Roscoe Mitchell and Amina Claudine Myers

Roscoe Mitchell and Amina Claudine Myers
June 13 1995, WKCR-FM New York

copyright © 1995, 1999 Ted Panken

[Music: RM/M. Favors "Englewood H.S." (1994); RM New Chamber Ensemble, "Oh, the Sun Comes Up, Up In the Morning"]

TP: Roscoe, having just heard the two recent releases, a few words about each of them, the continuity of the ensembles, the ideas behind each CD.

ROSCOE: Well, if you look at the New Chamber Ensemble, Pilgrimage, you'll see that it's dedicated to Gerald Oshita, who was a member of our original trio, which was Space. The New Chamber Ensemble, you could say, is a continuation of that work. Gerald passed, and we dedicated this record to him. On this record there is also a composition by Henry Threadgill with a text by Thulani Davis entitled "He Didn't Give Up; He was Taken." For the pieces that we're going to be doing Saturday we'll have joining us also two members of this ensemble. Thomas Buckner will be performing with the S.E.M. Ensemble, which is an 11-piece chamber orchestra, in a piece that I wrote entitled "Memoirs Of A Dying Parachutist," a poem by Daniel Moore. We'll also be doing a trio piece for piano, saxophone and baritone voice, with the members of this particular ensemble.

TP: Roscoe, in the 1980s, apart from your work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, you were working concurrently with the Roscoe Mitchell Sound Ensemble and the Roscoe Mitchell Space Ensemble, and sometimes combining the two. Would you talk a little bit about your concepts for each of these groups in terms of the words "sound" and "space" as separate and converging intents.

ROSCOE: Well, if you'll remember, back in 1966 my first record to come out on Delmark was titled Sound. This is the where the name for the Sound Ensemble came up. Over the years, though, we've worked in different combinations with both of the groups, either doing large pieces, which you will find on that CD on Black Saint, Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound and Space Ensembles. Sometimes we would tour with both of these groups, and we would do pieces with one group and pieces with the other group, and then combine pieces.

If I could talk about your question on the scope of the music, I don't really see that much difference from one to the other. I've always tried to work in lots of different areas with both groups.

TP: In the '60s, when Sound came out, Amina, were you . . . I know you played in some of Amina's ensembles in Chicago in the 1960s. At that point had the two of you met?

ROSCOE: Yes, we had.

AMINA: Yes. Actually I played . . . Roscoe did an all Duke Ellington concert, and had me doing vocals, and he did another concert where I played and sang. But he never played in any of the groups that I had organized.

ROSCOE: Except the group we had at the Hungry Eye.

AMINA: Oh, yes. That's right. That organ group!

ROSCOE: We had a hot group at the Hungry Eye. The first time we had Gene Dinwiddie with us . . .

AMINA: That's right. Kalaparusha, Lester Bowie . . .

ROSCOE: . . . and Lester Bowie, and then we went to Kalaparusha and Lester Bowie and Ajaramu. I mean, we had one of the hottest organ groups that you wanted to hear back in those days.

AMINA: That's right.

ROSCOE: That's when they had the music up and down Wells Street, the Plugged Nickel, the Hungry Eye, and so forth. All those clubs were there. It was like a miniature New York or something.

AMINA: That's right.

TP: What was your impression of Amina's music when you first heard it, Roscoe? Do you remember the circumstances?

ROSCOE: Well, I was always knocked out by Amina's music. At that time, in Chicago, the organ was starting to gain more presence on the scene. Jimmy Smith had come out with that record, "The Champ," and so on. And in Chicago there were a lot of organ players then. Baby Face Willette was there, Eddie Buster . . . So in Chicago at that time, there was music almost every night. So I always knew where to go. You could go out every night and play with somebody if you wanted to, and this is what I did.

TP: Where were some of the places you'd go out to play? Would they be on the South Side?

ROSCOE: Yeah, a lot of them were on the South Side. There was the Wonder Inn . . . ,

AMINA: McKie's.

ROSCOE: . . . McKie's, and then there were clubs that were further over toward the lake. I can't remember the names of all of them . . .

AMINA: The Coral(?) Club.

ROSCOE: Yeah, and then that club they had down on Stony Island . . .

AMINA: Oh, yes.

ROSCOE: . . . and one on 71st Street. There was a lot of . . . See, I came from that kind of a thing. I mean, when I grew up in Chicago, not only did I listen to the same music that my parents listened to; I could go right outside of my house and go down the street, and they'd be playing there. My parents and all of us, we all listened to the same music.

TP: What was that?

