Nicole Mitchell, Haki Madhubuti merge poetry, jazz

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Nicole Mitchell

Nicole Mitchell performs Friday night at the Chicago Jazz Festival in Grant Park. (Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune / September 3, 2010)

Nearly 25 years ago, a young musician walked into the South Side offices of Third World Press looking for a job.

She had no experience in publishing, no college degree and no connections in Chicago.

She would go on to become one of the most admired jazz flutists in the world and credits much of her success to the day she took a chance and stepped inside Third World Press, a widely admired publisher of books on African-American themes.

"I wouldn't take no for an answer," recalls Nicole Mitchell, who will celebrate her long-running relationship with the publishing house and its founder, poet Haki Madhubuti, in a grand way on Friday night at La Follette Park. Mitchell and her Black Earth Ensemble will collaborate with Madhubuti for the world premiere of her "Liberation Narratives," inspired by Madhubuti's poetry anthology of the same name.

That day she first appeared at Third World Press, she recalls, "I said, 'I want to work here because I believe in what you're doing, and I don't want to have some random job. If you want me to sweep the floor, I will.' "

Madhubuti remembers that first encounter vividly.

"She said, 'I need a job,'" recalls Madhubiti, who will be reading his poetry during the "Liberation Narratives" premiere.

"I said, 'What kind of skills do you have?'

"Her skills were multi-faceted, and I didn't know that she was a musician – she didn't even mention music.

"So we found something for her to do. It was a little bit more than make-work. She had come from California, and she needed help. And if you know anything about me, that's what we are about. And that started a beautiful, longtime relationship."

Indeed, Mitchell soon advanced at Third World Press from intern to typist to graphic designer, Madhubuti becoming as much friend and mentor as boss and colleague. In Madhubuti, Mitchell saw an artist and entrepreneur who was "an institution builder," she says. Someone "who started out with an idea and was able to create opportunities for other people and also to give and spread knowledge worldwide and to be an example of not only making dreams happen but being a resource to the community."

All of which applies to Mitchell, as well, for in her work as flute soloist, bandleader, composer and, most recently, professor at the University of California at Irvine, she has presided over uncounted concerts, staged quasi-theatrical works, trained younger artists and championed various facets of African-American culture.

So perhaps it was inevitable that Mitchell – who went on to take a bachelor's of music degree from Chicago State University in 1998 and a master's of music from Northern Illinois University in 2000 – would circle back to Madhubuti and Third World Press. By creating "Liberation Narratives," she could publicly acknowledge their importance to her development and embrace the distinct cadences of Madhubuti's work.

"It's a very special moment, historically, to be able to do this," says Mitchell, who collaborated with Madhubuti several years ago, though not in an original work of this scope.

As Mitchell elaborates in an email, "Haki's poetry is jazz, the way he seduces words to capture moments in our memories and amplifies images of our lives. I want to bring those words to life with this project."

Considering the sensuous nature of Mitchell's flute playing, the stylistically wide-ranging character of her writing and the gritty urban eloquence of Madhubuti's poetry, "Liberation Narratives" could represent a unique convergence of ideas. Certainly Madhubuti's poems take readers to the front lines of life in big-city America.

As in this passage from "Too Many of Our Young are Dying," a poem that will be included in Friday's performance:

"our children, in the millions

"are dropping from the trees of life too soon,

"their innocent hearts and bodies

"are forced to navigate within modern madness,

"searching for life and love

"in the basements of a crippled metropolis,

"a disintegrating culture too soon."

---by Haki Madhubuti

Madhubuti clearly does not flinch from the realities of life in America, and one can only imagine the searing power of these words – and others – with Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble playing alongside him.

Not that such ventures are new to him. In the 1970s, Madhubuti recorded two albums of his poetry with music, "Rise Vision Comin'" and "Medasi." And even earlier he began collaborating with a revered Chicago poet in unconventional performance events.

"In the '60s and '70s, I would take Gwendolyn Brooks, we would go to bars and taverns on the South Side of Chicago, make a sign that we're here and we're going to lay down some poetry on you," says Madhubuti of an era when he was known as Don L. Lee.

To find himself now collaborating with flutist Mitchell, whose career he helped launch, has profound meanings for him.

"I consider Nicole my daughter," says Madhubuti. "We have a saying in the black community: What goes around comes around.

"Nicole has done well nationally and internationally. … I've been in a struggle trying to build these institutions. We keep doing this kind of work, with all the problems, all the corruption in Illinois and all the incompetence in Illinois, we keep on going.

"So Nicole is a product of all that. She never wavered."

On Friday evening, Mitchell and Madhubuti will mark their long journey together in a most appropriate way: through poetry and jazz.

Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble and poet Haki Madhubuti will perform "Liberation Narratives" at 7 p.m. Friday at La Follette Park, 1333 N. Laramie Ave., in a JazzCity program presented by the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Park District; admission is free; phone 312-427-1676 or visit

Honoring Kahil El'Zabar

Chicago percussionist-bandleader Kahil El'Zabar, the focal point of the recent documentary film "Be Known," will receive the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture.

The honor "recognizes eminent artists, writers and other members of the cultural community who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world," according to a letter from French cultural attaché Fabrice Rozie to El'Zabar.

"That they consider that I'm worthy – I'm humbled and honored," says El'Zabar, who has been doing an annual cultural residency in France for more than a decade.

"It reinforces my purpose to fight the good fight."

The award will be presented at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Shrine, 2109 S. Wabash Ave. The ceremony will be followed by a concert at 7 p.m. featuring "The Bridge #4," an American-French collaboration staffed by reedist Mwata Bowden, cornetist Rob Mazurek, guitarist Julien Desprez and bassists Matt Lux and Mathieu Sourisseau. At 8 p.m. El'Zabar's Spirit Ensemble – with vocalist Dwight Trible, baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, trumpeter Corey Wilkes, cellist Tomeka Reid and keyboardist Justin Dillard – will perform.

Admission is free. For more information, phone 312-753-5681 or visit

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to

Twitter @howardreich

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