So On and So Forth: An Interview with Roscoe Mitchell

John McCowen
Roscoe Mitchell and John McCowen

I was a late bloomer, a self-taught musician. I came from a DIY college-town scene in the Midwest, exhausting myself in my teen years by screaming and howling in punk and hardcore bands. This is a common trope of college towns in America. But what was more common in DIY punk culture was the almost fascistic restraints placed upon musical taste; most things were re-creative. It was musical reenactment. New bands wore uniforms to let you know what they would sound like: Chuck Taylors, skin-tight black jeans, leather jackets would sound exactly like The Ramones! Bizarre, right?

I was blessed with a community of friends with an unwavering hunger for new music. This craving was accelerated by our local Carbondale, Illinois record store, Plaza Records. The owner, Kim Curlee, quickly picked up on our unrelenting curiosity and showed us the similarities between late-era Black Flag and Ornette
Coleman’s Prime Time; or how the intensity of grindcore drumming compared to Sonny Murray or Rashied Ali; or how the orchestrations of Frank Zappa could lead us into the Creative Orchestra music of Anthony Braxton. And this period of time—where I was simultaneously listening my way through John Coltrane’s entire post–A Love Supreme output, the entire Stax Records catalog, and Sun Ra’s output chronologically—was a perfect equation leading to the solution of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Eventually I put down the microphone and picked up the saxophone. After working through the initial confusion of how the instrument worked, I put on the record Les Stances A Sophie by the Art Ensemble of Chicago featuring legendary St. Louis–born singer Fontella Bass. As the first track, “Theme de Yoyo,” started, I tried to play along. After a few attempts, I found myself playing in unison with the horns of Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, and Lester Bowie. This served as an epiphanic moment; I felt the vibration of the instrument and my connection to it. I haven’t put a woodwind instrument down since.

I found myself playing saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet in bands, while continuing to get deeper into music. I attended Southern Illinois University-Carbondale where I was thrust into classical clarinet technique. I eventually rejected the saxophone in a personal quest to find my unique voice. “Free jazz” saxophone playing seemed to have been covered. (I didn’t feel there was a need for a Midwest punk sounding like Albert Ayler if he didn’t practice.) But my main influence in trying to find my own voice came from listening to Roscoe Mitchell’s solo performances, a clear example of someone whose stubbornly endless quest led him to a unique musical situation. I can hear one note and know it’s Roscoe. His sound was simultaneous. It wasn’t exactly the “sheets of sound” approach of John Coltrane; it was all registers at once.

When it came time to think about graduate school, I found myself wanting a ticket away from the Midwest as well as a starkly different educational experience. I wanted to transition from a technical, classical pedagogy to a more learn-by-osmosis mentorship. I found out Roscoe was teaching at Mills College, and I began sending him emails with my solo clarinet music attached. He seemed to be interested, so I applied.

I went to visit Mills and was told by other students that I wouldn’t see Roscoe—that he’s just not around—but I almost immediately spotted him on the sidewalk ahead of me in a wool cap and trench coat. I stopped and introduced myself, and he responded, “Carbondale! I’ve been to Carbondale!” He went on to talk about how many times he had driven that long, boring stretch of I-57 through Southern Illinois up to Chicago in winter months. This was the beginning of a relationship that goes on to this day.

I usually find myself asleep somewhere around dawn and waking up when the sun has reached its peak, but Roscoe had a habit of calling me around 7am and asking me to come practice. Sometimes it felt like bootcamp: he regularly said “John, you’ve got to understand that I’m an army man.” Roscoe is someone who radiates knowledge. I always need to keep my ears open, because I never know when a deeply profound lesson will be uttered. I spent hours playing pieces I’d been working on for him. When I would play my new solo works he would rarely say anything more than “keep working on it.” As a student just leaving a classical music education, I found this frustrating. But eventually I realized there is nothing more than that. This is not a way of playing that can be broken down into technical jargon—it’s all too personal, and it’s on me to make the music as clear as possible. Roscoe taught me that sound is fleeting: only if you continue the work can you bring the utmost clarity to your musical language. Like Eric Dolphy said, “It’s in the air and then it’s gone.”


