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An Improvised Life

Her path has been anything but straightforward, but Nicole Mitchell is on her way to becoming the greatest living flutist in jazz.

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When Nicole Mitchell fell in love with jazz, she fell hard. It was 1986, and she was in her second year of college. She'd been studying classical flute since age 15 and played in two different youth orchestras. But then she took a class in jazz improvisation from the great trombonist Jimmy Cheatham, and within months she was spending most of her free time on the streets of San Diego, improvising for spare change.

It must have been something to encounter her as a busker. From the very beginning she took a generous, open-ended approach to improvisation--she wasn't just embroidering the familiar themes of jazz standards. "I had the idea of creating a melody for each person that walked by, reflecting on how people seemed to me," she says. "I was trying to find a way to communicate with people through the improvisation. It wasn't necessarily that I was trying to play jazz. I was just trying to connect."

Mitchell, 40, has since become one of the most exciting jazz soloists and composers in the world. Her path has been rocky--she's had to confront racism, a male-dominated jazz community, and instructors and colleagues who didn't see a place in the music for her instrument. But she's surmounted those obstacles using the same gifts that make her such a compelling improviser: wit, determination, positivity, and tremendous talent.

She moved to Chicago in 1990 and is now a vital part of the local scene, both as a performer and as an educator and organizer. People outside that scene are starting to notice, too. For three years running she's won the "Rising Star" award for flutists in the Down Beat magazine critics' poll, and every couple months she flies to Europe to play her music or lead a workshop. By this fall she'll have appeared on five new recordings in just over a year, both under her own name and in collaborative projects. This summer at New York's Vision Festival, arguably the most important free-jazz fest in the U.S., she debuted her Xenogenesis Suite, an ambitious piece inspired by the writings of Afrofuturist Octavia Butler and commissioned by Chamber Music America, a prestigious organization that principally promotes chamber music but has increasingly been awarding grants to adventurous jazz composers. And on Thursday, August 9, she'll debut another suite, this one dedicated to Alice Coltrane, at a free concert in Millennium Park featuring her Black Earth Orchestra--a 12-piece version of her regular Black Earth Ensemble--with guest pianist Myra Melford.

Born and raised in Syracuse, New York, Mitchell moved with her family to Anaheim, California, when her father, an engineer, took a new job. She was eight, and for the first time she was made painfully aware of the color of her skin. "When I walked outside of my house I had neighbors that would actually tell me to move away from their property because I was downgrading its value by standing in front of it," she says. After the TV adaptation of Alex Haley's Roots aired in 1977, she was chased by classmates brandishing lengths of rope like whips. "I remember running up to one of the fathers of the kids," she says, "and I said, 'They're chasing me.' And then I looked up and he wasn't responding, but smirking. He was wearing a policeman's uniform and that really freaked me out, you know, not being protected by a person who was supposed to do that."

After high school Mitchell wanted to get as far away from California as possible, but her father was protective of her--her mother had died when she was 16--and insisted that she go no further than the University of California in San Diego. He supported her pursuit of music--she'd started on piano and viola in fourth grade--but he'd also encouraged her aptitude for math, and she initially declared as a math major. Nevertheless she spent most of her spare hours playing her flute in the university's practice rooms, and in a few months she switched her major to music.

She was still devoted to classical music then, playing in youth orchestras on and off campus, and she admits with a sheepish grin that until she got to college she was listening almost exclusively to flutists like Jean-Pierre Rampal and James Galway. But Cheatham's class--one of the school's only jazz-related offerings for undergraduates--changed all that.

Mitchell had tried out for her high school's jazz band, but the director didn't want to make a spot for a flute--conventional student groups are full of saxes, trumpets, and trombones, and it takes special effort to accommodate a quieter front-line instrument. There was a student jazz band for undergrads at UCSD, but Mitchell had just started playing and didn't feel ready to join, so the sidewalks were her only outlet.