ROSCOE: That was a wide variety of music. Whatever was popular was on all the jukeboxes. I mean, those were the days where you could go to a jukebox and there was some variety in the music on the jukebox. I mean, now you go to a jukebox and it's all the same thing. But whoever was popular. I mean, when Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams had that hit out, that was on there. James Moody's "It Might As Well Be Spring" was on there. I mean, just to give you. . . It was jazz pieces, popular pieces; whatever was popular at that time was out.

TP: Were these clubs hospitable to young saxophonists coming in to sit in? In other words, were there jam sessions at a lot of clubs? Were you able to get gigs at some of these clubs with the local musicians?

ROSCOE: Well, that was my musical upbringing. I always went out and sat in with people, so I got to know different people. Like I said, I could go out and play every night. Then it was also at that time when the licensing for the clubs was getting changed. If you had a trio there, it was one price for a license. If you had anything bigger than a trio, then it was a bigger price for a license. So a lot of house bands were working, and people would come and sit in and stuff like that. Because it was right on the verge of the era where people were starting not to have as much live music, and the disk jockeys were starting to become popular in the clubs.

TP: Were you playing alto saxophone all this time? Was that your main instrument back as a teenager?

ROSCOE: I started on clarinet, then in high school I played baritone saxophone. Then later on I went to alto, and so on and so on.

TP: A lot of the musicians in Chicago who came to prominence went to DuSable High School with Walter Dyett, but you went to Englewood High School. Tell me about the music program there.

ROSCOE: Well, that's where comes this next CD. I was very fortunate in Englewood High School to have met Donald Myrick, who is a founding member of the AACM. He is also a founding member of Phil Cohran's group, he headed the Afro-Arts Theater, which later on became the Pharaohs, which they did also record under that name, and then after that became members of Earth, Wind and Fire. Now, like I said, I know that DuSable had Captain Dyett, but we had Donald Myrick at Englewood High School. And I was fortunate to meet him at that time, because he was already playing the instrument in high school, and he kind of like took me under his wing and, you know, started to show me about music.

TP: I'd like to talk a bit about your gradual transition from being let's say a talented apprentice on the instrument to becoming a person for whom music was a life. Did you always see music as your life? Do you recollect when that started to happen?

ROSCOE: Well, I know I've always loved music, and like I said, it was always in my family. Through an older brother, I got really introduced and really very interested in Jazz, because he had all of those old 78's, and we'd spend a lot of time just listening to them. "Hey, come over here, sit down, let's listen to this, let's listen to that." So yeah, music has always been in my life.

Then, when I was in the Army, I started to function as a professional musician 24 hours a day, and I was in the Army for three years. So when I came out of there, yeah, I was pretty much on the track to being a musician.

TP: I gather that you were exposed to a lot of interesting music when you were in the Army, stationed in Europe. If I'm not mistaken, I recollect hearing you talk about hearing Albert Ayler play in Germany maybe . . . ?

ROSCOE: Well, we used to . . . I was in the band in Heidelberg, Germany. Sometimes we would go to Berlin along with the band from Berlin and the band from Orleans, France, and Albert Ayler was a member of that band. We'd come together and do these big parades in Berlin. But at that time, when all the musicians got together, there were a lot of sessions and different things. So when I first heard Albert at that time, I didn't quite understand what he was doing, but I did know that he had an enormous sound on the tenor. I remember that once someone called a blues or something at the session, and I think that for the first couple of choruses Albert Ayler played the blues straight, and then when he started to go away from that, then I started to really kind of understand what he was doing.

But I have to say that, as a musician, when I was in the Army, when I first heard Ornette Coleman, I didn't really fully understand what he was doing. When I got back to Chicago and met Joseph Jarman, he was already more advanced than I was in terms of listening to Eric Dolphy . . . As a matter of fact, it was John Coltrane who brought me back into that music with his record Coltrane, which has "Out of This World" on it. That was when Coltrane started to go away from the regular chordal pattern and use a sort of a modal approach to the music. When I started to hear that, I said, "Wait, I'd better go back and listen to Eric," and then I said, "I'd better go back and listen to Ornette," and then I started to fully understand. That was like about two years as a musician being able to understand that music.

TP: Talk about the beginnings of your relationship with Joseph Jarman. I gather that you and he and Malachi Favors were all at Wilson Junior College, now called Kennedy-King.

ROSCOE: Yeah, it was Wilson Junior College. Also Jack DeJohnette was there, because we played a lot in those early days. Jack was known around town as a pianist, but he always played drums, too, because he was very talented.

TP: Wasn't Steve McCall the drummer in his trio?

