Change Comes to Pitt with Nicole Mitchell as New Jazz Chair

The avant-garde flutist plans to embrace the tension between innovation and tradition at the University of Pittsburgh

Nicole Mitchell
Nicole Mitchell (photo: Kristi Sutton Elias)

“We’re really going to be shaking things up,” Nicole Mitchell says. She is referring to the University of Pittsburgh’s Jazz Seminar and Concert, a 49-year tradition that was started by late saxophonist Nathan Davis, who founded Pitt’s jazz program. Each fall, musicians—who over the years have included Art Blakey, Donald Byrd, and Terri Lyne Carrington—have come to Pitt to present seminars on topics ranging from their particular instrument to the music industry in general. While the talks are geared toward music students, each one is open to the public and free.

Arguably the most significant part of the event comes during the Saturday night concert at Carnegie Music Hall, across the street from the campus. During Davis’ tenure, the show felt like a blowing session, similar to Jazz at the Philharmonic. With regular guests like bassist Abraham Laboriel and drummer Idris Muhammed providing the rhythmic foundation, an array of horn players—Joe Lovano, Johnny Griffin, Benny Golson, Jon Faddis, Lew Soloff—took part in a meeting of the minds. Davis, on tenor and soprano saxophone, stepped up his game in the presence of his peers. Always an exciting show, the concert was very much steeped in tradition, which was fine with the Pittsburgh jazz audience.

This summer, Mitchell was named the William S. Dietrich II Endowed Chair in Jazz Studies, a position that had previously been held by Davis, until 2013. When he retired from his role, pianist Geri Allen took over until her untimely death in 2017. It’s late July when Mitchell mentions her vision for this year’s seminar. She laughs casually because, at the moment, she is waiting on the final confirmation of who will appear and, therefore, she isn’t at liberty to mention any names.

A month later, the university announced the schedule for the concert. For the first time in its history, performances will be stretched over two evenings. Amina Claudine Myers performs on Friday, Nov. 1. The following night reverts back to the traditional group show, with guests that include pianist Jason Moran and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, who hasn’t played in Pittsburgh since a 1990 appearance by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But bassist Rufus Reid, who often performed during the Davis years, is also slated to perform, linking the past glories to the bill’s more experimental players. Clearly, Mitchell wasn’t kidding about shaking things up.

Nicole Mitchell
(photo: Michael Jackson)

For the last eight years, Mitchell was at the University of California, Irvine, where she served as a professor of music in integrated composition, improvisation, and technology. Prior to that position, she lived in Chicago, releasing a number of diverse albums and serving as a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, eventually becoming the organization’s first female president. As a flutist and composer, she has tackled heavy topics dealing with dystopian societies, including a few pieces inspired by science fiction writer Octavia Butler. Some of the groups she has led include Black Earth Strings; a quartet that blends her flute with voice, piano and cello; and her Black Earth Ensemble. Depending on the album, her music might sound free, groovy, or even a little scary. But it’s always engaging.

When she visited Pittsburgh in January, Mitchell joked that there was a time when people were afraid to have a composer and performer like her anywhere near a school’s jazz department. Perhaps it was a self-deprecating comment, but she added in all seriousness that the tide seemed to be turning in her favor. In some jazz programs, “I think there was, like, a fear of experimentation before,” she says, “and maybe a sense of, ‘If we don’t grab onto this tradition and hold onto it tight, we’re going to lose this sense of identity.’ I don’t think people have that so much anymore.”

In molding the minds of college students, Mitchell is clearly looking beyond lessons that can be taught in a classroom. She says her job “is more about helping people to swim through what’s already in their head and helping them be able to have awareness and critique what they’re absorbing. We’re absorbing stuff every day, all day long. And we’re in these habits that we don’t think about. We’re on automatic pilot.

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“As a teacher I want to see myself as a facilitator [rather than having] a traditional teacher/study hierarchy thing,” she continues. “I try to facilitate thinking. The learning is really coming from the student. I’m not [one to say], ‘You have to do it yourself.’ Everyone has to do learning on their own. And I’m learning from the people that I’m working with.”

Unlike classical music, with its hierarchy of composers, conductors, and musicians, jazz music is typically more democratic, in Mitchell’s mind. Composers and performers are usually one and the same. So students pursuing a doctorate in Jazz Studies at Pitt need to keep their finger on the pulse of the music, she says. “I don’t want to see them separated from that circle of motion, because that’s really the blood of what the music is,” she avers.” It’s the actual music!”

