Hotseat: Rick Mitchell

A former Portland musician and writer on the state of jazz right now.

Is jazz dead? With nightclub closures and record sales plummeting, it sometimes seems the genre is at least on life support. But if you ask jazz and pop critic Rick Mitchell, the music is looking better than it has in years.

Longtime Portland music fans might remember Mitchell. In the 1970s and '80s, he spun late-night free jazz on KBOO, played conga drums with the avant-funk unit Le Bon and wrote about music for WW.

Now a white-bearded Zen Buddhist living in Houston, Mitchell has a new book, Jazz in the New Millennium, which collects 57 previously published profiles of living legends like Roy Haynes, power players like Joshua Redman and up-and-comers like Robert Glasper. According to Mitchell, the book is the most comprehensive survey available of modern jazz's cutting edge. WW caught up with Mitchell by phone to talk about the state of the scene, his glory days in Portland and what the industry can do better.

WW: How is the state of jazz?

Rick Mitchell: My conclusion is that despite economic struggles, and despite what I would consider to be the unfortunate dumbing down of popular culture, jazz is thriving creatively. Sales of recorded music are way down from where they were 15 years ago, but that has affected jazz musicians less in some ways than it's affected popular musicians, because jazz musicians never really made very much money on album sales.

How are things different than they were 40 years ago?

For the first 60 years of jazz history, jazz had really rapid evolution. It seemed like every five years or so there was a next big thing. And then in about 1975, it wasn't really that innovation stopped—the idea that there had to be a next big thing stopped. What you have now is much more artistic pluralism. There are jazz artists at the creative edge who are incorporating contemporary rock songs and concepts into their jazz improvisations: Brad Mehldau, the Bad Plus, Ambrose Akinmusire. Jazz is not limited to just playing George Gershwin songs from now to eternity.

There's a lot of debate about what should even qualify as "jazz." What's your stance on that?

I think that jazz is world music now, in that it can incorporate influences from everywhere. But at its spiritual core, it remains an African-American art form. That doesn't mean you have to be black to play it—white Americans and black Americans were contributing almost from the very beginning—but it is rooted in African-American vernacular.

What can be done to bolster the music's popularity?

It's not intended, really, to be commercial music. I mean, I grew up listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin. I love that music. But to listen to jazz, to appreciate it, requires more developed listening skills. But I do think there are things that can be done. Don Was, who is the president of Blue Note Records, he's produced Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, so he doesn't see jazz as in opposition to everything else. He feels that if it can be presented properly, the audience is there, and I've seen major festivals—like 15,000 people—seriously groovin' on straight-ahead jazz.

New York may be thriving, but what's the state of jazz in smaller cities like Portland and Houston?

It's tough. Portland still has Jimmy Mak's, and there's not anything in Houston comparable to that. And Portland still has the Portland Jazz Festival. We didn't necessarily even realize, back in the late '70s and '80s, that Portland had this flourishing local jazz scene. We took it for granted that every place has places for musicians to play, and that's obviously not true.

GO: Rick Mitchell reads from Jazz in the New Millennium at Music Millennium, 3158 E Burnside St., on Saturday, Aug. 2. 3 pm. Free.

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