By SUSAN JONES
For flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell, Pitt and Pittsburgh have been full of surprises.
Before coming here to interview, the new director of jazz studies in the Dietrich School’s Department of Music had only visited Pittsburgh virtually, performing via live video from California with George Lewis and others when the pioneering trombonist was in residence on Pitt’s campus in 2016.
“When I came to visit, I was really blown away by the city, by the incredible arts activity, by the community spirit here, and also by the really wonderful colleagues that are here in the department,” Mitchell said. “It really felt like this was supposed to be. From the very beginning, there was a strong feeling that I belong here, which is interesting because I didn’t really know a lot about Pittsburgh before.”
She did, however, know the late Geri Allen, who led Pitt’s jazz studies program from 2013 until her death in 2017. They had played together a few times and Mitchell had been on the faculty of Allen’s jazz camp for girls in New Jersey.
“What’s really quite uncanny is that I had been asked to write an article about Geri after she passed for the Jazz Times. And the day that I turned my article in was the day that I was sent an invitation to apply for this job,” Mitchell said.
Prior to coming to Pitt, she was a professor of music at University of California, Irvine. She was the 2018 recipient of the Champion of New Music award from the American Composers Forum, and is the founder of Black Earth Ensemble, a multi-generational group that celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018. She also was the first woman president of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and has been named Top Flutist of the Year several times by the Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll and Jazz Journalists Association. She prefers Nicole Mitchell as her professional name, although her legal name is Nicole Mitchell Gantt.
She believes all of her experience — as a performer, an educator and a composer — has led her to this job. She also wants to continue her activist work for diversity and inclusion issues and was recently named to the Dietrich School Faculty Diversity Committee.
Moving jazz studies forward
Mitchell has big plans for jazz at Pitt and in the city of Pittsburgh.
“I feel that the Pitt jazz program is really central to the spirit of jazz in the whole city,” Mitchell said. “If we can strengthen our innovation, as well as honoring and empowering our legacy, then that can happen within the city as well. I want people to come to Pittsburgh to hear new innovations in jazz, as well as to learn about the great history that was built here. I see that the jazz program can invigorate the jazz scene in the city.”
She’s combining her activism and her musical background for the theme for this year’s Pitt Jazz Seminar — At the Edge of Creativity, Performing Creative Resistance. The 49th annual seminar, which includes lectures and performances, runs Oct. 28 to Nov. 2.
“Jazz has had a really important role in helping us to develop a multicultural society through creative resistance,” Mitchell said. “For example, during Prohibition, it was also a time of segregation, and jazz created spaces for people to come together from different backgrounds and to learn about each other and to connect through this social music. And the music has, at its core, always been about liberation and about creating space for individuality and expression through improvisation. On that level, I would say it’s had a role in social justice.”
This year’s seminar concert lineup was Mitchell’s vision, even though she just started in July. She wanted to bring together luminaries from different aspects and different generations of jazz. (Read more about the performers in the Sept. 26 edition of the University Times.)
As for her goals within the Music Department, Mitchell said she wants to uphold tradition, but also move forward.
“There’s always been a great tradition of very strong scholarship with this program,” she said. “It’s very revered as one of not only very few, but top jazz Ph.D. programs in the country. That reputation, we definitely want to uphold and revere and continue.”
But she also wants to make sure that students are developing their “compositional and improvisational skills to the greatest sophistication that they can,” and that they leave Pitt with a strong portfolio and recordings of their music.
One of her first initiatives is to update the Robinson Recording Studio in Bellefield Hall, which was founded under Nathan Davis, Pitt jazz studies founding director from 1969 to 2013.
“I want to help (the students) each to develop their own voice,” Mitchell said. “A lot of the tradition of teaching jazz performance in this country has been more focused only on 1930 to 1950 jazz. … I definitely want to continue the celebration of that. But I also want to make sure students can navigate other aspects of the music and be fluid in all the languages and all the approaches that are out there, so then they can go to New York or go to Europe and be able to be successful.”
She’s also teaching a new class this semester — Creative Arts Ensemble. “The idea is to bring together music students, students who are dancers, spoken word artists, filmmakers, visual artists to create interdisciplinary work as a group,” she said. The class is heavy with musicians this term, but she would really like to get people from other disciplines involved.
Go see her perform live
Mitchell also plans to continue to perform and is “very much looking forward to having a local presence as a musician.”
On Sept. 15, she’ll be part of City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s 15th annual Jazz Poetry Festival, performing with pianist Myra Melford. Poets Alison Rollins, Celeste Gainey, Cameron Barnett, and Ellen McGrath Smith also will perform. The show is from 6 to 8 p.m. at Alphabet City on the North Side. The performance is free but people are asked to RSVP.
In April, she’ll present a commissioned premiere — a musical celebration of Angela Davis dubbed “Radical Transformation” — at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild on the North Side. Tickets are on sale now, for $59.50, for the April 18 show.
For now, Mitchell is settling into her new life in Pittsburgh, where she’s happy about a couple more surprises. She says the food here is great, even as a vegan. “I’ve found some really great restaurants that I would think are even better than some of the restaurants that I’ve been to in California.”
And lastly, she said there’s one advantage here that many people may overlook.
“I really like that Pittsburgh is really green. There’s a lot of trees,” she said. “Even if you’re just in an urban environment, I feel that there’s a certain balance between nature and the concrete that you don’t have in other cities, especially not in New York. And I think that’s something that I really appreciate that people might take for granted. … there’s so many different kinds of birds and I really love hearing that.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 412-648-4294.
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