March 16th, 2016 / 8:15am / Roscoe’s office,
Mills College, Oakland, CA

JMC When you’re practicing for a solo performance, what is your process, and what are you preparing to convey?

RMI was going for extending the materials I was using in that particular situation. It’s not unlike the pieces you’ve played for me; where you’re working on a particular thing and developing it and extending it and so on. So, it’s always my practice to really look at some material and get close to it so it starts to reveal itself to me. Then, I’m able to extend it in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to if I had not done that.

JMC So, what is that material that you’re trying to extend? A small piece of material that you’ve improvised with on the saxophone? Or is it an idea you come to before you pick up the saxophone?

RMWell, normally things come to me in stages. Like, these higher tones I was playing on the saxophone. Well, I was doing a concert with Pauline Oliveros, and she said: “Oh! I really like that high note you’re doing there. What is that?” I said, “Well, I happened up on it and I decided to keep it.” So, that was the first stages of getting into that area. 

I consider some of the things I’m doing on my solo record [as being] related to vocal techniques, okay? First came that, then came the ability to add other things along with that. I’m always looking at it like that, too, because you get one thing; then you get another. All of a sudden you’ve got two. Two normally produces three and so on and so forth like that. I mean, that’s the way things come to me. 

JMC When you say that you think about it like vocal music, is that how you’re approaching the sound when you’re performing? 

RMI do. It comes from my long musical relationship with Thomas Buckner and playing together . . . being able to have the real dynamics that work for the voice and the real acoustical situation . . . being able to make that adjustment. The voice is like the primary instrument, okay? So, I’m able to project more different types of sounds using that kind of a technique. I’ve got an older book that I’ve practiced out of by [Enrico] Caruso . . . [this was] back in Wisconsin . . . with the exercises he worked on. But, that’s what I’m trying to do and that led to the Conversations records (Wide Hive, 2014).

JMC Did the Space [a trio with Mitchell, Gerald Oshita, and Thomas Buckner] records lead into the Conversations records? [Conversations were two albums recorded by the trio of Mitchell, Craig Taborn, and Kikanju Baku. These records have been the basis for Mitchell’s recent orchestrations for larger ensembles and orchestras.]

RMThe solo concept came before the Conversations records. By that time I had built up a concept of what I wanted to work on in the studio with my trio.

JMC And how does your solo playing influence your playing with the trio?

RMWell, I think I’m most successful if I’m sounding like an orchestra when I’m playing solo. So, that concept is carried over, especially in the settings with the electronics and so on. 

JMC So, if you’re playing in a trio, and you’re trying to sound like an orchestra, what are the others trying to
sound like?

RMHopefully an orchestra, too. [laughter] Hopefully . . . and I think they were. It’s always been my assignment to take whatever’s there and have it sound like nothing is missing . . . if it’s one person . . . or two or three. I think that Ornette Coleman brought my attention to “Oh, wait a minute, you don’t have to have piano, bass, and drums. You can have this or you can have that. You can have whatever you want to have.” I’m always trying to take whatever’s there and, in the end, make it sound like nothing’s missing from it.

JMC What does the use of continuous sound mean to you, and how does it affect you?

RMWell, it kind of affects everything I do. A long time ago, before I could circular breathe, I was hearing these longer lines. Then, when I was able to circular breathe, I was able to bring it together. If I go back to my S II Examples (Nessa, 1978) record . . . [circular breathing] gave me the opportunity to layer these sounds and multiphonics even more, because I could connect them without having to breathe. 

