Touches of Color

JCHow have two-and-a-half years of Covid impacted your art making?

RMI remember quite some time ago, at some point, I thought oh, wait a minute now, you’re going to have to learn something about this. So at that moment I put the painting down and concentrated on writing music. But now I’m back to that spot again where I really enjoy it. I wake up anxious to get out into the sunroom to start working. That’s why I think I’m able to produce the amount of work I’m doing now.

JCThat feeling that you needed to know more about what you were doing in painting, when was that?

RMI still took some paintings with me to Europe in 1969 when the Art Ensemble went there, and I worked on them there. But I’m not feeling intimidated anymore. I’m just really enjoying it.

JCThat came about in part because of the forced isolation, not being on the road?

RMThat’s part of it. I used this whole period to learn. Wendy’s [Mitchell’s partner] become an engineer, too; she was always a videographer, but she’s expanded what she’s doing. We’re both taking advantage of this time. We instinctively know that when things get better, the people that are gonna move forward are the ones who have done the work. People will be looking for things to
be inspired by.

JCHow does a typical day work for you, in terms of schedule? How does painting and drawing dovetail with practicing and writing music?

RMI’m a creature of habit. I’ve got a routine. Four o’clock in the morning I’m usually watching CBS News with Norah O’Donnell. I know that five o’clock and the sun’s getting ready to hit. So I get up and do that, paint, you know. Eventually Wendy will come downstairs. We have breakfast together and then go for a walk, get some exercise, and come back and paint some more. I have started to bring back writing music, because I have a piece to write for Thomas Buckner in this next three-song series with lyrics by Bob Kaufmann, so I’m working on that for voice and piano. What I do is I try to put out the things that keep me connected, and then I just sit back and watch them unfold. Like when you came along, man, I’m thinking, whew, man, having an exhibition! You’re part of it, too.

JCI’m curious about that daily practice thing. Having a routine, moving back and forth between writing and painting. Writing music seems like a deadline-oriented practice; painting seems like a more open-ended practice. Then there’s practice. And I know you have to keep on top of your instruments.

RMOh absolutely. What I’m doing is singling out the bass saxophone. I can’t seem to get it out of my hands. When I listen to my previous recorded music on alto, I’ve got significant work out there on that instrument. Darius Jones, the alto saxophonist, we connected, and he said he wanted to learn my piece “Nonaah.” And then that’s what he did. At the Other Minds festival, if I shut my eyes, I thought it was me playing it, he’s that meticulous. So I’m gonna let him have that and I’m gonna hit with the bass saxophone and these lower instruments. That’s my goal, it’s a big goal, it’s a bigger horn, you gotta get the muscles. I’ve plenty of work to do! I don’t have extra time to goof around. I’ve been going through some of the older rock ‘n’ roll songs [sings]: They call me daddy/Daddy
rollin’/They call me daddy/Daddy rollin’/Daddy rollin’ stone
. That kind of stuff. There’s no lack of stuff to work on. And I have to stay in stuff for a long time. I’m working on faster ways to memorize things. Some exercises I’ve written out, but I’m also oral-traditioning. Learning things that way. It’s great! I’ve still got a lot of work to do.

JCThe contributions you’ve made to alto and soprano saxophone, in particular—you could stop playing right now and the contribution is so vast. I was thinking about bass saxophone when you let me know how deeply into it you are now; those low instruments have always been part of your fascination. Like “You Wastin’ My Time,” that final solo, which is unbelievable.

RMThat was Gerald Oshita playing contrabass sarrusophone, which is in the octave range of contrabass saxophone. I told Gerald: “At the end of this I want you to scare some kids!”

JCExploring the entire sonic range of the instrumentarium is part of your life’s work, it seems to me. And then also there really isn’t a figure totally associated with bass saxophone. You think of some older players, like Adrian
Rollini . . .

RMYes, that’s right.

