Tuesday, February 20, 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.

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