Evanston RoundTable, June 13, 2020
Evanston jazz guitarist Donovan Mixon wants to play for you. Safely, of course, so it would be in your backyard, or your front yard or even your side yard. Mr. Mixon – who has taught, composed, performed and recorded worldwide and is the author of a highly regarded book on ear training as well as a novel based on his experience as a music teacher – will perform as a soloist or as part of a duo, trio or larger ensemble.
What you’ll get, aside from his considerable talent, is a long and amazing back story.
Mr. Mixon was born in in Newark, N.J., in 1953 and picked up guitar at the age of 13. He studied privately through high school and continued in college at Rutgers University and Jersey City State College, where he majored in Music Education with a concentration in classical guitar. He got his B.A. in Music Education in 1978.
“I was also playing R&B, funk, blues and gospel at the time,” he says, and on a student trip to Paris, performed with the great baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.
After graduation Mr. Mixon played in funk bands along the east coast and then taught high school music for three years in Elizabeth, N.J. It was an encounter with a troubled student he was mentoring there that became the basis for his novel, “Ahgottahandleonit” (as in “I got a handle on it”), published in 2017 by Cinco Puntos Press.
He continued to play gigs and after three years left teaching to join the house orchestras of various Atlantic City resorts, where he backed such singers as Nancy Wilson, Dionne Warwick and Jack Jones, as well as comedians Jerry Lewis, Rich Little and Don Rickles. Mr. Rickles even apologized to Mr. Mixon after a set in which he made some typically insulting racial remarks.
After five years he left to get his master’s degree in Jazz Commercial Music and Composition at the esteemed Manhattan School of Music. “It was a great, great experience for me, a poor black kid from Newark,” he said.
It was such a great experience, in fact, that he set his sights on teaching college. “I was told it was impossible – I didn’t have any experience teaching at that level. Still, I applied everywhere, even as far away as Singapore. You could have wallpapered my apartment with rejection letters.” His persistence paid off in 1985, when he received a faculty position in the ear training department at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I had to pinch myself, there were such talented teachers and students there.”
While at Berklee he won a $5,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant for jazz composition for his piece “Culmination,” written for chamber orchestra and jazz rhythm section and performed by the Boston Orchestra and Chorale. (Three decades later he recorded it in Istanbul with his group Hybrid Project as part of a collection of original compositions. The CD was named one of the top Chicago recordings of 2010 by jazzchicago.net.)
Mr. Mixon was eventually promoted to assistant professor at Berklee and was selected two years in a row by the school to recruit, teach music clinics and perform in Italy.
“That was a mistake,” he laughed. As a result of his travels he fell in love with Italy and took a leave of absence from Berklee, eventually quitting the school and settling in Milan. He learned fluent Italian, made lifelong friends and finished his music book, “Performance Ear Training.”
During this period Mr. Mixon recorded his first CD, “Look Ma, No Hands!” and was featured on the Lee Konitz Trio’s album titled “Free with Lee.”
During his eight years in Italy he taught at University of Bologna and traveled throughout Europe performing and giving seminars.
In 2000, Mr. Mixon moved to Turkey to teach jazz studies, ear training and ensembles at Istanbul Bilgi University, serving as co-chair of the music department for one year.
Unlike Europe, he found Turkey “really is a foreign country – the language, culture and mindset are so different.” Nevertheless, he “liked it immediately.” There were good players and teachers at the university and they helped to create a vibrant jazz scene, which he said continues to this day.
He also met his future wife, Sule, who was his Turkish language teacher. They were married in 2003 and three years later their son, Ozan, was born. The name means bard. Sadly, Sule died of cancer. Sule’s family sued for custody, and when they lost the court battle, they kidnapped the child.
“For four years, I did everything I could to find him and get him back,” Mr. Mixon said. By that time he was remarried and living in Evanston, but he returned frequently to Turkey, hired lawyers and detectives, visited police stations, gave newspaper and TV interviews, and registered the case with Interpol and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
He even wrote a song, “I Will Look for You,” which can be viewed on YouTube and Mr. Mixon’s Facebook page. Photos of his infant son and late wife scroll while he sings, “Did they say I was too busy? Don’t worry about the pain,” and the refrain, “I will look for you till the day I die.”
Finally, the child was rescued by police 500 miles away from Istanbul and returned to his father. They have lived in Evanston since 2016 with his second wife, Diana. Ozan just graduated from Chute School and starts ETHS in the fall. At 6’3”, he is an inch taller than his father.
Since his arrival in Evanston, Mr. Mixon has taught at local colleges, performed at music festivals and local clubs with his own bands and as a sideman. He has also been playing with the Great Black Music Ensemble of AACM Chicago. Under his LLC, Jazzplay Studio, he gives private lessons and is creating an online ear training course. He has just completed a children’s chapter book, “Jumoke’s Lesson” about a fictional West African girl’s dreams of acceptance and recognition. “It’s Been Good,” a song he wrote and released last December, is part of a crowdfunding campaign for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Asked about his varied experiences traveling around the world, teaching and performing, he said, “I give my family a lot of credit. My parents didn’t have a formal education but they were two of the smartest people I’ve ever known. They encouraged me to study and follow my dreams.”
All this has been embedded in the music: the warm and weathered baritone voice and the highly fluid and melodic guitar work. As one critic wrote, Donovan Mixon has “distilled his experiences into a personal style of relaxed elegance, where notes are carefully placed in an uncluttered, transparent texture.”
For more information, call 847-217-5044 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.