ROSCOE: In Jack's trio? I don't remember at that time. I know it was Scotty Holt. Steve might have done some things with him. But it was Scotty Holt, the bass player. So we were all there together, and that's where we first met. And of course, Muhal was always the person who brought everybody together. He had his big band rehearsals down at a place called the C&C every Monday night, and we all started to want to go down there and be a part of that. This is what brought everybody together to where people started talking about, "Oh, yeah, let's put together an organization where we can kind of control our destinies a little bit more" and so on and so forth, and this is where the thoughts for the AACM originated.

TP: What was your first contact with Muhal like? What was your impression?

ROSCOE: Well, Muhal always impressed me . . . Now, he was a guy who would always help out anybody who needed help, and everybody would always come over to his house, and at the end of the week he would still have a piece for the big band! I don't know how he did that, but he did it! [Laughs] For a while, all I did was, I'd go to school, and then after school then I would go over to Muhal's house. Sometimes I wouldn't get home until 9 or 10 o'clock at night or something like that. And that's what a lot of us did in that period.

TP: Amina, you weren't originally from Chicago. You came there from Arkansas. But when did you get to Chicago?

AMINA: In 1963.

TP: Did you immediately find the AACM at that time?

AMINA: No. I went there to teach school. I taught seventh and eighth grade music. I really wasn't thinking about playing. And I went out with a young man one time, he was a photographer . . . He was really a photographer, but he liked to play the hand drums. Unfortunately, he had no rhythm, none. But he would go up on the West Side and sit in, and I went there with him one night and played the organ, and the leader of the group fired his organ player and hired me. Then I went from there, and started working with a guy named Cozy Eggleston. While working with Cozy, Ajaramu, the drummer, heard me, and we formed a group together. He was the one that brought me into the AACM.

TP: Talk about your background in Arkansas. Had you been playing piano and organ since very young, and in church?

AMINA: Well, I started playing the piano . . . I was taking European classical music around seven, and then I started playing in the church, leading choirs and co-leaders of several gospel groups in my pre-teens, all the way up through college. Then the organ was introduced in the early '60s. I was playing the piano in a club, then the organs came in, and then I started playing in the churches, playing church organ.

TP: So you were playing both in the church and jazz as well?

AMINA: Yes, I was.

TP: Talk about your early exposure to jazz. Who were the pianists who inspired you in the type of music you were trying to play?

AMINA: Well, first of all, I was doing rhythm&blues and everything. And a young lady when I was in college came up to me and she said, "I have a job for you, but it's playing in a nightclub." I've told this story so many times. I wasn't even thinking about playing in a nightclub. I said, "Girl, I can't play no nightclub." She said, "Yes, you can. It pays five dollars a night." And as I have said so often, we called her "the black Elizabeth Taylor," because she looked just like Elizabeth Taylor.

So I went down there and got this job playing. I copied all of the . . . Because I was singing. I always sang and played at the same time. I copied all of Ella Fitzgerald's "Stomping At The Savoy," note for note. But like Roscoe was saying, the jukebox there had Ornette Coleman, Lou Donaldson, and Ornette's music was very popular. I always liked it. It sounded strange, but I liked it.

But a lot of the piano players from Memphis, Tennessee, used to come to this hotel which had a room in it . . . The club was in the hotel. So I picked up a lot of things on piano from the pianists that would stay at the hotel. They played at the white country clubs in Little Rock.

TP: Who were some of the pianists you heard then?

AMINA: Charles Thomas. He's in Memphis now.

TP: He played a week at Bradley's in New York a few months ago.

AMINA: Oh, a few months ago. I heard that he had been this way, but I didn't know when. A young man that's passed away now, Eddie Collins. There's a young guy that's on the scene now, his father is . . . I can't think of his name. He's from Little Rock now. He's very popular.

So this is how I learned. I started picking up things on the piano, trying to learn how to play "So What" and things like that. But mainly I was copying Nina Simone, Dakota Staton, Ella Fitzgerald.

TP: What was early impression of the AACM after you got to Chicago? What was your first experience like?

AMINA: Well, I was very apprehensive. Because Muhal had those charts! I thought they was . . . I said, "Oh, my goodness." There were about two or three piano players on the scene, and I was hoping I wouldn't be called! Because reading the music, it looked so, so difficult. I was more or less shy. Believe it or not, I was. I was hoping I wouldn't be called to play. I would worry all while I was up there at the piano! I was worried about playing the wrong note. Because the music looked very difficult to me, and it can be. But Muhal was very patient and very encouraging.

