first album by the Art Ensemble of Chicago that I bought was Fanfare
For The Warriors: a "cut-out", already out-of-print LP although
the album was fairly recent. Then I started buying all their old albums
I could find, while at the same time keeping up to date with their current
output. For geographical reasons, I only saw the classic five people
line-up once, in 1984: an excellent concert where the group played a
lot of material from their Urban Bushmen double LP with quite a few
tracks taken from their then newly released album The Third Decade.
years later, I had the opportunity to catch the group in a quite different
line-up. I interviewed Roscoe Mitchell in the afternoon before the concert:
July 3, 1999. The interview was taped in the (extremely noisy) hall
of the Sheraton Hotel where the group was staying. The interview appeared
(in Italian language) in the issue # 17, October 1999, of the Italian
monthly Blow Up. The original English text is published here for the
first time. I've updated the discography that appears at the end.
saw the names of the line-up of the Art Ensemble of Chicago that's gonna
play here and I noticed there's a new member in the group, Ari Brown.
He's not a new member, he's a
special guest - because Lester Bowie is ill.
I'm sorry to hear about
that... The last time I saw the group Joseph Jarman was still in... I've
never seen the group as a quartet... By the way, I liked your Nine To
Get Ready CD very much...
I'd like to know
about the direction of your group, in the flow of the Great Black Music
tradition you've pursued till now...
Well, I think now is probably the best time in music - ever;
because it's gonna separate, you know, people that really know what
they're doing and people who don't... I think this is probably the best
time for people that continued to work in this music throughout the
years... 'cause if you look at it you're looking at almost, like, forty
years... now... this is probably gonna be THE best time of the music. So
that's the direction (laughs). I mean, it's gonna be a great
time for people that can really do it and for people that can't - not
too great. I mean, what I've noticed is that European embraced the music
in the sixties and then everybody went commercial... so for people that
went commercial... obviously... cannot compete... in this music. For me, you
only see me do this with the Art Ensemble, here, in Europe, but there's
so many things that I do... and maybe people never ask me to come to Europe
because I've always remained very experimental in my approach to music.
I remember there were some live albums you made in Europe - like at
the Moers Festival in Germany in the seventies with a big line-up -
so you mean they don't call you now...
No, they don't call me because
they think they have people that can do what I do... they think that.
like people who are European-based...
Yes. Like Peter Brötzmann... he can play a little bit of
what Frank Wright plays... that's all. You got a lot of people that can
only do... do that.
... a tiny part?
a tiny part.
Peter Brötzmann... now he is in Chicago?
He is. "Living there. Does he live there? I don't know."
don't know either...
(laughs) I don't know either... "Keep upputy, mummy." (???) You know, I saw at The Atlanta
Arts Festival... it's like some song.
But the American market, from
what I've read on magazines like Down Beat, really rewards the more
yeah, I know that, I know that.
... I was thinking about, to name just
one person, Wynton Marsalis, and the things he organizes at Lincoln
Center in New York. And I think it was the American critic Francis Davis
who said that he reacted against a revolution thinking he was a revolutionary
but he was a counter-revolutionary.
Definitely. Counter-revolutionary. See, there's like... creative musicians,
and there's re-creative musicians. Wynton Marsalis is a re-creative
musician, because he plays the music of Duke Ellington - he doesn't
play the music of Wynton Marsalis. John Coltrane played the music of
John Coltrane. Charlie Parker played the music of Charlie Parker. Lester
Young played the music of Lester Young. So all of these people that
are playing the music of other people, to me they are re-creative musicians.
Since I'm interested in electronic music too I'd like
to ask you about two collaborations you've had: the one with George
Lewis on his Voyager project with his interactive software, and the
one with Tom Hamilton, Off-Hour Wait State, with the interaction with
Well, for me it's nothing new,
I've been doing that all the time, because for a long time I've collaborated
with a man called David Wessel; David Wessel is the première
person in computer music; I knew David Wessel when he spends two or
three days to get one note on the computer and he's the man who organizes
the Computer Music Conferences in the States and also in Europe the
Computer Music Festival in Paris and also the Computer Music Festival
in Den Haag. So I mean, I've been doing that for a long time.
situations, what's the difference in approach with the interactive software,
like the Voyager project with George Lewis...