I’m always going back and looking at what I’ve done and how this next element relates to that and what it can do after. I mean, I’m a big admirer of Frank Wright and the kind of things he was doing on the saxophone. Circular breathing made that even clearer to me because I didn’t really have to stop. Although, he was very successful with stopping and taking a breath like that. It just kind of made that bridge that could let all these different things be

JMC What did it feel like when you first came to that? Because . . . personally, I feel there’s a big difference in playing when you have access to have that ability for continuous sound. I mean, you’re still thinking in phrases, but like you said, there are bridges in there. I feel it’s a different kind of mindset than when you take a breath and then approach your next phrase.

RMYeah, yeah. That’s true. Yeah. I think of it as a bridge. But, I was listening to Eddie Harris playing “The Shadow of Your Smile” (The In Sound, Atlantic, 1965) this morning. OH MY GOD, MAN! EDDIE HARRIS, MAN! OH MY GOD! I mean, the way he played that and his ability to sing . . . he was singing through the saxophone. I mean, all the different things that he did. I mean, for me, the saxophone [has] so much variety there for people that really want to study it. Everything for me is a continuing kind of thing, and in the end, if I document all the things I’d like to document, I hope to show how all these different things are connected. Well, it’s not any different than the way I work . . . to see if I can bring these things to a real conclusion in a step-by-step method; so they are more clearly understood.

JMC What made you begin to play this way? Who inspired you? Was it an epiphany?

RMI think it started to affect me subconsciously before it affected me consciously. I got back from the army in 1961. I started to meet people who were thinking about music differently than I was. Back then there were a lot of jam sessions, and I used to go to those and play. I would start to hear things, but I wouldn’t play them because something was telling me, “Oh, that’s not right . . . you shouldn’t do that.” So, after I started to give in to these things, then it just started to pour out. And then, like I said, I was around people that had already started to explore other ways of doing their music—Joseph Jarman and all these people.

JMC Well, sounds like you went pretty hard at it if you’ve gone from there to where you are now . . . 

RMAnd there’s still a lot more to do! I’m totally excited right now with things that I would like to work on.

JMC What sounds inspire your solo music?

RMEverything. Like my solo concert in Nickelsdorf,1 it was outside, and this one bird was going on. That inspired me. And not only did it inspire me, it put me in the mood to be in that kind of a space. I knew that this bird was always right! It was always right and it was not in a hurry . . . every sound it was producing was ON! I had just gotten off the plane from The States, and then I went to my hotel, and then I went out to the festival. So, it just put me in that frame of mind where I could be in that space, and when I go back and listen to [the recording] . . . and watch the video of it . . . it seemed to have just created a calm space for not only myself but all the people that were there that was listening to it.

JMC Can you think of any other times where you’ve played solo where something outside yourself like that has helped put you in that space to do that kind of thing?

RMOh yeah! I mean, if an airplane flies over . . . or anything. I think it’s more or less about being comfortable with yourself so you’re not being affected that much, and you’re able to [explore] something you’re hearing that just happens to be in the environment at that particular moment. You’ve got options there. You can get mad or something—and then you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing—or you can just get into the space and . . . make it a whole part of what you’re doing.

JMC What is the goal of your mind during solo performance? What is the optimum mental state like?

RMWell, my goal for Iceland is to get practicing, so I can have some chops. [laughter] (At the time of this interview, Roscoe was very preoccupied by an upcoming solo performance in Reykjavik, Iceland.) It doesn’t matter if you got a whole bunch of stuff in your head and you can’t project it. I mean, you can think of really good things, but if you don’t have the physical thing to do it with then that’s not an option. My idea right now is to put the pen down or get away from the computer and go totally into a practice space. I believe my concert there is on the 14th . . . so, I’ve got pretty much a month now. Spring break [is] next week . . . so, that’s gonna give me a really good start [before] things start up again (at Mills College). 

JMC So, you’re not really worried about getting to a certain mental space before that performance, because you’re more concerned about having chops and equipment working?