Then when we started organizing smaller groups, we all did things. Like, Roscoe and all of them were inspiring. I never felt . . . You know, I felt that I belonged and that I was, and I realized that I could write, and that I had something to say. Because you know, Roscoe used to walk around with this big tall top hat, it was about five feet high tall! He was painting, Muhal was painting. They were doing all these things. It was very, very creative. So it was like a beehive of activity, and I was inspired.

TP: It sounds like Chicago was a place where you could really actualize anything that came to mind through the work you were doing and put it out there, and it would generate new activity, and it just kept going and going.

ROSCOE: That's true. Because we were very fortunate to be in a spot where there were so many people that were thinking the same way. It was also very inspiring. Because I remember going to different people's concerts, and then the way I would feel, I'd be so excited that I felt that I wanted to go home and try to really work hard for my next concert. And so on and so on. You would always be inspired . . . it was just a great time, a great learning time for music, and you didn't have to be quite as rushed as, like, for instance, if you had been in New York at that time, where everybody is over here and over there, you know, trying to do this and do that to make some money or whatever. I'm not saying anything about New York. I'm just saying that it was easier to get a bunch of people together there, at that time, then it would have been in New York.

AMINA: Mmm-hmm. It was. It was.

TP: Well, New York seems a much more competitive, cut-throat type of place in many ways. Considering the AACM has stayed together and the relationships have remained over thirty-plus years, it's testimony to the bonds that formed during that time.

AMINA: Right. Because of our foundation there. I don't think it could have happened here because it's too spread out. There's too much . . . You have to work so hard to survive here. It was much more relaxed in Chicago.

TP: But I don't exactly get the sense that in Chicago it was so economically wonderful for the musicians in the AACM, but I guess it was maybe a little easier to live.

ROSCOE: Yeah, that, and then . . . Well, we're an example to the world of what musicians can do if they put their resources together. I mean, not only did the AACM exist. I mean, of course, we started it off . . . The way we got things going was, we paid dues, and we saved our money, and we had our programs for the children in the community, and then we would do our concerts.

AMINA: We had a training program.

ROSCOE: Yes. Then we also went on to an idea beyond that. We thought, like, "Hmm, well, why don't we encourage people in other cities to do a similar type thing, and then have exchange concerts and things like that." I mean, we also created work for musicians, in a way. We'd have musicians come up from Detroit, which later became the B.A.G, the Black Artists Group . . .

AMINA: St. Louis.

ROSCOE: I mean, St. Louis. Sorry.

TP: You were going back and forth to Detroit also, I guess.

ROSCOE: Well, Michigan is where I started the C.A.C., which is the Creative Music Collective. We followed the same format that we had laid out in the AACM. I mean, we did our concerts, and then we'd bring different people in to play. It was like creating employment.

TP: Roscoe, it sounds like you and Malachi Favors formed an instant bond from those days in junior college. And he was a member of your original ensemble, even before the first Delmark recording. A few words about that relationship.

ROSCOE: Well, he was also at Wilson Junior College with us. It was Threadgill, Malachi, Jack DeJohnette, Joseph, John Powell, and a bunch of other folks. Yes, Malachi was in some of my earliest groups, that's true. We did form an immediate bond. Although we don't always agree on everything, we do at least agree on music, you know! So that's kept us together through all of these years.

TP: Talk about your earliest groups, before Sound was recorded. Were you basically working toward the areas that you explored on Sound in those groups in '64 and '65?

ROSCOE: Well, like we were talking about before we went on the air here, we've got a record way back there with Alvin Fielder and Fred Berry, who is a trumpet player that used to play with us, Malachi and myself, which is a very good record which we might release sometime. But then even before that, Gene Dinwiddie, who I don't know how many people know of him now, but he went on to be a member of Paul Butterfield's band for a while; and then Kalaparusha was playing with us a lot in those days. The other night I was playing in Chicago at the Hot House, and a guy came by with some photographs from that period, 30 years ago, with Lester Lashley on there playing cello, and this other drummer that we worked with out of St. Louis -- at that time his name was Leonard Smith, and now his name is Fela(?).

In those days, that's all we did, was play. I mean, we rehearsed every day. When it was warm, we went to the park and played every day. I mean, Chicago was that kind of place. When I was growing up there, if you went to the park, you could always find Curley out there, a saxophonist, playing. And a lot of guys that were really trying to learn how to play and stuff, they would go out there and hang around him. So these groups and the AACM, I mean, they all evolved out of this kind of philosophy.

TP: Amina, what did having musicians available like Roscoe and Kalaparusha and many others do for your writing with your various groups, Amina and Company, in the mid 1960s?

