Tuesday, October 16, 2018
Opinion

Jazz legend Dwike Mitchell had musical bond with Dunedin

Dwike Mitchell, a Dunedin native and accomplished, classically trained jazz pianist who drew the admiration of jazz greats, died in April in Jacksonville of a pancreatic illness. He was 83 and, until recently, had made his home in New York, but his musical roots were in Dunedin.

Ivory Mitchell Jr. (he took the name "Dwike" because his given name, Ivory, seemed like a gimmick for a pianist) was born Feb. 14, 1930. His father drove a garbage truck for Dunedin and brought home a discarded piano for his 3-year-old son. By age 5, Dwike was accompanying his mother, Lilla, when she sang at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.

Young Mitchell attended Chase Memorial Elementary School in Dunedin, one of Pinellas County's schools for black students. His memories of the school were fond ones, perhaps because of a teacher named Mrs. Whitehead, who played the piano and taught him how to read music.

During high school, Mitchell caught the eye of Dunedin's Dr. Jack Mease, who recognized his talent. Mease asked Mitchell's father to let him attend the Juilliard School of Music in New York, but Mitchell Sr. declined.

In later years, Mitchell also remembered the kindness of Mrs. B.C. Skinner of Dunedin, whose lawn he mowed and who would ask him to play the family Steinway when he was done.

At age 17, Mitchell enlisted in the U.S. Army and went to San Antonio, Texas, for basic training. While there he was asked to join a band and began learning music in earnest from more accomplished members.

Later, Mitchell and other band members were assigned to Lockbourne Air Force Base in Columbus, Ohio, then an all-black air base that also housed 160 musicians who played in a marching band, a concert band or one of two jazz bands.

For Mitchell, the exposure was life-changing and, after completing his enlistment, Mitchell used the G.I. Bill to start his formal musical education at the Philadelphia Musical Academy.

After the academy, Mitchell joined Lionel Hampton's band. Also in the band was Willie Ruff, who played bass and French horn. Mitchell and Ruff later formed the Mitchell-Ruff Duo that played and taught jazz around the United States and the world for more than 50 years.

The two leaped into the headlines in 1959 when they staged an impromptu and officially taboo jazz concert in Moscow at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music. More than 20 years later, they became the first Americans to perform jazz and conduct workshops in China after the Cultural Revolution.

Mitchell never completely lost touch with Dunedin, making several trips back to his hometown. On one such occasion, he performed at the University of South Florida and gave a concert at the Dunedin High School Auditorium to benefit the Carver Negro Nursery School in Dunedin. He also returned in 1983 to visit his dying father.

Dwike Mitchell was a passionate advocate, teacher and practitioner of jazz who won the respect of his peers. Billy Strayhorn, who rarely wrote music for anyone but Duke Ellington, composed for Mitchell and the Duo.

Mitchell's lifelong partner in music, Willie Ruff, probably summarized well Mitchell's place in jazz: "(Lionel) Hampton became the first in a long line of legendary jazzmen — a line that was to include Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Miles Davis — who became devout admirers of Mitchell's awesome technique, his stunning harmonies and his boundless range. He is a pianist who can do it all. Relatively unknown to the public, he is a giant to his peers."

Guest columnist Julie Scales is a Dunedin city commissioner.

Comments
Editorial: Restart selection process for Florida Supreme Court justices

Editorial: Restart selection process for Florida Supreme Court justices

The Florida Supreme Court reached the right conclusion by ruling that the next governor has the authority to appoint three new justices to the court rather than departing Gov. Rick Scott. That is practical and reasonable, and it reflects the will of ...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Editorial: Bilirakis mimics Trump, colleagues in misleading voters

Editorial: Bilirakis mimics Trump, colleagues in misleading voters

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis wants voters to believe he is different than his Republican colleagues in Congress and President Donald Trump. The Palm Harbor Republican says he pays more attention to local issues than to the president, claims he doesnȁ...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Editorial: Answering questions about Hillsborough school tax

Editorial: Answering questions about Hillsborough school tax

The Hillsborough County school tax on the Nov. 6 ballot is a smart, necessary investment in the nation's eighth-largest school system. The 10-year, half-penny sales tax would create stronger, safer schools and a healthier learning environment for mor...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Editorial: Tampa water project benefits entire region

Editorial: Tampa water project benefits entire region

A proposal that goes to the three-county utility Tampa Bay Water on Monday could benefit residents, the economy and the environment across the region. The utility's governing board will consider a proposal by the city of Tampa to redirect highly trea...
Published: 10/12/18
Updated: 10/15/18
Editorial: Rays’ purchase of Rowdies good for St. Petersburg

Editorial: Rays’ purchase of Rowdies good for St. Petersburg

The Tampa Bay Rays’ purchase of the Rowdies soccer team adds some stability to the region’s roster of professional sports franchises. It also guarantees that the Rowdies, who have amassed an enthusiastic fan base in a short time, will k...
Published: 10/12/18
Editorial: Remember Mexico Beach when next evacuation order comes

Editorial: Remember Mexico Beach when next evacuation order comes

When the sun rose Wednesday, Mexico Beach was a sleepy town of 1,200 people on Florida's northern Gulf coast. By sundown, it was gone. The pictures show the heartbreaking devastation left by Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle. Entire neighbor...
Published: 10/12/18
Shortsighted opposition to TECO

Shortsighted opposition to TECO

The destruction from Hurricane Michael is only the latest reminder of Florida's growing vulnerability to extreme weather, rising sea levels and other impacts of a warming climate. But the Sierra Club's opposition to Tampa Electric Co.'s plans to retr...
Published: 10/12/18
Times recommends: Chronister for Hillsborough sheriff

Times recommends: Chronister for Hillsborough sheriff

Florida sheriffs have long hand-plucked their successors from within the ranks. While he is a product of this tradition, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister is uniquely qualified to be elected on his own merits.Then-Sheriff David Gee surprise...
Published: 10/11/18
Updated: 10/12/18
Times recommends: Yes on Florida Supreme Court retention

Times recommends: Yes on Florida Supreme Court retention

One justice on the Florida Supreme Court faces a merit retention vote in November, essentially an up-or-down vote of confidence allowing him to remain on the bench. Merit retention votes occur at least one year after the justice’s initial appo...
Published: 10/11/18
Times recommends: Yes on retaining 4 appeals judges

Times recommends: Yes on retaining 4 appeals judges

The 2nd District Court of Appeal judges are on the Nov. 6 ballot for merit retention. Voters are being asked whether the appellate judges should be retained for another six-year term.Two pieces of information are helpful in deciding. First, the Flori...
Published: 10/11/18