George's program I learn more and more about it; you know, there's certain
things that you can do to get a certain response from the computer -
this is what's interesting to me, you know, just to see what the computer
can do; and there's certain things that you can do that would cause...
certain type of the response from the computer; it's not always the
same. You can actually almost communicate with the computer - with George's
'Cause it's interactive... and so you cannot predict the response
Sort of... Kind of... I mean, if
you play not many notes it does something... lots of notes you get a different
response... soft, you get another type of the response... loud, another
type of the response... real notes, another type of the response... multiphonics
another type of the response, and so on and so on.
I was wondering
about this because on your first album, in 1966, there was a piece called
Sound and you've always explored this dimension of music even though
at that time it was an acoustic experience - so I think that's not,
in a certain way, that different from that...
No, it's not. And then I spent
a lot of time building the vocabulary to do these things... I spent a
lot of time really trying not to play a melody - you know, anything
that sounds like a melody I tried not to play it... and I spent a lot
of time doing that... I spent a lot of time playing melodies... I spent
a lot of time playing things that are very dense... I spent a lot of time
playing things that are very sparse... I spent a lot of time studying
very complicated rhythms and so on and so forth... so when I played sax
solo it was like more than one instrument... you know, that kind of thing...
you know, many different studies over the years... and now, all I want
to do is study... you know... for me. You know, I mean I love to study...you
know, like - all the time.
Since you've mentioned Den Haag I'd like
to know if you've heard of a musician up there, whose name is Luc Houtkamp,
who plays the saxophone and is into electronic music.
And about younger musicians who live
in Chicago, what's your opinion of Ken Vandermark...
I don't know if I even know him...
played with John McPhee...
I don't know him that well.
And Rob Mazurek,
a cornet player...
don't really know their music that much... I don't know.
The last album
you did with The Note Factory was the second one you did with them -
not with the same line-up. I remember the first one on Black Saint,
This Dance Is For Steve McCall, I liked it very much - it was the first
album on which I heard Matthew Shipp. It was a long time before you
made another one.
A long time for everything. It's
almost like... I had to endure...I don't even know why...just to keep the
band together... and I kept that band together for, like, twenty-five
years... they've done everything, including taking my musicians and putting
'em with everybody and everything else. So it's a miracle that The Note
Factory even was able to do anything. A miracle.
But do you think
that the music of The Note Factory is perceived as being more difficult
than, for instance, the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago?
I don't know, I don't know what it is. See, a long time ago there were
small record companies, and people with visions about what they wanted
to record, and so on, and there still are some people like that. Unfortunately,
they are not doing as well, right now, as the big conglomerate record
companies. So the banks and the big conglomerates they're taking over
everything. A long time ago Down Beat used to be a jazz magazine, you
follow what I'm saying? So the market moved in on art - I mean not only
in the field of music - in the field of art, in the field of writing,
in the field of everything.
Movies? Oh, yeah! Nobody can
do anything anymore. Everything that people do is a re-make of something
that's already been done. When in fact, if you think about the things
that you really like, you know, the people that were doing those were
not like that. With me, I come to the point to where a lot of times
that is not interesting I find I don't wanna be involved because I don't
wanna waste my time with this kind of people, because there's too many
other great things to be doing. But what I have noticed is that this
music has started to become very, very popular in the States, also,
and I never thought that I would see the time...
... I'm sorry, which
more avant-garde, free or whatever you wanna call, contemporary... is
really popular in the States now; what people wanna hear, they wanna
hear people that can really get up there and fight, that's what people
wanna hear now, because it's a direct communication to the mind, and
thinkers - that's what they wanna do. So I don't really know what direction
people in the end are going in, but I do know which direction I'm going
in, and like for a lot of things I don't really have any more time for
those anymore, I mean this is my conclusion. Because all the great people
that I admire, this is what they did. And the Art Ensemble has remained
contemporary throughout the whole scene. People jumped at this music
too fast - they thought
they had it (laughs)
and they don't. They don't. They jumped at it too fast, they thought
they would just jump up there and try to do it. And they don't have
it. A lot of people are totally boring. Very boring.