AMINA: Well, everybody has a different style and approach. For instance, Kalaparusha was playing with us for quite a while. We traveled together. I had this little electric piano, and I would watch how he voiced his chords with the clusters and things. And just observing the scores and hearing the music, I saw that the mind was free to create whatever you wanted to create, and that it would work, you know, if you believed in it, and it would have a meaning to it. I noticed this with all the music, with Muhal . . .

Everyone was different, but yet they were unique within their own. Of course, my background was mostly just Gospel. I never studied technically. So basically, mine was I guess a little bit more simple. I didn't know anything about chords or anything like that really. I just had some of the basic things. So I just had to observe and listen and watch. I'd see what Muhal would do . . . I just picked up what I could.

TP: I guess later, when you worked with Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, the chords probably came into play a little more.

AMINA: Yes. They didn't believe in having music. Sonny Stitt would rehearse something, and then three months later he would call it.

ROSCOE: [Loud laugh]

AMINA: I remember "Autumn in New York," he rehearsed that, and then I forgot all about the song. But he said, "'Autumn In New York,'" and just started playing it! So it was like you had this on your mind. See, I didn't know anything about going to the stores and buying sheet music. I was very naive, believe it not; very naive. In doing gospel music, we never used any music. We picked up all the songs off the radio. There was no such thing as buying music. You know, I was from a little village on the highway, and the quartet singers would come through, so I mean, we never saw music -- you just picked it up from what you heard.

So therefore, with Sonny and Jug . . . Jug did have a few little tunes he wrote on the chord changes on occasion. But basically, they wanted you to hear it up here. You had to hear it. They said, "Use your ears." Especially Sonny Stitt. He would always say, "Use your ears."

TP: Roscoe, Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons are really synonymous, in a way, with a certain sound of Chicago. Were they a big part of your early experience as a saxophonist?

ROSCOE: Yeah, of course. And Nicky Hill was also a big part. I mean, a lot of folks don't know about Nicky Hill. He was also a great saxophonist in Chicago. There were so many people! I mean, Clarence Wheeler was a great saxophonist. There was a guy when I was growing up named George Fullalove(?), who was a great saxophonist. And this guy that I just told you about, Curly; I mean, he'd go out in the park and he'd be out there six-eight hours a day, standing up there, running scales and arpeggios all day, all day long. We'd just go out there and sit and listen to him, and he'd tell us about this and tell us about that, and show us different things and stuff like that.

I mean, Chicago has a very rich tradition in music. I mean, there are so many people that you don't even hear about that are totally great.

TP: And it's been that way since the turn of the century, since the Pekin Theater was built on 27th Street and Michigan Avenue in 1905.

ROSCOE: Exactly.

TP: A center of show business and black artists.

[Music: Amina, "Jumping In The Sugar Bowl" (1986); Roscoe, "Walking In The Moonlight" (1994)]

TP: "Walking In The Moonlight" was a composition by Roscoe Mitchell, Sr. Was your father a musician, a working musician? Obviously he was a lover of music.

ROSCOE: Yeah, he was a lover of music. He was a singer, you know. Not only was it the jazz artists who were real popular in those days, but the popular singer was also very popular; Nat "King" Cole, of course, comes to mind . . .

TP: Did your father know him from his younger days in Chicago?

ROSCOE: Yes, he did. My mother went to school with Nat "King" Cole. They remember him always going to the church to practice the piano and stuff all the time.

TP: Nat Cole's father was a minister . . .

ROSCOE: Yes. And . . . Oh, what was I saying . . . ?

TP: I interrupted you. Sorry.

ROSCOE: Yes. [Laughs]

TP: Your father was a singer . . .

ROSCOE: Yes, my father was a singer, and he was one . . . I guess you could group him into the group of singers that they call crooners. He also used to do a thing where he would imitate instruments, you know, with his voice.

TP: Would you say you picked up your earliest musical inspiration from him? Did he get you your first instrument?

ROSCOE: Well, I would say that my father always wanted me to be a singer, you know, because that was his first love. I think my brother is the one who got me interested in the instrument. I always loved music.

TP: Well, you have that rich baritone. I'd imagine you could have gone somewhere with it!

ROSCOE: Yeah. But it was my brother who was largely responsible for me starting to know about people like Lester Young and Charlie Parker and so forth.

TP: A number of the older musicians in Chicago who people might not necessarily think of as being involved in the AACM were early members, like Jodie Christian, the pianist on Hey Donald!.

ROSCOE: Yes, he was. Jodie was my idol when I was in high school. I mean, I remember Lester telling a story about Jodie and a group he had with I think Bunky Green and Paul Serrano, and it might have been Victor Sproles or somebody on bass -- I don't remember. He remembered they came down to St. Louis, and they were so great that the people just said, "Oh, they've got to stay a few more days," so they cancelled their whole program and kept them down there. All those people were just a great inspiration to me. Like I said, in Chicago you could just go out and see these kind of people, like, all the time. So there was always something to keep you thinking about something.