JC. . . and there are people who play bass saxophone, but it’s usually something you go to for an unusual color, so that idea of getting really deep into that particular horn is such an interesting decision. It’s a good bridge, from a formal standpoint, from your music to your painting. I remember seeing you play a concert in which you played a single note on each of many different instruments, one instrument at a time, one sound at a time, changing instruments each time. Every note was a different timbre. I was thinking a lot at the time about this idea of tone color, of using fragments of tone color. When I see the new paintings you’re making, I think of both the use of fragmentation, because you’re breaking things up, and reveling in extremes of color, the joy of color. Do you see this direct correlation between music and painting?

RMYeah, very direct connection. I’m developing the painting the same way I develop my music. I develop a composition that way—development is the main factor that hooks them together. I’m getting back on the other instruments; I’m anxious to get back on the tenor, too! But that’s the connection for me. The strategy works. The touches of color going from instrument to instrument, that was my composition “L-R-G,” made for Wadada [Leo Smith] and George Lewis. And it does that. On my solo record I’ve got pieces like “Little Big Horn,” things like that. You play one note on one instrument and another note on another instrument, it’s a whole different approach to acoustics. But I hear music that way. I might hear one note on the bass saxophone and another note on a bell. In terms of the sound palette, I want to keep that going as well.

JCInstrumental palette is such a good term. The Art Ensemble was a pioneer in terms of putting the question of instrumentation in the foreground. In a conventional 1920s/1930s big band context, more or less everyone doubled. You had to have access to all sorts of colors. An orchestral range without an orchestra, so people needed to play lots of different instruments. What I always thought was so brilliant with the Art Ensemble was to make it even much broader, to take that idea and make the instrumentation much more open—tables of little instruments, moving between instruments for you guys. A more radical questioning of the roles of the players and their instruments. All of that comes back to the idea of expansion. More tools, more sounds, more colors. Now in creative music everyone has to be aware of that, nobody’s looked back, but it was a huge move at the time. That feels like a direct parallel with your visual work. And maybe the percussion set-ups are this nice place between the musical version of it—you can reach for very disparate sounds very quickly—and they’re visual, they have a sculptural presence. They feel right between the painting and the music in terms of the diversity of possible colors.

RMUh huh, yes.

JCHow did you get started with visual art?

RMI was very young. My Uncle Arthur, he made a lot of my toys, carved them. And then my Uncle Charles Commodore Carter, my god, he moved out of our house and moved in with Reverend Hall, his church, and when he died no one knows what happened to those books that he had. He would use crayon and pen-and-ink, and he would layer the crayon, and he had a protractor. They were beautiful. Books of myself and my sisters and our friends, and we were these people from outer space. Like comic books. If those books would show up, I keep putting it out there. The art side came from my mother’s side of the family, music came from my father’s side of the family. My older brother, Norman, my dad’s son, he came to live with us in Milwaukee, and he sat me down and he played me 78 records from his collection, they called them “killers.” He knew [saxophonist] Nicky Hill and all these people.


RMI met Muhal [Richard Abrams] when I came back from the Army. Muhal was rehearsing at the C & C Lounge on 64th and Cottage Grove every Monday night. I showed up and everyone welcomed me with open arms, Muhal encouraged you to write music; he said put down some of those things you’re playing on the horn. He said when you start something, finish it! You were allowed to bring in your music, take it home, change it. Muhal, man, he was a prolific composer. He had a thing called “Fats,” stride piano thing for the band. He had a piece [whistles the melody to himself], but more than that. I was in college. After college I’d go to Muhal’s house. He’d show me stuff, other people would come by. Later in life, when we weren’t all in Chicago, when Muhal and I got together we’d just pick up where we left off. Always studying stuff. At that time I was carrying around a sketch pad, always drawing. We’d go to different exhibitions at the Art Institute. I remember the Ivan Albright exhibition there. Muhal was raving about the fact that he’d taken ten years to do this painting, and you could see it, he’d paint right past the people, their skin. I’d be in New York, we’d go to different art museums together.

Roscoe Mitchell paintings

JCYou went to exhibitions together with some regularity.

