Wally Mitchel set to turn 80 with eyes still fixed on the future

Andy Downing
Wally Mitchel

Jazz drummer Wally Mitchel said that performing outside in a socially distant setting comes with its own set of challenges, starting with the absence of walls, which help contain the sound in a club, aiding communication between the players.

“Where outside the music is kind of just going off [into the air],” said Mitchel, who, for the last couple of months, has been joining his band for biweekly live streaming concerts, the next of which will take place at 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 26, via Facebook Live (the concert will also double as a birthday celebration for Mitchel, who turns 80 on Saturday). “And when your sound is just going into the air, you have to be careful of the dynamics, because you still need to hear each other. As the drummer, if I just played as I did inside on the bandstand, it might not allow me to hear the rest of the band.”

To counter this effect, a handful of the musicians have played beneath a canopy for more recent streams, which Mitchel said helps to contain some of the sound, improving communication between the players. Still, it’s a far cry from the environment at Dick’s Den, Mitchel’s long-running musical home, which hosted his weekly Sunday shows for the last five years until the pandemic forced the venue’s temporary closure in March. 

“It’s not the same,” said bassist and bandmate Matt Paetsch, who first played alongside the drummerat Dick’s Den 20 years ago in Joe Diamond’s band, “because while there is a conversation happening between the musicians onstage, there’s also a conversation between the musicians and the people listening in the room, and that’s been missing [with the streams].”

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Paetsch said he was initially hesitant to the livestream concept, owing largely to Mitchel’s age, which puts the jazz legend within the population at greater risk from COVID-19. “But [Mitchel] kind of said to me, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can do this, and I understand the risks,’” Paetsch said.

“We try to do everything right with social distancing and playing outdoors,” Mitchel said. “But we’re playing what we’ve been playing, and our attitude hasn’t changed about it. It’s the substitute situation, for now, because I don’t think anyone can say when we’re going to get back to normal.”

Even absent regular gigs in the early weeks of the pandemic, Mitchel said he still practiced daily, joking that he’s at an age where “if I don’t use it, I lose it.” But, even more than that, the drummer remains imbued with the same musical curiosity and drive that first inspired him to pick up the sticks decades ago, when he started by modeling his playing on drummer heroes such as Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones. “I’m lucky that I’m still into playing, and that I’m still inspired,” Mitchel said. “I feel like I’m still gaining ground.”

“He’s constantly working on stuff. I’ll give him a CD of something he’s never heard before … and he’ll come back having learned all of the riffs Al Foster plays on [Joe Henderson’s]The State of the Tenor, or something like that,” said Paetsch, who described Mitchel’s keen melodic sensibility as the hallmark of his playing style. “He’s still evolving, still listening, still taking things in and making them his own.”

It shouldn’t surprise, then, that Mitchel views his upcoming birthday as less of a milestone than another day in an ever-evolving journey.

“I’ve been playing long enough now that I can look back on where I’ve come from, and then you can look and see how much you’ve learned along the way and how much there is still to learn,” Mitchel said. “Obviously [this birthday] is just another day, but I’ve got a purpose that works for me. I’m still inspired to play, and there’s still a means to play, even though it isn’t what we had [at Dick’s Den]. … I mean, I’ve played a lot of types of music in the course of my career, but this music we’re playing now, it’s the music of my heart. … I like to say 'never in my wildest dreams,’ but I leave the ‘dreams’ off, and it’s the phrase I use to categorize all of this: never in my wildest. But here I am.”

Wally Mitchel