Still, she grew increasingly focused on jazz. Cheatham introduced her to the recordings of Eric Dolphy, who played flute as well as saxophone and clarinet, and a visit to his class by jazz flutist James Newton blew her away. "I didn't think there was anything else possible on the flute after hearing him," she says.

She started playing with a local Afrobeat band, where she could improvise, but it didn't scratch the right itch. By the end of her second year at UCSD she'd become terminally frustrated by its shortage of undergrad jazz courses, and in the fall of 1987 she persuaded her father to let her transfer to Oberlin, which has one of the oldest and most prestigious conservatories in the country. This time she was admitted as a physics major--she had a natural aptitude for the subject, if not much passion for it--and loaded up on music classes on the side. Hard-bop trumpeter Donald Byrd was overseeing the jazz program at Oberlin during her first year, but she wasn't happy there either. "I didn't like the conservatory culture," she says. "The whole competitive thing wasn't what I was about. For me, it was about doing my best, but not trying to compete with others. It was nasty--people wouldn't speak with each other."

After finishing her spring semester in '88, Mitchell took a year off. She went back to Los Angeles and got a job as a welder--though she had no experience, she convinced the interviewer that she was a fast learner and that her math skills would help her out. "I just thought it would be a cool thing to do," she says. "It was a truck-body company. I was the only girl in the warehouse and the only one that didn't speak Spanish." On weekends she often busked in San Diego, since she could make better money than in LA and the police didn't hassle her. She started taking private lessons with Newton, who lived in Los Angeles, and frequently paid him in nickels, dimes, and quarters. In the fall of '89 she returned to Oberlin, but she didn't like it any better. She blames a discouraging professor. "He had no respect for my instrument," says Mitchell. "He was always telling me that I was never going to do anything with jazz flute and that I needed to learn saxophone." (The professor, of course, played saxophone.) She finished the school year, but she knew she wasn't going to come back.

Instead she headed to Chicago, where she'd spent summers and holidays with her mother's parents as a kid. While still at Oberlin she'd landed sponsorship for a research project on house music through the Ford and Mellon foundations. At first she lived with her grandfather, but he disapproved of the fieldwork the project required. "I got kicked out," she says. "I had to go to these clubs late at night and he didn't believe me. I said, 'I'm doing my job,' and he said, 'I can't take this, worrying about you on the streets of Chicago.' He was 80 years old and he wasn't going to budge."

Mitchell moved in with a friend. When the project ended, she paid a visit to the offices of the black publishing house and bookstore Third World Press and begged for a job. She was hired as an intern and cobbled together a living playing on the street. She did most of her busking on the corner of Jackson and Wabash, sometimes with one of several percussionists she'd met, and the locals introduced her to other improvisers who stopped to listen.

Among them were reedist Douglas Ewart and flutist Maia, both members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an influential Chicago collective founded in the early 60s that emphasizes artistic and financial autonomy and has launched the likes of Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Within the year Mitchell and Maia were playing together in Samana, the first all-female group in the AACM's history.

It was with Samana, a distinctive ensemble that mixed improvisation and vocalization and employed a range of nontraditional jazz instruments like sitar, cello, and autoharp--plus, in the AACM style, an array of exotic hand percussion--that Mitchell first made her mark as a performer and composer. But in 1992, just as the group was gaining traction, she left town to travel with a boyfriend, intending to end up in northern California. The couple settled in New Orleans instead, where Mitchell became pregnant, and after a year they returned to Chicago. "I couldn't find work, it was too hot, and I couldn't do the music I wanted to do," she says. In the fall of '93 she resumed her education, this time at Chicago State, but the birth of her daughter, Aaya, in '94 put school on hold for another two years. Though she wouldn't finish her BA in music till '98, she did graphic design for Third World Press and rejoined Samana.