TP: Eddie Harris, who is working at Sweet Basil . . . he and Richard Abrams were actually partnering on a workshop orchestra that eventually became the Experimental Band.

ROSCOE: That's correct.

TP: Muhal, of course, worked with Eddie Harris' groups in the late 1960s and early '70s.

ROSCOE: Yes, he did.

TP: Now, Eddie Harris is someone who was very much concerned with sound and explorations in sound in similar ways to what you have been doing.

ROSCOE: Of course he is. I mean, Eddie Harris is the only guy that I really know that really has ever done anything with the electric saxophone and all of these different kinds of things. He has always been right on the edge of creativity all the time, I mean, with all the different things that he invented, and his books, and he's got the ability to be extremely experimental or just walk over here or something and get a big hit -- as a jazz musician! You remember when he came out with "Exodus," I'm sure. He was always a great inspiration to all of us. I was just in St. Louis, I don't know, a few months ago, and I was very lucky that Eddie Harris was playing at the hotel that I was staying in, so I got to see him and listen to his music again.

TP: Amina, in Little Rock, where you settled I guess as a young adult, there was a thriving musical community as well. Two musicians prominent on the scene today who come to mind, although I don't know if you were there exactly when they were there, are Pharaoh Sanders and John Stubblefield.

AMINA: Well, when I was in college I met Stubblefield. His group came over to play. We had originally hired Arthur Porter I believe is his name. His son, Art Porter, Jr., is now very popular on the scene. Art Porter couldn't make it so, he sent Stubblefield's band. We clashed the first night, but we've been very good friends ever since then. Pharaoh wasn't there. He had moved by the time I got there.

TP: Tell me about the music that you've composed for the concert on June 18. It's original music commissioned for this concert.

AMINA: Well, I've been commissioned to write a composition for a chamber orchestra of 12 pieces, the S.E.M. Ensemble, directed by Petr Kotik. Then Roscoe and I will be doing a duet, along with other duets he's doing. This will be original music also.

TP: Roscoe, you mentioned that your Army experience sort of catapulted you into being a professional musician. In the Art Ensemble of Chicago, I think everybody but Moye spent some time in the Army. It seems to me that that experience must have had a big impact on the Art Ensemble's being able to forge their path during the difficult days of the late '60s.

ROSCOE: Well, you learn how to survive in the Army, that's for sure. And it's true, I met great people in the Army. Like, another guy out of Chicago, Reuben Cooper, was in the Army with me at that time. Lucious White, who is Joseph Jarman's cousin, who is an excellent alto saxophonist and bassoonist. When I was in Heidelberg, Germany, Nathaniel Davis's group had won the All- Army competition, so they came and stayed with us for almost about a month or so. I would go around with him and he'd be playing . . . I remember one time we were down at the Cave 54 in Heidelberg, Germany. There was a great Danish saxophonist there who was in Germany at that time, Bent Jadik, and he'd always be down there kind of running over everybody, and then when Nathaniel Davis came down there that night [laughs], we saw Bent Jadik kind of perk up a little bit!

Like I said, a lot of really talented musicians that were willing to share some time with me and show me different things like that. Some people may have had a bad experience in the Army. Mine wasn't that bad. I mean, I actually came out of there knowing something about music.

TP: Talk a little about that three-year sojourn in Europe with the Art Ensemble. What was your impetus for going over there?

ROSCOE: Well, we had been all over the States. We were very adventurous, you know. And I think that we're responsible for a lot of people that go over there now. Because people weren't really going over there, you know. We went over there and carried the banner of the AACM. We started playing at this club, it was a small theater really, in Montparnesse, called the Luciniere(?) Theater. We played there four nights a week, and sometimes we'd have enough at the end of the gig to go get ourselves a cheese sandwich and a beer. But people started to know about us. And this is how people became interested in us in Europe.

Also Steve McCall was over there at that time, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith was there. But not only them, there were all these people from New York. I mean, Paris was alive with music then. I've never seen Paris like that as I saw it in the late '60s. There was always music all the time. This guy who put out all those records, Jean-George Caracas(?), did this big festival. He was supposed to have it in Paris, and at the last moment they wouldn't let him have it at the Mall de MutualitĒ, so he had to change everything around, and he had it in Amiges(?), Belgium. This was like a grand festival, with a whole week, two different stages, one shut down and the next one kicked right up, and so on. He had all kinds of music there.