RMOh absolutely. Muhal was always interested in going out to things, taking them in.

JCDid you guys go to the Field Museum [of Natural History] together much?

RMWe didn’t go to the Field Museum much. I started to go there a few times. Growing up in Chicago, it was mostly the Museum of Science and Industry, because the schools would load us into buses, and we’d be there the whole day with a packed lunch and all that. I liked that museum because they have a lot of hands-on stuff you can do there.

JCI want to ask you more about that relationship with Muhal, because he was also a painter. When do you remember learning that he was a painter in addition to being a musician and composer?

RMMuhal was always doing that. He painted that picture of Monk when Monk was on the cover of Time magazine. And I remember he painted this Coke bottle and a piece of bread, and he was talking about painting glass. He gave me a painting that’s in the kitchen—any way you hang it, it’s happening, man!

JCDid you talk a lot about art?

RMWe talked about it. He was turning me on to a lot of painters. Van Gogh, lots of people.

JCDid you know about the Africobra artists?

RMI know about them now, but I learned about them later. In the ’60s, it wasn’t a strange thing. AACM concerts, you could hang your art at those events.

JCDid you do that?

RMYes. I might have done that at the concert with Claudine Myers and Ajaramu—we did a Duke Ellington concert—I might have hung a painting for that.

JCIn the ’60s.


JCDid Muhal sometimes have paintings at concerts?

RMYeah, he would bring them out.

JCLater there was the idea of banners, and in the Art Ensemble, it’s almost like the band became a painting. And you were distinctively the one who wasn’t painted.

RMYeah, me and Lester. Lester didn’t either.

JCThat’s interesting, the theatrical element of what you were doing included costumes and face painting. I’m thinking about the way that this notion of having paintings at your concerts in a way becomes unified with the band as a whole package, not separate parts of a package.

RMThat’s true.

JCThat multidisciplinary aspect of the early AACM presentations is so interesting.

RMWe carried our banner around with us at all our concerts. We set an agenda in Europe. We had a bus company; we could roll twenty-four hours if we needed to.

JCWhen you first got there you had the VW bus, right?

RMYes, the VW bus and two motorcycles.

JCYou brought some paintings over to Europe tucked away in the bus, to work on them over there.

RMYeah, we took a boat over. After that we started flying. We had all kinds of wardrobe cases for our wardrobe. We had a great rider with everybody’s diet on it, some guys were ordering champagne. We had our home away from home on the bus.

JCLet’s go back to the toys your uncle made for you.
That cat sculpture you made, it’s closely related to what he did, right?

RMYes, how that came together was we were in California, and they came to cut down some trees. I picked up some wood; started to pick up stones in my yard that resembled teeth; Wendy got into finding stuff; and in California there’s so much stuff you
can find.

JCDo you see it as directly related to what your uncle made for you?

RMWell, he mostly carved things. My statue is a configuration of things.

JCDescribe the inspiration your uncle had on you.

RMHe’d be drawing and he’d get us to draw along, Uncle Charles.

JCA lot of encouragement from your family.

RMI grew up in Chicago, man. The snow was so clean, people would put a bucket out and make ice cream. All kinds of fresh vegetable markets on 70-something and State Street. During the summer I would work with the vegetable man. We’d go in the alley, one side up to 12th Street, cross the street and come back down the other side. People depended on that kind of thing. We were selling vegetables. The ice box man. The rag man. All of these—you could go onto your back porch and just wait. Young people have never had that experience. I remember when TV came in. Buster, the father of some friends, was the first to have a TV; we’d go to the beach with him, rabbit hunting. We’d stop over there and watch Howdy Doody. As a family we had certain radio shows we’d listen to: Let’s Pretend, The Shadow, all these different shows. It was much more communication, where people actually did teach you about things that had the value of common sense.

Roscoe Mitchell paintings

JCThat’s such a beautiful portrait of your home life growing up. When you went into the Army, were you thinking about art making? The first painting is from 1963, which is not long after you came back, right?