You said "wasting
my time", I remember there was a song you sang, I think, You Wastin'
My Tyme, on a Black Saint album with The Sound And Space Ensemble. What's
the importance of the human voice in your music?
human voice is the instrument. A lot of people regard the human
voice as the main instrument. I did a lot of work with Thomas Buckner
over the years - as a matter of fact we just came back - I had a piece
for symphony orchestra and baritone and myself on alto saxophone. It
was premiered last year in New York in Alice Tully Hall and maybe my
next record for ECM will be a full symphony orchestra, and have a piece
for solo piano, also a piece for violin and piano, and then I'm also
working with The Early Music Orchestra, in Wisconsin - recorders, viola
di gamba, viols... I transcribed a lot of my works for that type of an
It's some of your previous work arranged for a different
Yeah, what I've done is like... I had three pieces for voice
and piano with the text by e. e. cummings that could be heard on Tom
Buckner's Full Spectrum Voice, and one of the pieces is called This,
with text by e. e. cummings - what I've done is I've used Renaissance
instrumentation; there's another piece that I wrote in 1978 that was
dedicated to musician/instrument maker Don Oropio Gerit (???); it's based on a flute that he made for me a long time ago
and it's called Variations On Sketches From The Bamboo; on The Sound
and Space Ensemble's record you can hear some parts of that. Now, I
had it for orchestra, a big orchestra, so now I transcribed that also
for recorders, then two triple viols, which are in the range of viola,
two gambas, cello and also guitar which functions in the role of the
harp, and also a bass. And that takes care of this piece. And then there's
another piece called Because It's, on which the flute takes the solo
role of the voice in the first part, and it's for baroque flute, harpsichord,
there's two viols, the gamba, cello and bass.I mean, there's so much
work to do, so to get hung-up in what people are doing commercially,
you know for serious people it's stupid. I look to people like Muhal
Richard Abrams... see, Muhal Richard Abrams is great, I mean from way
back in the sixties he had a large band but people would rather waste
their time having people do the music of Duke Ellington. I mean, when
in fact, people like Muhal, Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith and myself, we're
the people that can take the big band into its next evolution. But people
would rather sit up (sings: dee-da...) all night and don't sound as
good as Duke. I've never heard any of those men sound as good as Duke
Ellington. Never heard it. But this is it, I mean, you've got this kind
of people, and when history looks back on them... in fact they're gonna
be looked at as people who stunned the development of the music. This
is what they've done. That's all. That's all they've done. I mean, our
music it's never been like that. It's never been some music that was
constantly reproduced. I mean, just look at the history of it. It's
never been like that, so why should all of a sudden - it's like that?
It doesn't seem to make any sense to me. I mean, Anthony Braxton just
come out with his opera; he put it out himself. He spent some $200.000
to put it out. I'm waiting to get home, because it's at my house now,
and it looks like Sony or something has put it out - the way it's packaged
and everything. I mean, this is the kind of stuff that is worth doing,
not a replaying of Take The A Train or something like that.
label it's gonna come out, his opera?
his own label.
Because a few years ago I read there were
some five albums of his that were gonna come out on that label, but
I never managed to get them - in fact, I don't even know whether they
really came out. I have some records of his on Leo Records where he
uses orchestra and choir, but this is a full opera...
it's an opera.
Anthony Davis went in the direction, generally speaking,
of the opera. I used to like him as a composer and piano player, and
then I don't know if he made any more records, after the ones on Gramavision,
with orchestra, he made a couple of operas - X...
X, Malcom X, yeah...
... but are these things
they are. His are funded. But, I mean, he does things that are more...
in the popular market... X... everybody wants to know about Malcom X.
you think that it's easier to get funding for things which are in the
classical realm today in the States, or in experimental music which
is not labelled as classical music?
Well, I mean it depends who you
are. I mean, Philip Glass, they get Philip Glass lot of money. They're
giving a lot of people a lot of money, and it turns out they don't really
do that much. I've seen Philip Glass and some of his things I like,
but I mean he's still doing, like, the same thing, I think. I don't
know, I haven't seen his last thing that he did but most people that
went told me it really wasn't that interesting. Now, I don't know, I
mean, 'cause I didn't go there, so maybe I shouldn't say that, 'cause
I wasn't there, but, see, there's another thing that time brings about,
you know: you can't make somebody a hero. People have to be heroes on
their own merits. The media has tried to do this but it doesn't work like that.