Nicole Mitchell
(photo: Kristi Sutton Elias)

Mitchell grew up in Orange County, California, which was not the most inspirational place for a young African-American flutist to come of age in the 1980s. But she was motivated by the idea of endless musical possibilities beyond her immediate surroundings. She mentions that such a notion still holds true—and that modern technology can help students realize their potential. “A lot of times, it’s not someone telling us we can’t do something—it’s that we don’t think about the possibilities of what we can do,” she says. “So I really want students to have a sense of clarity in who they are and really try to amplify that: what really drives them as artists, or what excited them about the music in the first place.”

One result of Mitchell’s vision comes with a class she’ll lead called Creative Arts Ensemble. The course is open not only to musicians but artists in other disciplines such as dance, video, and poetry and spoken word. Mitchell points to artists like Beyoncé, who incorporates multidisciplinary arts in her work, as being more prevalent, which presents the opportunity for such a class. “Now that technology is a lot cheaper and it’s more accessible, there’s a lot of directions that people can go, focused on music and expanding their vision of what they’re really trying to say,” she says.

Ideas like this set the tone for what Mitchell will bring to the school, according to Mathew Rosenblum, the chair of Pitt’s music department. “She brings the arts together in an interesting way,” he explains. “Nicole is full of ideas about the way music interfaces with ecology or social justice. All these different ways that music can make an impact on communities.”

In particular, he says, her time as president of the AACM indicates what she can accomplish at Pitt. “She has strong leadership experience,” Rosenblum elaborates. “She can bring people together. I think that philosophy of the AACM—of nurturing and supporting and that everyone has a place, the elders—[after] hearing her speak about those major tenets, she brings that with her as well.”

Taking a cue from the AACM, Mitchell stresses the need for students to step beyond the conservatory and out into the community to nurture an interest in music in others and to document it. As public schools cut back on music programs, the work of Pittsburgh institutions like the Afro American Music Institute, which offers music lessons to children, has become more important. The Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, a multi-disciplinary organization with a state-of-the-art performance space and a Grammy Award-winning CD imprint, has already made connections with students to help them develop their archive of 30-plus years of concerts.

All of this can help musicians grow as both individuals and performers. “To be able to interact with musicians here and on the scene in Pittsburgh, and have a role in the community, is something [students] can take with them wherever they go,” Mitchell says. “Because it’s about moving through the world. It’s not just about writing a book or getting a degree. You have to interact with people, have conversations with people. There are a lot of great legacies and musicians for them to connect with, and I’d like to make more pathways that I think will be more mutually beneficial.”

Nicole Mitchell
(photo: Kristi Sutton Elias)

When Pittsburgh jazz is discussed, phrases like “rich legacy” typically follow. The Steel City gave us Roy Eldridge, Earl Hines, Ray Brown, Erroll Garner, Billy Strayhorn, and Art Blakey, to name just a few of the catalysts in the music’s early days. And those are the ones that left town. Back home, guitarist Joe Negri brought jazz into children’s living rooms through his regular gig on the television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Drummer Roger Humphries, who played with Horace Silver, came back home and continues to mentor musicians at his weekly jam sessions.

The city also has a small but thriving pocket of musicians who plays more experimental or free jazz. They have often been relegated to DIY spaces or the same clubs that have hosted underground rock bands. But that has slowly started to change in the past few years. Occasionally, touring artists like Rob Mazurek or Mary Halvorson have performed at the Andy Warhol Museum. Alphabet City—a performance space, book store, and restaurant connected to the literary organization City of Asylum—regularly presents avant-garde jazz groups and has become a meeting place for listeners with open ears. Kente Arts Alliance, an African-American arts organization, includes both straight-ahead and experimental jazz with its concert series.

In downtown Pittsburgh, the August Wilson African American Cultural Center presents concerts throughout the year and organizes the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival, a mostly free weekend-long festival whose programming is stylistically varied. Before Mitchell even settled in Pittsburgh, she was already aware of the endeavors of groups like these. She describes their efforts as as bubbling with possibility, explaining that being part of the local scene is important to her. While most of these groups work independently, Mitchell could be the person to build bridges between these institutions and the academy. “I’d like to see Pittsburgh become a place where people want to hear the new stuff,” she says. “Like they want to hear the new innovations and [I’d like to see] people coming here in the summer or just coming to go to clubs and hear what’s happening.”

This same view shapes her long-term goals at Pitt. “I also would like to see people leaving the university and—” she pauses—“changing the world in different ways. That would be beautiful. Whether it’s through their art or whether it’s through books they’re writing. For people to be energized and for this to be a center of excitement and well-being and prosperity, that’s what I’d like to see.”