In 1995 Mitchell made some big changes: she left Aaya's father and started an energizing (but strictly musical) relationship with drummer Hamid Drake. Samana was winding down, and she was looking for new outlets. She and Drake started Soundscapes, a trio with vocalist Glenda Zahra Baker, to contribute improvised music to a production of Othello by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. "It was the first place where I felt unlimited in music, and I realized the possibilities of what I could do," she says. "Samana had a specific format." Soundscapes continued to play sporadically at the Velvet Lounge once the play's run ended, but for Mitchell the most lasting benefit of the project was the encouragement she got from Drake. "He would say things like, 'I wonder what Nicole Mitchell's band would sound like?'"

Mitchell says the turning point for her was in 1997, when she met David Boykin, one of the most fiercely independent and hardest-blowing saxophonists in Chicago. "He was a huge inspiration for me," she says. "He was the first person around my age that was trying to do something I was trying to do, and I started playing with him right away. I felt like I could really do my thing." They've been a couple practically since they met.

"We got together and played, just the two of us," Boykin says of their first rehearsal. "On very few occasions when you're playing with someone you literally feel afraid, frightened. And the other thing you can feel is amazement, just standing around in awe. What I felt was kind of a combination of the two. What it meant for me was how much I was going to have to improve. I thought I was working hard before, but now I had to work that much harder. I asked her to sit in with me right after that. I knew right off the bat that we were going to be working together."

When she brought in some tunes from the dozens she'd written--many of which had never been played--he said, "Why don't you start your own group?" She embraced the challenge, assembling the first version of her Black Earth Ensemble late that year. Boykin was an original member of the group, then a sextet, but Mitchell says she had to kick him out for a while: "He wouldn't listen to me. We might have a section were we'd do a collective improvisation, and he would just stand there--it wasn't until we all finished that he would start soloing. One time he made some suggestions, and I said, 'This ain't your group,' and everyone laughed and there were no more problems. It's kind of a woman thing, that if you're confident in what you're doing you're OK, but you have to get to that level of being sure of what you want. It took about a year for me to feel comfortable with the group, but it was empowering to finally play and share this huge stack of compositions that I had, and that after ten years of contributing to and supporting other musicians that it was OK, that I didn't feel any guilt about being a leader. It was out of a desire for the music, not out of any desire to be a bandleader."

Since then the Black Earth Ensemble has been Mitchell's primary group, but she's started a number of other projects--including the Black Earth Strings, a drummerless chamber ensemble with its own repertoire--and continues to play in many more. (Both the smaller Black Earth groups appear at the Velvet Lounge this weekend, and the Black Earth Strings are looking for a label for their first recording.) Between 2001 and 2004 the Black Earth Ensemble made three increasingly ambitious and focused albums, and Mitchell put them out herself on Dreamtime, an imprint she started with Boykin, without even trying to attract the attention of an outside label. "I just decided to do it myself," she says. "I really enjoyed taking those small steps and learning the process."

In her dazzling compositions she draws on variants of jazz from across much of the genre's history, not to mention reggae, African grooves, and Latin rhythms, but the music that results is more like an alloy than a patchwork--there are no seams showing. It's avant-garde but swings ferociously, and though the tunes are complex and tightly arranged, they leave plenty of space for improvisation. The first thing you're likely to notice, though, is how upbeat and ebullient Mitchell's music is.

"I haven't ever played any music like the stuff she writes," says guitarist Jeff Parker. Best known as a member of Tortoise, he's also one of the city's most accomplished soloists and has been a steady collaborator of Mitchell's for the past seven years. "You can feel the influence of her classical training because her music is really intricate and it's not as obviously coming from jazz."

Parker is part of a pool of about 30 musicians Mitchell draws from for the Black Earth groups, many of whom--notably violinist Savoir Faire, trombonist Tony Herrera, and cellist Tomeka Reid--have developed significantly under her tutelage. And her teaching isn't confined to her bands: Since last fall she's been a part-time instructor at Wheaton College and UIC, and over the past six years she's held similar posts at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago State, and Northern Illinois University, where she earned her master's in 2000. For the past two years she's been copresident of the AACM--the first woman to hold the position--and in 2006 she founded the AACM Creative Youth Ensemble. She also does outreach work in three public elementary schools through a program organized by Ravinia.