year we saw a little opera of his, here in Sicily, and it wasn't musically
that interesting at all: it was like the music he did thirty years ago...
just the same...
a lot of people don't really have it... but people... they're trying to
make it like it's happening and it's not. But you see that in everything,
you see it in education, you see it in everything, now, the whole system
almost needs to be revamped. One of my heroes is like Telemann, because
he put out his own magazine, one week, be a part of the conversation,
you want the rest of the piece, you buy the next magazine, and so on
and so forth. Mozart, he's out there in the streets all the time, with
his quartet, and so on and so forth. Schubert. Beethoveen. So on. On
the other side, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro. All of these people. Duke
Ellington. If you can do anything, I've said that you owe your debt
of gratitude to the people that have really done something, you owe
your debt of gratitude to them, because everything has to keep moving
About record companies, there's an interview I did in the issue
of the magazine I just gave you, with Chris Cutler, a great drummer
and owner of an independent label, and we've discussed some of the same
things, about the constant struggle of all the creative musicians... but
there was a time in the eighties when people like John Zorn were for
a minute in the fashion and they had contract with big record companies
- Zorn was on Elektra/Nonesuch, if I'm not mistaken...- but they did some
records and then the trend changed, they're not in for the long goal...
I think John Zorn has a club,
now, in New York; but he's only a student of Anthony Braxton; he used
to study with Anthony Braxton, and so did Tim Berne. Now, in fact, they
can't even carry Anthony's horn case, in my opinion. They cannot carry
Anthony's horn case. But they get more exposure and so on than Anthony
Braxton. To me that's totally ridiculous. Anthony is a man of continually
flowing ideas, and everybody else is sitting around waiting to see what
he does... and the music has developed to such a point now that even the
audience knows. Even the audience knows what's going on.
two old albums by the Art Ensemble of Chicago have been re-released
on CD: Bap-Tizum and Fanfare for the Warriors...
And we're still trying to get
our money; they still haven't paid us for doing that - Atlantic. They
constantly ignore our phone calls and so on and so forth. They still
didn't pay us - correctly. So I say, it's late for Atlantic... (laughs)
I mean, are they late or
is it something we could call "strange accounting procedures"?
It's very strange accounting
Who's at Atlantic right now?
I don't even know...
Is it a part of Warner?
never know who owns who today... (laughs) you never know... It could be anybody, you
So you haven't been paid for those records...
Not for the reissues. And the
last record they came out with? Haven't seen any real promotion or anything
on that record, either. Did you?
I've just seen a review on Down Beat.
And that's all.
all. ECM seems to be much better in that respect, I've seen something
about the Note Factory CD on their site...there were informations about
I have that much press on that
album - and they did a better job at promoting the record.
the people who'd like to buy this stuff - do you think there's a problem
of like a filter from the record companies...
Now musicians start to be more active because a lot of musicians
have their own Web sites where they sell their records and so on and
so forth - we now have our own Web site up and running - and pretty
soon there'll be many, many things for people to select, if they wanna
buy scores... or whatever.
You can bypass...
you can bypass... and a lot of the big record companies are worried... they're
worried. Because they no longer have total control of the market.
mentioned Philip Glass before and, if I'm not mistaken, in the late
sixties Anthony Braxton acknowledged his influence on some of the things
he did - I'm thinking about the Kelvin Series, to be specific. Personally,
I've never considered some of your work
- like the Nonaah series - to be that much linked to minimalism.
Did ever see Philip Glass as a person who did something that was worth
Well, I mean, some of the things that came
out of minimalism were good, some were good. I saw Philip Glass do a
production of The Photographer and it was a big piece, he had everything,
cameras, lights, I thought it was an interesting way he put it together,
and everything was constantly recurring, like the music; in one space
on the stage, there was a circle, some people were dancing and they
danced the same steps over and over again and then gradually changing,
like the music did; I liked that piece by Philip Glass. Certainly there
were some things by Steve Reich that I liked too; by I never thought
that minimalism was the thing or anything like that, you know, that
it was the only direction in music, I never thought that, no. But some
of the things I liked. I have a piece called Chant, which is sort of
a minimalism piece, it was done on the Wildflowers series, that Sam
Rivers put out of his place Rivbea.