Then after that was that whole rich time when we did all those different recordings. I got a chance to record with Archie Shepp and Grachan Moncur and Sunny Murray and so on and so forth. I mean, there were concerts almost every night. Every day everybody was at the American Center, playing all the time. I've never seen Paris like that.

TP: Well, the records bear that out. There's a real sort of fire burning through all of them collectively.

ROSCOE: Exactly. I mean, Cal Massey was there. I was hanging out with Hank Mobley, Don Byas, so on . . . I mean, I couldn't have asked for a richer experience as a young musician at that time.

TP: One musician who both you and Amina have both mentioned as being right there, and who was at the beginning of Roscoe's musical explorations, is Henry Threadgill. In the next set we'll hear compositions by him on which Amina and Roscoe perform. In Amina's case, she's featured on organ on a song entitled "Song Out Of My Trees," the title track of a 1994 release on Black Saint, with Ed Cherry on guitar, Henry Threadgill, alto saxophone, and Reggie Nicholson on drums. Then from Roscoe Mitchell's new release on Lovely Music, Pilgrimage, the Roscoe Mitchell New Chamber Ensemble, we'll hear "He Didn't Give Up; He Was Taken", music by Henry Threadgill and poetry by Thulani Davis. This is a quartet for baritone voice, Thomas Buckner; violin, Vartan Manoogian; alto saxophone, Roscoe Mitchell, piano, Joseph Kubera.

Amina, a few words about the piece we're about to hear.

AMINA: Well, on this particular piece, Henry started hearing things for organ. He's always coming up with various combinations of instrumentation. And it seems like the organ started coming back on the scene again, so I was glad to see that. It was very interesting playing this particular composition with Henry.

TP: Roscoe.

ROSCOE: I'll have to say about Henry, he's a great musician and a great inspiration. I'd like to start off by saying that. Because Henry was also there back in Wilson Junior College days. My admiration of him as a composer. . . I mean, he just completely overwhelms me every time I hear something by him, because I'm always inspired by what he's actually writing. This piece that we do on this record is a text of Thulani Davis about a guy who was homeless, but despite all of that he didn't give up, he went on, he was taken, he had a purpose. This piece grew out of a concert that happened in New York at Town Hall, where we had the New Chamber Ensemble and Henry Threadgill's group both doing separate pieces and combined pieces. So he wrote this piece for the New Chamber Ensemble at that time.

[Music: Threadgill-Amina-Nicholson-Cherry, "Song Out of My Trees" (1994); RM New Chamber Ensemble, "He Didn't Give Up; He Was Taken" (1995)]

TP: In summing things up, I'd like to talk about current events, current projects. Roscoe, you've been living in Madison, Wisconsin, and using it as your base. How many groups are you working with now? Delineate and your teaching . . .

ROSCOE: For the moment I'm not teaching. The different groups that I'm playing with right now: Of course, the Art Ensemble is one. The Note Factory is another. The New Chamber Ensemble is another. Then, I do different variations of different things. I had a concert in Chicago last Saturday with Matthew Shipp, Spencer Barefield (who is a member of the original Sound Ensemble), Malachi Favors, Gerald Cleaver, who is the new drummer (and an excellent drummer, I might add) that I've been working with out of Detroit, and of course myself on woodwinds. I'm a composer also, so depending upon what someone is asking for, the size of the ensemble or whatever, I'll write for that also. Then of course, don't let me forget, we just had the record come out with the quartet with Jodie Christian, Malachi Favors and Albert "Tootie" Heath.

TP: You also appear on a recent recording on Delmark with Jodie Christian, a couple of very strong pieces.


TP: You've always incorporated extended techniques on the different saxophones, but it seems that your use of circular breathing has really been entering your compositional formats in the last decade. Can you talk about the esthetics of circular breathing, what it allows you to do?

ROSCOE: Well, if I look at Frank Wright, for instance, and the kinds of things that he was doing in the early '60s, which I was very impressed by, what I can do now is go back and reflect not only on that situation, but other situations musically. Just his approach to the sound, for instance, I've studied that, and now I can extend that through circular breathing. That's what it allows you to be able to do. It also gives me the opportunity to be able to put more, longer phrases together, and the opportunity to explore when notes really come at you very fast and continuous for a long time.

With me, it's an experiment. Everything is an experiment. So when I'm out with one of my groups, it takes us at least a week or so playing every night before we really start to get up there, and then it gets so exciting that after a concert is over you can never sleep at night. So sometimes I'll have a glass of wine and it will calm me down.

But to me, it's all an experiment. The fun for me is going out and having the opportunity to explore these different ideas that I have in my head.