Rosenblum sees a lot of potential in Mitchell’s position. “Nicole has a strong, deep engagement with jazz and jazz history. There’s no question,” he says. “But she has an equal footing in the future and the progressive end of jazz. That’s what’s so exciting about what’s ahead.”

Nicole Mitchell
(photo: Lauren Deutsch)

Mitchell also has big shoes to fill. She is only the third person to hold the position since it was created nearly half a century ago. “Nathan Davis fought the big battles to get jazz at the University of Pittsburgh,” Rosenblum says. “It was one of the first jazz programs on a college campus. Maybe one of three when he started [in 1969]. He did the heavy lifting for many, many years.”

Geri Allen, who received her master’s in ethnomusicology from Pitt in 1982, seemed like a natural successor to Davis, bridging the gap between tradition and innovation. Among her numerous albums, the pianist paid tribute to the music of Motown and her hometown of Detroit as well as avant-garde torchbearers like Cecil Taylor. The ACT Trio featured her with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and saxophonist David Murray.

When Allen first arrived in Pittsburgh, she said she planned to continue on the path started by Davis. But even as she did, she broke new ground. To open the 2013 Jazz Seminar Concert, she led the group through “If,” one of her predecessor’s compositions. While the choice tipped the hat to Davis, the slow, swampy arrangement of the tune made it clear that someone new was behind the wheel.

Alto saxophonist Yoko Suzuki, a Pitt instructor who serves as assistant director of the Pitt Jazz Ensemble, came to the university in 2006. She impressed Davis with her research into the history of women in jazz, but she didn’t intend to stay on after receiving a graduate degree. Then she heard that a renowned woman musician was going to take the position. “Geri was so multifaceted,” Suzuki recalls. “She would wear so many different hats.” One of Allen’s memorable programs came in 2016. She and trombonist George Lewis performed with two pianos that improvised on their own via Lewis’ interactive music software. Three musicians in California also joined them on a computer hookup for the performance. Nicole Mitchell was one of them.

Allen’s death from cancer came as a surprise to many people in the city, who had no idea she was sick. “We all miss her—I really feel like there’s a big hole, just an emptiness,” Suzuki says. “It was often…the first thing in the morning, an email from Geri. Or a phone call. All of these things were a big part of my life.”

In looking for a new chair of jazz studies, the university sought someone who could, like Allen, serve as a figurehead. Mitchell has the ability to engage students and motivate them regardless of the musical field. “She gave a big presentation at Pitt during her interview,” Rosenblum says, “which showed the compositional side of her work in graphic notation, and things that she’s done in an almost European avant-garde new-music realm. Extended technique, different kinds of notation. So it showed that she can interface with all sorts of students—if they’re in new music composition, traditional jazz, or progressive jazz or jazz history.”

During her first visits to Pittsburgh, Mitchell says she met students who are interested in embracing innovation while still honoring tradition. “I feel like that’s what I do,” she says. “A lot of times, people take it for granted, because I’m [part of] AACM, I’m always experimenting with a lot of different things. But if you listen to my work, you’ll hear that tradition in there. I just do it in my own way. I think it’s really about inspiring the students to have that boldness to find their true voice.”

Suzuki, who describes herself as a bebop player, also teaches the school’s jazz history class, and so she has enjoyed getting to know Mitchell’s work. “It’s very unique and creative,” she says. “It’s quite different from what I do. That’s why I’m very interested and attracted to what she does. Her work encompasses many disciplines. This department would benefit a lot from her presence because her work could speak to students in the composition and ethnomusicology programs too, not just the jazz studies program.”

Rosenblum hopes that Mitchell will unify the city’s jazz scene. “Her background in music is on so many different styles and ways of thinking about improvisation that I think we could be entering a really fascinating time in Pittsburgh,” he says. “The free improvisers and the more traditional jazz community, and everything in between, can look to Nicole as an interesting driving and coalescing force. That’s my hope.”

While she has many commitments with her new position, Mitchell says becoming part of the local scene is important to her. “I don’t feel I was able to do that in California,” she says. “I did it, obviously, in Chicago. So that’s one of the things I’m excited about, being here. I feel that I can connect with the community here and play locally and be a part of things. And not just always be getting on a plane.”

Mike Shanley

Mike Shanley has been a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh and gladly welcomes any visitors to the city, most likely with a cup of coffee in one hand. Over the years, he has written for several alternative weekly papers and played bass guitar in several indie rock bands. He currently writes for the bi-weekly paper Pittsburgh Current and maintains a blog at shanleyonmusic.blogspot.com.