“What I’m hearing and seeing and absorbing … is a hunger to embrace innovation while still having an honor for the tradition.”
By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
On the evening we spoke, Nicole Mitchell was a little tired after a full day of meetings, with another busy day to follow. But that didn’t stop her from expressing her enthusiasm for Pittsburgh and speaking in great detail about her musical philosophies.
The University of Pittsburgh announced Jan. 14 that Mitchell, a flutist and prolific composer and performer, will assume the William S. Dietrich II Endowed Chair in Jazz Studies, effective July 1, 2019. The position fills the void left by Geri Allen, who passed away in 2017. Dr. Nathan Davis created the Jazz Studies program at Pitt, and held the position from 1969 to 2013. Davis passed away in 2018.
Mitchell’s appointment serves as a coup for the both the university and, arguably, for Pittsburgh’s jazz scene. Born in Syracuse, New York and raised in Anaheim, California, she spent several productive years in Chicago. She has recorded numerous albums of conceptual experimental jazz that combined literary themes with improvisation. Her Xeogenesis Suite served as a tribute to science fiction author Octavia Butler. 2018’s Maroon Cloud has been described as “a paean to the human gift of imagination and its ability to foster resistance in our dystopian times.” While in Chicago, Mitchell also became active with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which includes composers Anthony Braxton and George Lewis as members. Mitchell served as president of the organization. For the last eight years, she has taught at the University of California – Irvine, where she serves as Vice Chair for the Council on Climate, Culture and Inclusion.
Although she never performed in Pittsburgh in the flesh, Mitchell performed here virtually, in a 2016 telematic conference that brought Geri Allen and George Lewis together in Pittsburgh to perform with Mitchell and other musicians in California.
On her first official visits to Pittsburgh, Mitchell is taken with the city, from its architecture to what she sees as a high level of community involvement. “What I’m hearing and seeing and absorbing from faculty, from students and from community members, is a hunger to embrace innovation while still having an honor for the tradition,” she says. “And I feel like that’s what I do. A lot of times people take it for granted because I’m [from the] 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 [this position is] really about inspiring the students to have that boldness to find their true voice.”
The University’s Annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert has become an institution, paying homage to jazz tradition within the city. Mitchell’s arrival comes at a time when the city is also placing more of a spotlight on modern, envelope-pushing jazz at venues like Alphabet City and with organizations like the Kente Arts Alliance. “What I think will change will be maybe more opportunities for that experimentation with me being here. Or maybe a feeling of encouragement to not find the cookie cutter to fit into but,” she pauses and laughs, “to make their own cookie!”
Mitchell jokes that, at one time, no school would want an adventurous artist like her anywhere near their jazz department. Pitt, she says, has been extremely welcoming. “A lot of times, especially as a woman, you feel like you have these ideas but you have to navigate all these walls and all of this conflict just to get the idea to manifest,” she says. “And in this case it’s like, ‘No, just manifest.’ That’s very refreshing.”
Succeeding Allen is not a task Mitchell takes lightly, either. “I feel that Geri did a lot of amazing work here and she left her spirit here really strongly,” Mitchell says. “And somehow I feel that her hand was in this. I know that sounds strange but that’s the way it felt.”