I first met Nicole in 1992 when musician friend Maia and I came together to jam at my house. Niki, as she was known then, had attracted Maia’s attention as a busker on an ‘L’ platform or tunnel. She joined us and we hit it off, two flutes and a sitar.
After we had come together a few times, I was asked to participate in a benefit for Light Henry Huff at the Hothouse, when it was on Milwaukee Avenue. Rather than do a solo performance, I suggested playing with Maia and Niki. We were so well received that we decided to form a group and keep playing together.
Thus Samana was born. We settled upon the concept of an all-women’s group playing spiritually uplifting music. For eight years we rehearsed almost every Saturday morning at 6, then again on Thurdays at 7 pm. We prayed at the beginning of each rehearsal and worked hard on our sound, with Maia as musical director and me taking care of the business end of things.
In some of our early performances, Samana would be a group of nine or ten colorfully clad women, including singers, dancers and multi-instrumentalists. Eventually we were more often a group of five: Maia – flute, harp, voice, and vibes; Nicole – flutes and voice; Aquilla Sedalla – voice and clarinets; Coco Elysses – congas and tympani; and me on bass, mbira, and sitar. We all played drums.
Samana was the first all-female ensemble in the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which Nicole would later chair). We performed in venues around Chicagoland and throughout the Midwest and released one recording, Samana.
Samana became a source of frustration for Niki, and I’ve come to regret my part in that. One was that I nixed her composition, “Troot”, from the Samana recording, feeling like the stomps and claps didn’t work. How many recordings since then have featured tap dancers in a jazz setting?
A second thing I’m aware of was Niki’s desire to take longer solos, when Maia and I held to a prescribed length so that we could stay within the number of minutes we had for any given gig. In one conversation about this, David Boykin said to Niki, “Well, you just need to get your own group.” And did she ever!!
What was most striking about Niki was how totally absorbed in music she was. While finishing her flute major at Chicago State, she was also pursuing classical flute studies at the University of Chicago. Then she commuted to DeKalb for her Master’s Degree, became a mother, and went from rehearsals to gigs to rehearsals to gigs, seemingly nonstop. I have never met anyone so totally committed to music as Niki.
I have long said that Nicole is a genius and should definitely have gotten one of those MacArthur grants by now. Nonetheless she has been recognized with awards from the Herb Alpert Foundation and is a Doris Duke fellow. Nicole has performed throughout Europe and North America. She’s received numerous “Best of” designations from jazz critics, polls, and publications; and has been commissioned to create works for the Jazz Institute of Chicago, among others. And she’s now a tenured professor at the University of California – Irvine.
This month Nicole Mitchell was Artist-in-Residence for NYC Winter Jazzfest, presenting her work in at least four different groups under her name.
Although now based in California, Nicole maintains strong ties to Chicago and often employs Chicago musicians in her projects. I’ve been honored with an invitation to play with Nicole on a few precious occasions:
Honoring Grace: Michelle Obama, at the Spertus Museum, in the recording studio, and at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival; The music of Doug and Jean Carn at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival; and Chicago’s Green Mill.
As exciting as it’s been to perform with Nicole Mitchell, it’s been even more thrilling to be in her audiences as she presents her commissioned works, such as, in 2010, Intergalactic Beings, Part Two of Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler, and, in 2017, Bamako*Chicago Sound System. I’ve also seen her in many iterations of her Black Earth Ensemble. Nicole’s artistry, musicianship, creativity, and vision are unparalleled, and her activism, especially in championing gender and racial equality, is a model for all of us.