J.R. Mitchell is truly one of the renaissance men of jazz. Not content to rest on his laurels as a master drummer who has kept time for artists as diverse as saxophonists Byard Lancaster and Arnett Cobb, pianists Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill, vocalists Betty Carter and Nina Simone, he is also busy on the college circuit with a unique lecture-demonstration of the roots of Afro-American music.
Performing on the kalimba, talking drum, balathon and other African ancestors of western percussion instruments, he emphasizes the role that rhythm plays "in terms of how we interpret different forms of communication." Then he brings the story to the present, playing representative recordings of New Orleans, Kansas City, be-bop and contemporary styles of jazz. "If we really sit back and listen to what some of the avant garde players are doing, there's an awful lot of traditional influence in there," Mitchell says.
New Yorker Mitchell has earned advanced degrees in composition and ethnomusicology, performed with symphony orchestras, published a book on the marketing of jazz and produced his own record label, Doria, on which his second album, "Moving," will be released this month. He is currently composing music for a performance that will incorporate elements of African, Asian and Oriental dance, planning an upcoming tribute to Duke Ellington, writing a paper on Third World music that he will read at a conference in Cuba this spring and looking forward to his group's first appearance in the Kool Jazz Festival in June.
Area jazz fans will have an opportunity to catch Mitchell behind his drums later this week when Mr. Y's Jazz Lounge Upstairs, 1601 Rhode Island Ave. NE, presents its First Annual Spring Jazz Festival Thursday through Sunday. Among the other featured players will be bassist Keter Betts, pianist Gerald Price, trumpeter Malachi Thompson, guitarist O'Donel Levy, saxophonist Bootsie Barnes and vocalist Millie Cannon.