains. One of the founders of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) and an early member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Mitchell has been a lifelong learner and passes that idea onto his students. Taking up the saxophone in high school he improved his reed skills in an American army band under the twin influences of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and returning to his home town of Chicago then perfected his composing and improvising talents studying with AACM founder, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. This learning continued during the founding of the AEC, with trumpeter Lester Bowie and saxophonist Joseph Jarman, and later through his association with innovators in New York and Paris, such as saxophonist) Frank Wright and drummer Muhammad Ali. That’s one reason Mitchell has been able to maintain his creativity when performing his solo saxophone piece “Nonaah”, first created in the 1970s. “When people hear that tune,” he notes. “It can almost sound like more than one instrument is playing.”