I have some of those records,
and I remember that Chant took up one side of an album... yeah, I have
Yeah? To me, I just saw minimalism
as a part...
... of the whole picture.
... of the whole picture, yeah.
consider your series of Nonaah, do you see it as related to minimalism
No. No, no. It started out as
a piece for solo saxophone, in a setting where it could be perceived
as being more than one instrument because of the long leaps between
the high and low melody. A lot of things that I do they're just reference
material to generate several pieces; this last series that I'm doing,
Fallen Heroes, I've done several pieces with that already, including
the one for full symphony orchestra, and I set it up in that way, so
that I will be able to go back and generate several pieces from it.
a generating structure?
Yes, a generating structure,
that's right, that's right. I mean it's a source, a material source
to generate compositions. So that I set it up, in the same way, and
I set up Fallen Heroes in the same way, so I can go back and when I
go to sit out to write I will be writing instead of... something like
that, you know (scratches his head and laughs).
have the version that's on the Note Factory CD, are there any other
versions that have been released?
is a version on the Sound Songs CD...
The double one on Delmark.
You've also recorded
three versions of For Lester B...
Maybe so... see, a lot of songs on Sound Songs
were things which came to me, which I developed later; like Leola, is
on Sound Songs.
About structures that generate materials: there is,
I think, even now, a lot of resistance to conceive music in, for lack
of a better word, an objective way, because people seem to perceive
this kind of approach as "calculating and cold"...
... there's nothing wrong with that, though. (laughs) Go ahead, go ahead, sorry...
it seems that if you "let it flow" it's valid, if you conceive
of something thinking about it, it's not, which to me is a point of
view that's totally strange.
strange, but see: you have to know what you're doing. This is why a
lot of people are not good improvisers: because they don't know composition;
they don't think like a composer. When a composer sits, now, he's maybe
thinking three hundred measures; improvisers get up there, they play
two measures and they're all be sitting there trying to look around
to see what's going on, and in fact when you do that it's the same thing
as being behind on a piece of written music, that's the effect you have,
because if you know your part, I don't really know my part, I'm playing
but I'm listening to see what you do, you do it, and I jump over there
real quick - I'm following. See, that's it, a lot of improvisers are
not familiar with what makes good composition. They don't know that.
But the more advanced improvisers know this. And the more advanced improvisers
have studied music in several types of situations. They know how to
play one note every five minutes, and they know what makes that note
do the right thing. And they know how to play... even when they play in
silence you still hear the continuing thought pattern going on. Good
improvisers. Inexperienced improvisers, they don't know, that's why
they keep playing resolutions all the time, everything is constantly
resolved - all the time. Whereas a good improviser doesn't even use
resolutions, because what it does is make the music in little squares.
What the experienced improviser is after is extended thought, extended
thought patterns. This is what makes good improvisation.
when I read the book on Anthony Braxton by Graham Lock, it was refreshing
seeing the building blocks of his musical grammar on paper, because
these are not structures that's easy to get by listening only...
Well, that's true. You need more
advanced people in the schools. See, a lot of people in the schools
in the States they're still trying to do the same thing, over and over
again, they're not open-minded, they're not open-minded to anything
new. Now, to me, that's like opposite education. I thought education
was supposed to be about learning. And if all of a sudden somebody knows
everything, and can't learn anything else, then it's not interesting.
A lot of students are tired of that, because they charge these students
all this money, and then they put them in a situation where they're
constantly trying to live up to somebody else all the time, instead
of focusing on each student as an individual. The only thing you can
teach a student is how to learn. That's all. I can't, like, make you be like me, I can encourage you to be
yourself. That's what's teaching is all about. And if it's not about
that, it's not interesting. I
mean, to be a good educator and a good student you have to be humble.
You have to realize that you're nothing - and then you can grow. But
until you do that you can't, you can't grow.
But the schools in the
States under the Reagan and Bush administrations were less funded than
before. Do you see it as a cultural problem, a political problem...
a little bit of both, I think. The first thing you want to take out
of the schools is art - and music. All black schools they wanna do.