RMRight! If I have that then I’ve got the mental space already. But I can’t access the mental space if I don’t have that, because I don’t even know what I can think about ’cuz I can’t do it! So, if I can’t do A, then I’m certainly not going to be able to do B, ya know? So that’s the thing.

I think that music is a thing where sometimes you can do no wrong, okay? Most of the time I’m there . . . I’m focused on what’s going on . . . what I’m doing. Certainly, if you practice and you’re out there playing every night, [you] can walk out there and do no wrong, but then it doesn’t happen every night. I’ve got to be aware of what’s going on, ya know? If I think about a situation where I went out and played a couple of pieces, and it was like, “WHOA!” It was great! Somehow, at that third piece, I thought “Now what?” So, I was smart enough to play a composition. Well, it put me in a space where I’m playing something that I kind of know, and after that was over . . . then I was able to step back into the space that I was in before that. It’s always a kind of checks and balance type thing. 

The pieces that I do in Iceland . . . [I’m] supposed to play twenty to thirty minutes solo for that. So, I’ve got one piece on my solo record that’s twenty minutes. I may just do one piece. So, I would then work on that with my timer. Then I’d build it up so that I can maintain that space for that amount of time. That’s not unlike practicing a piece of music. Some music you practice . . . and you know this . . . just to have the physical strength to be able to do it. The way you can do that is by doing it over and over and over. Yeah yeah yeah . . . I’m definitely thinking I’m gonna do an improvised piece instead of having a written piece.

JMC Well I guess you’ve got your compositions backlogged in your mind so if that’s not happening you can just bust one of those things out.

RMBut . . .  I think they’ll be happening! [laughter]

JMC [laughter] NO NO NO! I’m not saying that . . . 

RMNO NO NO . . . I’m just saying I think they’ll be happening, because I’m getting ready to go into that practice mode, ya know? I’m very excited about it. After I finish, I might have to have a wine to wind down.

JMC Yeah, absolutely.

RMThen I’m thinking about what I did tonight and that carries over until tomorrow. I don’t try to do the same thing I did last night because that can be a mistake. So, I try to look at every night different and be open minded and so on like that.

JMC So, every night you might be playing the same material but you are given the opportunity to get farther into that sound and expand upon that?

RMAbsolutely . . . 

JMC You mentioned Nickelsdorf and that concert where you heard that bird, but when it comes to acoustic spaces, do you have an easier time focusing in a more resonant space?

RMOh sure, yeah. I look at every situation differently. I’ve played in places where there’s this echo or something . . . so what do you do with that? Well, it’s an opportunity to do something with an echo. The opportunity in Nickelsdorf was outside in nature; that’s another thing. Then in a hall where you can hear a pin drop; that’s another situation.

JMC How long do you think it’s taken you to get to the level of focus you’re at now? Do you feel you’ve been at a higher level than now?

RMI think you can always improve that. Concentration is something you have to practice. It’s just not there unless you develop it.

JMC Do you practice concentration in ways other than playing music?

RMYeah, a lot of the times you’re away from the instrument you’re visualizing what it is you’re doing. So, when you go to the instrument you’re better. If I’m playing some concert where all of a sudden I’m waiting around until my piece comes up . . . You gotta do that . . . to have yourself somewhat ready. I’m thinking about this concert in Iceland. Let’s say I do that piece that’s improvised as an encore. What does that mean? That means I’m sitting in the audience listening to all the written music and then I go up onstage for the bow. Then if people are going on and on, and I do the encore of the piece where I’m playing with the orchestra, that means that my horn is backstage. So, I go backstage and get that and it’s not warmed up. You see what I’m saying? So, all these different things you have to take into consideration.

JMC If the reeds dried out . . . 

RMYeah! All these different things . . . 

JMC What do you think you’d do? Hopefully, the applause would go long enough for you to go backstage and wet the reed?

RMNah, man. You take the reed with you . . . and you wet it. And then you put it on the mouthpiece . . . so it’s already wet when you go there.

