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Jazz Pioneer Roscoe Mitchell Marked for Dismissal at Mills College

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Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell listens to a solo on stage during the "Jack DeJohnette's Made In Chicago" performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, on Aug. 1, 2015.  (Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images)

Roscoe Mitchell, the influential saxophonist known for groundbreaking work in jazz and orchestral music, is in danger of losing his job at Mills College due to the Oakland-based university’s financial problems.

A founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago who was once described as “one of the most important musicians in jazz” by the New York Times, Mitchell is one of 11 faculty members expected to lose his position. Currently, he is also the only African-American full-time faculty member in the music department, according to Chris Brown, the co-director at the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music who on Wednesday made public the administration’s plans.

Reached by email, Mitchell, 76, remained stoic about the news. “I am not angry or nervous,” he told KQED. “I am more concerned about the college and the other professors who got the same letter as I did.”

Mitchell also stressed that his position at Mills was “more than a job” to him, and praised the musical contributions of his fellow faculty, “especially in this era, where the groundbreaking concepts they have championed for decades are gaining significant traction and recognition.”


In May, Mills College announced that its operating deficit had grown to $9 million. With an annual budget of $57 million, officials at the 165-year-old school declared it needed to take transformative actions, which were outlined in a financial stabilization plan (FSP).

From a statement from the office of the president’s website:

Like so many colleges and universities across the country today — particularly small independent liberal arts colleges — Mills has faced financial challenges in recent years. Despite having worked diligently to control costs and diversify revenues, Mills has been unable to correct a very large imbalance in our finances.

If the school’s board of trustees approves the plan in its current format its meeting on June 26, Mitchell will be one of at least 30 employees let go. The school insists it will keep the Darius Milhaud Chair in Composition, a position started by an endowment in 1978 that has employed notable composers such as Mitchell, Anthony Braxton and Pauline Oliveros.

Roscoe Mitchell at the Moers Festival in Moers, Germany, 2009.
Roscoe Mitchell at the Moers Festival in Moers, Germany, 2009. (Michael Höfner)

Brown, who was on the search committee that hired Mitchell in 2007, said that if Mills cuts Mitchell’s position, it would lose its most senior and best-known composer, “an African-American master who has had a profound influence on both the jazz and classical music fields.”

“Students have come from around the world to study with him, and many of them wind up performing and recording with his ensembles,” Brown wrote in an email. “Roscoe has had a profound influence in the Bay Area on its creative music scene, beginning in the 1960s while the Art Ensemble of Chicago was in residence at Stanford University. It would be a shame to have this influence end in this manner.”

Mitchell grew up in Chicago, and started playing saxophone and clarinet at age 12. After a stint playing in the army band, Mitchell helped start the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians [AACM] to provide support and empowerment for black jazz musicians at a time when rock and folk music were prevalent, and when the presentation of jazz was largely in the hands of white promoters and producers.

Mitchell would eventually recruit some AACM members into his own group, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, which transformed into the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The band swiftly became influential for its group approach to avant-garde jazz improvisation, its use of unconventional instruments (bicycle horns, wind chimes, etc), and eye-catching costumes and face paint.

Now 76, Mitchell continues to compose both jazz and orchestral works. This year he released two new recordings — Bells for the South Side and Four Ways with Yuganaut — and his works for symphony orchestra have been performed at BBC-sponsored concerts all over Europe. In the past year, he premiered major works in both Iceland and Italy. Currently, he is preparing for “Roscoe Mitchell x 197, ‘Conversations for Orchestra’: a Collaboration of Music and Sculpture,” a large-scale collaboration with sculptor Leonardo Drew and a 34-piece orchestra, including colleagues and alumni from Mills, to be presented at San Francisco’s de Young Museum in September.

Brown started an online campaign asking students and fans to write Mills officials in the hopes that the board will change its plan. Brown admits that “it doesn’t look good” for Mitchell, but that perhaps there are other solutions, such as finding individuals who could fund an endowment.

“The history of financial problems at Mills is a long one, but this proposed solution radically strikes at the heart of its reputation for innovation and excellence in the arts,” Brown wrote in his Facebook post.

Brown’s post has been shared dozens of times and many supporters have included their own statements, pointing out Mitchell’s generosity and passion. Mitchell said he’s seen the support online and found it gratifying.

“I am humbled,” he told KQED, “that so many people care about me and my work. At this point in my life one of the main things that matters to me is learning.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the school would be cutting the Darius Milhaud Chair in Composition. The school plans to keep the position.

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