Nicole Mitchell’s Downbeat award should bring her to South Africa

The Downbeat Critics Awards are out , and South Africans can enjoy a slightly smug feeling. We heard the Vijay Iyer sextet before they scored that award for Far From Over, in March at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. It was a joy – but I suppose it would be repetitive to ask that Iyer be invited back?

Actually, there is one respect in which CTIJF is already repetitive: jazz headliners over the years have been overwhelmingly male – and where they have not been, the jazzwomen have been overwhelmingly vocalists. That’s allowed us to hear some superb musicianship in song, which is never a bad thing. But it’s overdue that festival programming also acknowledges the world of female instrumentalists.

Nicole Mitchell

The 2018 Downbeat poll offers us more than one name here. But one that stands out, for a lifetime of achievement encompassing playing, composing, ensemble and community leadership and scholarship, is that of flautist Nicole Mitchell. Mitchell, who has been nominated and awarded multiple times in the past, took away this year’s instrumental award for flute, and a rising ensemble award for her outfit (although it’s closer to a collective) the Black Earth Ensemble.

Syracuse, New York-born, but a longtime resident of both California and Chicago, Mitchell grew up with parents who, today, would probably be pigeonholed as Afro-futurists: they were concerned with new ideas, interested in science fiction and, of course, music. She began with classical training on piano, viola and flute, and attended the University of California San Diego, and then Oberlin College. But she found California arid in terms of diversity and open-mindedness, while at Oberlin she was the only woman in the entire jazz programme, constantly cautioned about how hard it would be for her to make it in the genre.

“How is it,” she has reflected, “that someone can consider themselves supportive of egalitarianism and all this stuff, and then they don’t ever work with artists of colour, or women?”

Moving to Chicago, she found an edgier, more open-minded scene. She began working with members of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians ) an organisation whose first female president she later became. She also worked for 13 years for the visionary Third World Press: the oldest African-American press in the country.

AACM group Samana – Mitchell back left

Under AACM, she was a part of the all-woman instrumental group Samana. But she also resumed her scholarship, working towards an eventual Masters degree from Northern Illinois University. She taught at half a dozen universities in and around Chicago, and in 1997 formed the Black Earth Ensemble, a multi-ethnic, multi-gendered, multi-generational outfit whose concern, she told one interviewer, was about “the concept of ancient to the future (…) you can create something familiar and bridge that with the unknown.”

Black Earth
The Black Earth Ensemble

That futurism relates both to the sci-fi her father so avidly consumed, and to her own admiration for the work of black speculative writer Octavia E. Butler , in tribute to whom she recorded the Xenogenesis Suite

albumMitchell has released more than 20 albums, and is also currently Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine. Her most recent outing with the Black Earth Ensemble, the 2017 Mandorla Wakening II: Emerging Worlds , engages with possible futures in which technological advances can be liberated from their current commodified context and integrated with collaboration, sharing and care for the environment.


For more spiritual exploration, check – if you haven’t already – the newly-discovered John Coltrane tapes released by Impulse late last week as Both Directions at Once . The title references Trane’s speculation about, in Ben Ratliff’s words in an excellent, thoughtful Pitchfork review ( ) “the possibility of improvising as if starting a sentence in the middle, moving backwards and forwards simultaneously.” There has been much anorak excitement about a “lost” Coltrane album, and it is unarguable that having more of the prophetic saxophone thinker to hear is a wonderful thing. Trane.jpgBut when media who never seem to notice when a new South African jazz album lands, suddenly and as never before get all breathless about the event, you can’t help wondering about their priorities. Trane was a titan who made transcendently beautiful and challenging music and still has huge amounts to teach us. One of the things his life and work teach is that we should be listening to new jazz now, as it’s being made and as the experiments are happening, not wait to get excited until the artist is dead and the music can be commercialised as a hipster’s collectable. Both Directions at Once is not exciting because it is a rare collectors’ antique. It’s exciting because of what Trane says.



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