When Billy Mitchell appears somewhere, he always draws a crowd of faithful followers. His shows are full of energy, excitement, jazz history, groove and funk. Mitchell plays it all with gusto, from bebop and straight ahead to Smooth jazz with deep roots of R&B. You’ll find him swaying and bouncing on his piano stool and flashing his bright smile at the audience, inviting us all to join in his merriment. Mitchell’s played with some of the best jazz musicians in the business like Kenny Burrell and the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited, Bobby Rodriquez and the Jazz Leaders, Teddy Edwards, Barbara Morrison, Gloria Lynn, Esther Phillips and Randy Crawford, as well as blues and R&B legends like Brenda Lee Eager, Billy Paul, Linda Hopkins, The Gap Band, and Willie Dixon. He’s diversified in both his creative approach and his passionate love of music, although jazz has been his long time inspiration. He has produced many projects for aspiring artists, the latest being a blues project (“Black Creole Chronicles”) featuring actor-comedian Garrett Morris, and a jazz project (“My Life”) featuring Japanese pianist Yuko Mabuchi. He’s a music activist in the community and recognizes the importance of music education and passing the legacy of jazz on to our youth. I recently interviewed Billy, discussing his life and endeavors to save and enrich our youth using music as a tool.
This talented pianist and educator was born in Tarrytown, NY, but raised in Buffalo. His father was a minister and community activist. He had two siblings, a brother and a sister, neither of whom was musical; but his older brother, Scoey Mitchell, became a prominent actor, writer and comedian, making his mark as a frequent face on television game shows like “The Match Game” and appearing on stage and film, including “JoJo Dancer” where he played the father of Richard Pryor. He also starred on the popular 70s ABC sitcom, “Barefoot in the Park.”
Billy Mitchell was a late blooming musician. True, his house was always full of music and his mother was a piano player and taught music, but it wasn’t until he attended Morehouse College in Atlanta that the music bug truly bit Billy Mitchell. He joined the jazz band, with no technical training. He was just naturally gifted and played by ear.
BILLY: “I was playing as a hobby. I did it for the fun of it. I still do it for the fun of it. I came up with Ahmad Jamal, and ‘Poinciana’ kind of pulled me on into it. Then there was The Three Sounds, Oscar Peterson, Jimmy Smith was always an inspiration on organ and Horace Silver. Those were the piano players I listened to back then.
“Well, I came to Los Angeles in 1971, to get into the music and I started going to L.A. City College. I went there for about a year and just took some basic music classes. But I also had a family, so I had to work all the time. Consequently, I was working, trying to study and trying to gig. I just pieced those things together. I formed the first Billy Mitchell group in the seventies with a guy named Joe Brown on drums and a young lady named Tammy Burdett who played bass. There weren’t too many women playing bass in the 70’s. We had a trio. We all played and we all sang. We traveled a lot internationally, doing jazz and Top 40.
“Late in the 70’s, I had the opportunity to go on the road with Billy Paul. I was on the road with him and then I was on the road with Little Esther Phillips. I played piano on Gap Band’s Album entitled, The Gap.”
Note: (The Gap Band included Grammy-winning vocalist Charlie Wilson and his brothers when they were first starting out – the album put them on the national map).
Dee Dee: Willie Dixon is one of my songwriting heroes. In 1989 I read you were a part of Stanley Behrens’ Willie Dixon Project. Tell me about that.
BILLY: “I learned about keeping it simple. Willie Dixon said, play music for the common ear, so that anybody can understand what you’re saying. He was a great guy. I really loved him. He was just about getting the job done. He didn’t have no kind of ego; nothin’ like that. As great as he was, he was there to get the music right and he was very helpful in putting the music together. He and Linda Hopkins were two of my biggest inspirations. Linda actually taught me what it’s supposed to be to be on the road. I learned from Linda. She didn’t mind saying ‘this is not good’ or ‘you shouldn’t do that’. It wasn’t like being bossy or anything. She was like a mama. She was interested in us learning and not making mistakes. I was on the road with her a couple of years off and on. We toured over in Europe and all over.”
