New Jazz Chair Brings Fresh Approach to Pitt

Nicole Mitchell, Pitt’s new William S. Dietrich II Endowed Chair in Jazz StudiesPitt’s 49th Annual Jazz Week is in full swing and culminates this weekend with not one but two signature concerts featuring acclaimed international musicians. For the first time, the festivities are under the leadership of flutist Nicole Mitchell, Pitt’s new William S. Dietrich II Endowed Chair in Jazz Studies.

Mitchell selected a theme for this year’s events: “At the Edge of Beauty: Performing Creative Resistance.” She says the programming is about challenging one’s creativity beyond the bounds of what is comfortable, as reflected in the music of the legendary Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. 

“With each discovery, they help reframe our notions of beauty,” she said. “Jazz as a music is so much at that edge, that most don’t even agree on its definition. To push those artistic and aesthetic boundaries is to perform creative resistance, and all of our artists for the 49th Seminar and Concert embody that in their own way.”

Mitchell is putting her own stamp on the event, the most noticeable change being two concerts instead of one—Friday, Nov. 1, will feature pianist and vocalist Amina Claudine Myers as a solo performer, and the other, on Nov. 2, showcases the remaining five international guest artists joining Mitchell on the Carnegie Music Hall stage.

“I’m really excited to expand the seminar concerts to two nights,” said Mitchell. “We don’t have a lot of opportunities to hear solo concerts in jazz, and for a lot of great artists—that’s part of their special talent.”

This year’s visiting musicians represent a variety of ages, styles and backgrounds.

In addition to Myers, who will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her many contributions to jazz, Pitt is hosting saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, 79, a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. He’s also one of the original members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Pianist and composer Jason Moran, 44, was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2010. His performances are frequently an homage to Monk and Fats Waller.

Moor Mother is a poet and activist from Philadelphia. “She’s a powerful and very moving spoken word artist who is going to hit everyone hard,” said Mitchell.

Marcus Gilmore, 33, is “one of the most in-demand drummers we have today,” according to Mitchell.

Bassist Rufus Reid, 75, rounds out the ensemble. He’s been performing for 50 years with some of the world’s finest jazz artists.

It’s been a busy few months of planning for Mitchell, who arrived at the Department of Music in July. The seminar and concert series offers a jam-packed schedule, which includes free talks by all the guest artists, most of them on campus; two outreach events in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Homewood; a student composition showcase; presentations by graduate students and a panel discussion.

In the middle of it all, she flew to Chicago to accept the Jazz Visionary Award from the Jazz Institute of Chicago, an organization that mentored Mitchell as she developed artistically and formed her group, the Black Earth Ensemble.

“When you’re an artist, I think the most meaningful thing is to receive recognition from folks at your home base,” said Mitchell. 

Since the summer, Mitchell has been enjoying her new home base in Pittsburgh, where she appreciates the architecture, which she says reminds her of Norway, as well as the lush greenery and the variety of vegan restaurants.

Music Department Chair Mathew Rosenblum was pleased to welcome Mitchell and her reputation as an innovative performer and composer to Pitt.

“She also brings her deep commitment to music as a vehicle to foster social and ecological change and a seemingly endless amount of ideas for projects that will shape our department for years to come,” he said.

High on that list of priorities for Mitchell is raising the performance level for the undergraduate and graduate program, helping to support spaces for local talent to perform and upgrading Pitt’s William R. Robinson Recording Studio. 

“Pitt Jazz can be an incubator for the city, engaging in both the traditional and new developments in the music,” she said.

In January 2020, Pitt Jazz will host the We Have Voice Collective, a group of female and nonbinary jazz musicians that will perform and participate in a panel discussion on music, equity and the creation of safe spaces for all. It all ties in to Mitchell’s innovative spirit and how she is making this week’s 49th Annual Jazz Seminar and Concert her own.

“I definitely wanted to put my own spin on it,” she said. “That’s what we improvisors do, learn the way it’s been done and then add our own seasoning.”

For more information on the concerts, visit the Department of Music website. To listen to the entire podcast excerpted above, visit