Of course, I listened to Roland Kirk all the time when he was alive, and I was totally amazed by what he did, because not only did he circular breathe; he was able to play several instruments, you know, out of his mouth and some out of his nose, and so on and so forth. Now, there's a guy who really had control over that. If you think about circular breathing, it's a very old tradition. I mean, the aborigines used it, the Egyptian musicians used it a long time ago. I became interested in it through Roland Kirk, and I had to think about it for about a year before I was able to do it.

TP: In regard to everything being an experiment, the Art Ensemble of Chicago must have been an ideal vehicle for workshopping ideas on a consistent basis, night after night, week after week, year after year.

ROSCOE: Of course. I mean, I think that's the thing that keeps people going, is the opportunity to explore music. I could never be one of those musicians that just plays the same thing all the time, because that's never been my interest with music. The thing that's always fascinated me about music is there's so much to learn, and I like to try to keep myself as much as I can in the forefront of that learning process.

TP: Amina, same question to you as I posed to Roscoe: The different situations you're working in, current projects, etc.

AMINA: Well, right now I'm doing a lot of blues, gospel, jazz and extended forms of music solo piano. Hopefully, I'm trying to organize pipe organ work in Europe, various parts of Europe. They have expressed interest in that.

TP: Talk about the dynamics of that vis-a-vis working with the Hammond or various electric organs.

AMINA: Well, of course, with the electric everything is right there, right at the touch. With the pipe organ you're dealing with the air. The sound is so vast -- you work at it more, but the rewards are so much greater with the pipe organ, because there's phenomenal combinations, and the size of the pipes, you get all the different kinds of sounds. You can't beat it. I mean, the Hammond, I would say, would be, as far as electric organ, I would prefer that. If I had to play the electric organ, it would be the Hammond B-3. But pipe organ, there's just no comparison really. It's very thrilling to be able to play that. I would like to do more with that.

Originally I had done some work with voice choir with the pipe organ, so hopefully I can continue to do that. I'm just working now on gospel, writing gospel tunes for the solo performances.

TP: So it's primarily solo. You don't really have a working band . . . ?

AMINA: Oh, yes, I have a trio. Well, I do a lot of trio work. Right now I'm getting calls for a lot of Bessie Smith material and the trio format. The solo piano and trio formats.

TP: Who's the bassist and drummer these days?

AMINA: Reggie Nicholson on percussion and Alonzo Gardner or Jerome Harris on bass.

TP: On the next set we'll hear duos both of you have played with Muhal Richard Abrams, who has been such a great inspiration for both of you. I know I asked you for some words about him before, but maybe we can conclude with some comments about you, the AACM, and your relations with Muhal Richard Abrams over the years. Roscoe?

ROSCOE: Well, like I said before, Muhal has like always been a mentor, not only to me but so many other musicians in Chicago. I think it was through his efforts of keeping that Experimental Band going where all these people could get together; it provided a place where all these ideas could come out. Like I said, this was where the ideas for putting the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians came about. We were interested in controlling our own destinies, because we'd read the books and seen what happened to people who were out there on their own. I think they didn't really treat Charlie Parker that well, or Coltrane. I think Charlie Parker had maybe one European tour or something in his life; I don't know what it was. But those kinds of things made us want to reassess the situation and try to band together, so that we could create self-employment for ourselves, sponsor each other in concerts of our own original music, maintain a training program for young, inspired musicians. These are the kinds of things that have kept us going throughout the years.

AMINA: Muhal is really my spiritual brother. I think we must have known each other in a past life. You see, Muhal, he never stops creating. He constantly inspires me. He'll push without pushing. He'll say, "Okay, Amina, you need to do this, you need . . . " So he'll always find ways to encourage me to write and to create and to do things. He'll bring up some ideas. Because he knows the things that I can do sometimes that I don't even think about doing. So I mean, he's very inspiring to me. I didn't know that he was coming to New York; I don't know if he knew that I was coming. But we have been in close contact since being here. As I said, he's my spiritual brother, and I appreciate all the things that he has done to encourage me. He still does that. Not that I depend on him, but I can look to Muhal for any type of assistance, musically or whatever. And he has inspired a lot of people, and people love him because of that. I certainly do.

[Music: Muhal-Amina, "Dance From The East" (1981); Roscoe-Muhal, "Ode To the Imagination" (1990)]

C o m m e n t s

Where is Ajaramu? 1 of 5
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August 09, 02

I was thinking of the drummer Ajaramu and the contributions he made as a drummer, and as a sage for creative Black music. Is there anyone who would like to comment on that? If so you may e-mail me at

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