RMYeah, that would be then, that’s right. In the Army I was focusing on music. There was a student that was graduating that was a baritone saxophonist. So the band instructor asked if I wanted to play it. So I started on the baritone. I was playing the clarinet in the band, but back then people said if you wanted to play saxophone you had to start on the clarinet. But I always like the saxophone. I’m gonna pull out my clarinet now, too. I have been thinking about the configuration of my horns for travel. I have an E-flat clarinet. Also have Jarman’s bass clarinet.

JCI’d love to hear you play bass clarinet.

RMI had a bass clarinet a long time ago, but the one Jarman had has low-C. I’ll pull it out and put it on the stand.

JCThere’s that tradition of people who double on alto and bass clarinet, Dolphy of course.

RMOh yeah.

JCThe Army situation—you come out you made a bunch of paintings in the mid-1960s. Like the one with a wrench in it.

RMAt first I called it “Somebody Threw a Wrench Into It,” but later it has been called “Drum Rise.” That was my experimenting with putting raised things on the canvas. What’s up under there is brown rice. That’s why I’m curious now about the palette knife. I’m using it on paintings now, in combination with white putty stuff to build up under the paint.

JCDid you know about the Imagists, who were making a splash right at the same time as those paintings, down in Hyde Park starting in 1966?

RMI didn’t. I lived in Hyde Park, on Dorchester, before going to Europe. But I didn’t know about them.

JCThat’s interesting to me. The Imagist work has some superficial connections to what you were doing. They’re interested in high-key color. They’re abstract, but abstract by way of the figure, like much of your work. Some iconic records have your paintings on them. Like for instance Lester Bowie’s Numbers 1 & 2. I think that was the first?

RMYes, that was the first.

JCHow did that come about?

RMNessa Records put the recording out. Deborah, Lester’s wife, owns that painting now.

JCDid you give that painting to Lester?

RMYes I did.

JCAnd he said he wanted to use it on the cover?

RMThat’s a good question. I think we decided to use it on
the cover. We both decided together; it seemed to be appropriate for that.

JCIt’s a very striking cover image. And it was the first time I saw a painting of yours. In some ways records are incredible vehicles for the spreading of imagery.

RMThat was our first recording with Jarman, so that was where he started to come into the Art Ensemble. He had some unfortunate things happen with his quartet. [Pianist] Christopher Gaddy had kidney trouble, he passed away. And Charles Clark, the genius bassist, was talking to his wife Marianne, and had a brain aneurysm. So we asked Joseph if he wanted to join us.

JCHe had had a period of being mute, too.

RMYeah, he was pretty much devastated about losing his two bandmembers.

JCThat must have been quite a blow. The next record that I think of with an image of yours is The Third Decade. Was that your choice?

RMWe decided that. [Famadou Don] Moye had put the frame on it, and ECM wanted to use it.

JCIn terms of the interplay between visual art and creative music, I was also thinking about the Wall of Respect. Because if I’m not mistaken the Art Ensemble played in front of the Wall of Respect when it was unveiled in 1967.

RMI think that was Lester, Malachi, and myself. That’s the year that Lester Bowie’s Numbers 1 & 2 got recorded. Joseph might not have been in the band yet.

JCI was thinking about mural painting, public art making. Did you know about any of the painters who worked on the Wall of Respect?

RMI met them much later, when I was teaching a class and they were invited to participate.

JCAnother connection between the visual art world and your music has to do with the artist Christopher Wool, whose father Ira was a biochemist at University of Chicago, and Terry Martin worked for him running his lab. Terry called Ira one day and told him that he needed to see the Art Ensemble at the Abraham Lincoln Center. Christopher said it was a profoundly important event for him. He said there was a traffic light that would switch between red and green. And there were tables of instruments and costumes.

RMWas that the concert with Julius Hemphill?

JCI don’t know about that concert.

RMWell on the concert with Hemphill, we had a mask of Colonel Sanders. And Julius was playing that chicken song [sings] and parading around the stage. Eventually he got pied, a whipped cream pie. That was at Abraham Lincoln Center.