With your own group, your direction back then was more funk and so-called smooth jazz. I think you were a little ahead of your time, because this was before smooth jazz took off on the radio and became popular. What do you think pushed you into that musical direction?
BILLY: “Well, it was called the ‘Quiet Storm’ format. That was the black smooth jazz; Grover Washington and all the cats. That’s before they put the white boys in it and named it something else. We were doing it first, a long time before the smooth jazz format came along. And I came from a dancing era. I came up dancing. That’s just what we did. When I was in college, back in the 60s, it was about the mambo. If you didn’t know how to mambo, like the Palladium in New York, you couldn’t hardly go out. So, all the music that I’ve been drawn to all my life is booty music. There’s nothing intellectual about what I do. It’s got to make you move and shake some part of your body or it doesn’t register with me. Being joyful and happy was what I learned was the intention of the music. I was always under the impression that jazz was something that you had fun with. If you didn’t dance to it, you had some kind of fun with it.”
Billy Mitchell has spent a great part of his career mentoring others and providing musical inspiration to young people. In 1999, America West Airlines awarded Mitchell the ‘Jazz For The Next Generation Award’ for his continued work with artistically underserved youth. He’s consistently worked with community programs like his Watts-Willowbrook Conservatory and Youth Symphony project, where he served as executive director and his Boys and Girls Club workshops, as well as his musical work with incarcerated and/or foster children.
BILLY: “I used to judge programs for music competition. Often, the black or Latino kids came on stage, they were not as confident in what they were doing. They could play and perform, but in their self-presentation, they sometimes came up short. So I thought I would just start a little workshop to help them understand some of the dynamics of presenting themselves. This was about fifteen years ago. I started it formerly in 2002 when I founded the SAPPA Foundation (Scholarship Audition Performance Preparatory Academy).”
“I enjoyed doing it. I had been working with NAACP ACT-SO program and the Music Center Spotlight Awards. Anytime I had a chance to mentor or work with an aspiring young artist, I would try to give them some information. People always did that for me. Then I started doing it in the schools in an attempt to get African American kids into these scholarship programs, because they were not taking advantage of them. When I started going around to the schools, I discovered that most of them didn’t have any music programs. I was shocked. I heard about it, but I didn’t believe you could have a curriculum without music and art. So I started going around to the schools and telling them ok – I’ll offer a music workshop. That’s better than nothing. So I offered workshops to the schools for any kids that wanted to come. This branched off into the Parks and Recreation Programs, and not so much with the public schools. Because they’re trying to get their credibility back now and are offering some music classes once a week and they call it a music program. Also, unfortunately, it was very difficult to work with the school districts.
“At the Sedona Jazz Festival, … we would have workshops. That particular festival was a festival that raised money for scholarships. So, most of the artists would spend some time with students with their jazz bands. I did it every year that I participated. In 1999 the American West Airlines people heard about that work and the work I was doing with young people right here, so they said, let’s acknowledge it. T.S. Monk got one of their awards and Herbie Hancock got one.
“The SAPPA Program is like an introduction to music. We don’t have the resources or staff to have a full music curriculum. But I didn’t want any young person to go through school and never have a music class. So we provide basic instruction mostly to elementary and middle school kids. Most of the programs are free. So I wanted to erase the perception of it costing money all the time. So for kids that don’t have any money, we have programs available so that they can learn piano and guitar. We also direct families to some of the programs that are set up especially for low-income families. What I’ve found is that the Saturday Conservatory of Pasadena, the Southeast Symphony Conservatory Program in Los Angeles and the Compton Conservatory in Compton provide affordable programs. The problem is, the community doesn’t know about them. So that’s one of the reasons I’ve set up the SAPPA website, to help parents become aware of the various resources. The web address is www.sappa.net and yes, we survive on donations.”
Note: The Billy Mitchell Quartet will be appearing at the famed Maverick’s Flat on April 12, 2015, in the historic Crenshaw District as the premiere act for a Sunday Best Jazz Series, hosted by yours truly. Doors open at 6pm. See you there.