Growing up amid the chilly winters of Buffalo, Billy Mitchell enjoyed playing piano whenever the weather trapped him indoors. He learned to play by ear while listening to jazz records, and developed enough innate ability to join an off-campus jazz band while attending Morehouse College— a move that eventually set his life in a fully musical direction.
Since relocating to Los Angeles in 1971 and eventually settling in Pasadena in the 1980s, Mitchell has made quite an impact on the area music scene. Having toured the planet with his longtime former ensemble, the Billy Mitchell Group, he has also inspired a new generation of musicians by creating an after-school music education program that includes three Pasadena community centers and even a youth orchestra in the impoverished region of Watts.
On Sunday, Mitchell will help the Levitt Pavilion Pasadena celebrate another successful summer concert season by performing with his current group, Circle of Friends. Many of the combo’s nine ace musicians are bandleaders themselves, a fact that should ensure a fun and memorable evening.
“We try to do a mix of tunes, we’ll do some classic jazz and blues, and some Latin music for dancing the cha cha and mambo since we know people like to dance there,” says Mitchell. “We try to make it a party where the crowd can dance and sing along when there’s vocals. We don’t just stand up there like a traditional concert, because we like to have everybody moving.”
Mitchell, 74, majored in political science at Morehouse and initially taught social studies at both South Pasadena and Muir high schools after moving to California, while building his musical reputation in side gigs. He shifted to performing and recording full-time throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, playing at the prestigious Monterey and Playboy jazz festivals in addition to recording ten solo albums and touring across the US, Asia and Europe.
Yet Mitchell is proudest of founding the Scholarship Audition Performance Preparatory Academy (SAPPA) in 2002, which is geared toward increasing the participation of inner-city students in music and arts scholarship competitions. The program offers lessons and audition workshops at nine locations in Los Angeles and Long Beach, in addition to the Victory Park, Villa-Parke and Jackie Robinson community centers in Pasadena.
“I developed SAPPA as an audition workshop to teach kids how to audition, and we morphed into a music program when I traveled around LA schools and saw all the schools without any music at all,” says Mitchell. “We started opening up workshops and offering classes in the parks. They’re free, so a child shouldn’t have any excuse not to be able to get some experience with music just because not everybody can afford music lessons. As far as I’m concerned, an education is not an education without the arts.”
In addition to overseeing SAPPA and performing with Circle of Friends, Mitchell also backs legendary jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell in the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited. He finds that keeping his schedule varied and busy is the key to his continuing vitality both on the scene and in his overall life.
“Keep your skills up and improved, and you have to do it for yourself and play what you love,” says Mitchell. “I had never played with a big band before joining Burrell’s for the last three years, but learning and loving new experiences is what keeps me in the game.”
Billy Mitchell and Circle of Friends perform at 7 p.m. Sunday at Levitt Pavilion Pasadena, 85 E. Holly St., Pasadena. Admission is free. Visit levittpavilionpasadena.org. For more information on the SAPPA program, visit sappa.net.