JCJulius was heavily into the theatrical side.

RMYeah, absolutely. He was a founding member of BAG [Black Artists Group] down in St. Louis. Great, great musician.

JCWas that a fairly early use of costumes for you guys?

RMWe did all sorts of things. When folks from Britain came over to do the documentary on us, we had costumes.

JCOn Message to Our Folks you’re all in costume—you have a knife . . .

RMLester has a gun . . .

JC. . . Malachi has a hoe, I think.

RMThat’s right.

JCThat’s like costumes like in a play, as opposed to onstage, with the face paint, which feels more like inhabiting a whole African-centric set of identities. You also embody an artwork when you wear clothing painted by Dennis Nechvatal. How did you meet Dennis?

RMI met him through Patrick Flynn, who’s a photographer here in Madison. We made these videos. The one guy who’s missing in action is Steve Sylvester, an inventor. He had bat houses to take care of mosquitoes. I have to show you some of these videos. He wanted to build an instrument that would play itself.

JCHe made those bicycle-propelled instruments?

RMYeah, that’s him. All of those videos we made.

JCYou were wearing Dennis’ outfits and playing along with Steve’s instruments?

RMAnd Dennis was painting live. Yeah.

JCIt’s important to understand your work as a visual artist in a broader field, that it’s always in relation to other things, other contexts, other painters, other collaborators. Like when you perform with other people. And at the same time, you have the solitary practice, the morning routine, which is maybe more closely aligned with the activity of composing music, in a more isolated context. From the early years, like the fact that you would have paintings at a musical performance, that might seem natural to you to do, but it’s pretty extraordinary. It suggests that you’re already thinking about things in this totally intermedia way at that point, and it only gets more and more developed as you go along.

RMThat’s right.

JCThose Sylvester instruments were incredible.

RMNobody’s doing that kind of stuff.

JCCan we talk a little about the figures in your paintings. To what extent are they specific individuals, specific characters?

Roscoe Mitchell paintings

RMSome of the characters, I bring them back. I may have several characters in one painting. Or I take them and use them in another painting.

JCDo they come from people you’ve known, or are they invented?

RMI just invent them. I’m getting more trusting of myself. Right now I'm working with these squares, making them different sizes, which animates them. I don’t throw away anything. I exhaust what I’m working with.

JCCreative reuse.

RMRight, that’s right.

JCOne painting was inspired by a mosaic on a floor in California, you told me. And I’ve seen that motif run through a number of the paintings, and it has an optical quality, which allows you to get vibrations going, and you move it around and distort it and playing with it, much the way I hear you doing with your music. I was always interested in the distinction between having a Sound Ensemble and a Space Ensemble. I wonder if those two logics might have some relationship to the paintings too. Like one might be more to do with stasis, a static quality. And the other to do with motion, kineticism.

RMI do things separately with those two groups, and then I combine them. On some records both ensembles are there.

JCSo they’re separate but you can modularly move them in and out of one another. That seems like a very good description of what’s going on in a lot of the visual work, that play between stasis and motion, between abstraction and figuration.

RMThese long-standing working groups are vital, because what you learn today will influence what you do the next year. I will isolate things, like with the paintings, and develop them, refine them. Development is the thing I really like. Having the ability to put the time into studying all these elements like that. If I can wake up and learn something in a day, I’m doing fine. I lose myself in the sunroom. I’ve got several paintings going. I’ve got some large canvases and I’m fascinated by the 16 × 20 size too.

JCRefinement and development is central to your approach.

RMI stay with these compositions for a long time. If you needed an arrangement of “Nonaah” in a week, could I do it? Yeah, I could do it because it’s a refined method. And just the first writing of it as a solo piece, there was so much stuff in it, and it was well defined. That was one time I was just able to sit down and write it. I had moved into the country in Bath, Michigan. I wanted to move out of the city. Some people, like Muhal, can get mounds and mounds of work done in the city. But that was the period that “Nonaah” came from, and “S II Examples.” The country was good for that.