With all this on her plate, it's no wonder Mitchell said yes last year when New York trumpeter Dave Douglas asked to release a recording by Indigo Trio--a powerful but rarely convened group with Hamid Drake and bassist Harrison Bankhead--on his Greenleaf label. "I first heard Niki live at a festival in France a few years ago," says Douglas. "It was just so unusual and astounding to hear a band that was so fluent in so many different kinds of languages. And her technique is so flawless and her tone is so warm and rich that it just kind of bowled me over. I was initially attracted by the music, and something I didn't know about her and I've been really impressed by is how much work she does in the community--and you can't overlook that as an influence, or maybe something that just goes parallel to the way she thinks musically."

Douglas isn't the only label head who's been impressed. Late last year Thrill Jockey released the debut album by Frequency, a collective with Bankhead, reedist Edward Wilkerson, and drummer Avreeayl Ra. More discs will follow this fall: Delmark is issuing a new studio CD and a live DVD (recorded at the Velvet Lounge) by the Black Earth Ensemble, and the New England imprint Firehouse 12--which in April put out a nine-disc box set by the Anthony Braxton 12+1tet that also features Mitchell--is releasing a CD of her Xenogenesis Suite. Dreamtime is still active too, and will issue Mitchell's first solo CD, an outdoor recording called Duo With Deer Isle, within the next few months.

Since her 2003 theater piece VisionQuest: Hope, Future and Destiny, Mitchell has been exploring programmatic compositions--that is, pieces with some sort of organizing principle located outside the music itself--and the suite dedicated to Alice Coltrane that she'll present in Millennium Park this week is perhaps her most ambitious yet. But it was Xenogenesis Suite that was the biggest challenge for her to write: though Mitchell admires Butler's fiction, it's far darker than any subject matter she'd tackled before--and the music is likewise darker, giving some indication of her range. Brooding and sometimes harrowing, it combines lyrics and nonverbal vocals with jagged, dissonant instrumental arrangements to convey the story of a black woman abducted by aliens after humanity nearly kills itself off in a nuclear war--her captors need to interbreed with other species to remain genetically viable, and she's asked to recruit other humans to help. "I feel that Africans being transported into slavery experienced that in a real brutal way, and then they had to find some kind of humanity even in their captors," says Mitchell. "To write music based off of that was hard."

"What's most important about Nicole is that she thinks in very broad outlines," says trombonist and Columbia University professor George Lewis, whose highly anticipated history of the AACM will be published this fall. "She thinks in a very expansive way. She has the broadest conception of herself as an artist and as a human being, and she's not limited in terms of style, genre, or creative community. You often find that people are fearful of moving outside of the orbit that first nurtured them, and I think Nicole has a nomadic personality, which fits in well in a kind of postmodern context. People aren't interested in the old, rigid alignments that you get stuck in as a musician. She has a willingness to engage just about anything."

When Mitchell explains why she was moved to celebrate Alice Coltrane, she could almost be talking about herself. "I think of her as a real humanist--she could see the connections between different faiths that people have. She tried to find the common denominator of all music. I just want to deal with different aspects of the concept of a person going through a journey seeking their own actualization. That's my intuitive narrative to go through in writing the music--from confusion to revelation."

Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Strings

WHEN Fri 8/3, 9 PM

WHERE Velvet Lounge, 67 E. Cermak

PRICE $10

INFO 312-791-9050

David Boykin Expanse, Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble

WHEN Sat 8/4, 9 PM

WHERE Velvet Lounge, 67 E. Cermak

PRICE $10

INFO 312-791-9050

Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Orchestra

WHEN Thu 8/9, 6:30 PM

WHERE Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, 100 N. Michigan

PRICE Free

INFO 312-742-1168

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jim Newberry.

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