I mean, this is the reason rap was developed, because the students didn't
have any instruments, so they had to do something, you know, so what
they did was, they took the records and started scratching them and
so on and so forth, 'cause you cannot stifle creative energy, you can't
do it, because if a person's calling is to be creative they will figure
out a way to be creative. But I mean, art touches us all in a very special
way, in a way that nothing else can, so everybody should be exposed
to art, so to me it's a ridiculous idea to take the music out of the
schools, the way that they've done. You know, there are some schools
that are run-down, very badly... in fact there was a white banker in the
States in upstate New York, somewhere, I saw it on the news, he bought
a school to change it, and most of these people at this school are black,
and I was touched by that, I was brought to tears almost, and in four
years these students have the best averages of any school, their teachers
are cramming to get there to teach, so I mean, education is a very important
thing... it's a very important thing that people discover the focus of
learning, they've got it blurred, they need to get back, they need clear
things up again, and really focus on what learning is really about.
do you think of rap as an art form?
Well, some of it I like, I like
it because it represents what I've just said, it really does, I mean
- the creative energy. Some people may argue, all they talk about people
this, they talk about people that, but these are the conditions that
people are living in. People, they don't really know until they live
under these conditions. A lot of people they never have to worry about
money or anything - at all! So they don't even know what this is like,
they have no idea what this kind of lifestyle is really about. They
have no idea. So, from a point of view I like it, from another point
of view I like it because it broke away from the rock bands, and so
on... it set them apart from everybody that had a guitar, all that said:
everybody's got a guitar and that's great - and that's stupid, to me.
So, that's two things that it did that I really like, you know. And
once again it established another direction for that music which comes
from that tradition. So, I like those two things about it.
you think that the "guitar direction" was like a dead end?
Well, a lot of people were only recording
the blues, they say, they say like now they don't wanna record any more
blues because the blues is dead, you know? And that is true, you know,
in a way. I mean, real people that really do the blues and stuff, now,
most of them are dead, now. They're really dead, and a lot of people
that do the blues... poorly - are not interesting. I'd much rather listen
to a record...
... which was valid and still is...
yes it is, yes it is, yes it is. That's the thing about real art. That's
the only thing that remains, nothing else remains. And for me, like,
I'm getting older, so I really don't have too much time (laughs) to be dealing around with people that are not really active in trying to forward themselves or extend
their minds and so on and so forth.
With the Art Ensemble Of Chicago
1967/68 (5 CD) (Nessa)
People In Sorrow ('69) (re-relased w/ Les stances à
Sophie as 1969-1970) (Emi Jazztime)
Bap-Tizum ('72) (Atlantic)
Fanfare For The Warriors ('73) (Atlantic)
Nice Guys ('78) (ECM)
Full Force ('80) (ECM)
Urban Bushmen ('80) (ECM)
Sound ('66) (Delmark)
Solo Saxophone Concerts ('73/'74) (Sackville) (out-of-print)
Nonaah ('77) (Nessa) (out-of-print)
L-R-G/The Maze/S II Examples ('78) (re-released on Chief)
Snurdy McGurdy And Her Dancing Shoes ('80) (Nessa) (out-of-print)
3X4 Eye ('81) (Black Saint)
New Music For Woodwinds And Voice ('81) (1750 Arch, re-released
on Mutable Music)
And The Sound And Space Ensembles ('83) (Black Saint)
An Interesting Breakfast Conversation ('84) (1750 Arch, re-released
on Mutable Music)
Four Compositions (87?) (Lovely Music)
Duets And Solos (with Muhal Richard Abrams) ('90) (Black Saint)
This Dance Is For Steve McCall ('92) (Black Saint)
Pilgrimage ('94?) (Lovely Music)
Hey Donald ('94) (Delmark)
Sound Songs ('94) (Delmark)
First Meeting (with Borah Bergman) ('94) (Knitting Factory)
In Walked Buckner ('98) (Delmark)
Nine To Get Ready ('98) (ECM)
8 O'Clock: Two Improvisations (with Thomas Buckner) (2001) (Mutable
Song For My Sister (2002) (PI Recordings)
Anthony Braxton - Creative Music Orchestra ('76) (RCA Bluebird)
George Lewis - Shadowgraph ('77) (Black Saint)
George Lewis - Voyager ('93) (Avant)
Tom Hamilton - Off-Hour Wait State ('95?) (O O Discs)
Matthew Shipp - Duo ('96?) (2.13.61)
© Beppe Colli 2001 - 2003
CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 26, 2003