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

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