JMC I didn’t know if you were trying to hurry up and get back out onstage . . . 

RMNO! I’m NOT IN A HURRY, JOHN! [laughter] I mean what difference does it make if you take that extra second. 

JMC Does your solo performance ever feel like a spiritual or religious experience?

RMMusic is spiritual . . . and religious! Music is certainly way up there on that level. I mean, if we were to compare our own selves to that, I don’t think we would fare that well. We’re really, really small. That’s one of the things that has attracted me to music is that all of the possibilities of things that can happen.

JMC So, since we’re so small compared to music that’s played on such a high level . . . what do you think music on that level is conveying to humans?

RMWell, it’s a variety of conveyments depending on who you’re talking to. You can be at a concert, and you can get one thing, and somebody else, they got something totally different. Then you can go back and listen to it and get something different from that! You can go back AGAIN and get something different from that! So, it’s infinite like the universe! I enjoy existing in that realm like that where things can be ongoing.

JMC Would you say your religion is music?

RMI don’t know. I mean, that’s kind of a narrow statement.

JMC Yeah. Religion can be a narrow thing.

RMWell, yeah. Well, people use it for their own purposes for sure. Even beyond this particular level of existence. To me, this is probably just one layer of what some of the possibilities are.

JMC What are some of those possibilities?

RMI don’t know them on this plane! [laughter] It might get revealed on the next plane, ya know? I think you have to work hard on this one to even qualify to go on to the next one!

JMC But you said you like to think about those possibilities. Are you just sitting there going “Well, I don’t know what this is.”?

RMWell I think you can. There are messages that you get. Like, if you think about the universe . . . there’s a strong message out there. There are many things. Most of them are totally different! [laughter] So there’s many things, but there’s a message in that. Certainly this planet has many, many possibilities you don’t even know! Not to mention things that are out there in the universe! So, I enjoy being in that realm, and I don’t mind working hard to get to the next level of it.

JMC Do you ever feel like you’ve ever gotten hints of a message in a performance that might suggest another realm?

RMAbsolutely! There are nights where you can’t do any wrong. [laughter] I mean, you wake up from that right away when that’s over. And you go back and it might not be there. But at least you know internally that it does exist.

JMC And that helps you keep going?


JMC Now, when you get to a certain space, where you’re playing music at a very high level, have you ever felt like you’ve left your body? Like, you’re just listening to yourself play?

RMWell, you can do that through meditation. By meditating you can almost leave your body and have a look at it sitting down somewhere. So, that’s totally possible.

JMC Have you even experienced that while playing?

RMWhile playing and while meditating. Yeah.

JMC Is meditation a part of your regular practice?

RMNot as much now as it used to [be]. I used to do it on a plane a lot of times, just to relax when I’m doing all these concerts and so on . . . running from this airport to that one and getting on a plane and sitting down and being able to really relax. 


Let’s look at it. There are people that have achieved lots of things. If you think of Leonardo Da Vinci, he achieved a lot of things in several different fields of art, okay? So, you don’t gotta go around looking for something to measure yourself up to; there’s plenty of great examples out there, and that lets you know you can achieve these sorts of things. It just depends on what you want to do. You’re the only one who can put a limit on what you can do.

JMC Would you say Da Vinci is one of your biggest influences?

RMHe’s right up there amongst them; but there’s so many. Which even reaffirms the possibilities. OH! It’s 9 o’ clock, John . . . and you were 15 minutes late.

JMC Yeah, man. I got three hours of sleep last night.

RMOh, ok! [laughter] Should I write that down? Let’s see here . . . I have a pen and paper here, John. Let’s see . . . “John got three hours of sleep . . .” [laughter]

1Roscoe Mitchell, Roscoe Mitchell solo at Nickelsdorf Konfrontationen 2010, video document, 9'58", July 17th, 2010,

So On and So Forth: An Interview with Roscoe Mitchell