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Episode Transcript

Kristy Geslain: In the 15 years since he moved to New York City, pianist, arranger, and composer Michael Mitchell has gone from landing his very first job off-Broadway to juggling a long list of high-profile gigs, including his current projects as music director for Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater and for Leslie Odom, Jr. After making his Lincoln Center debut with Leslie—which will be aired this month on PBS as part of Live from Lincoln Center's Stars in Concert series—Michael spoke to me about his path to success, the role of a music director, and being unapologetically present.

This is Lincoln Center with Michael Mitchell.

KG: Michael Mitchell, welcome to This is Lincoln Center.

Michael Mitchell: Thank you for having me.

KG: Thank you for being here. Thank you for being so patient as we rescheduled due to schedules, and snowstorms, and everything else.

MM: We were fighting four Noreasters in three weeks. I get it.

KG: So in addition to the weather, you are also a super busy guy, from what I can see online and from what I hear from your schedule. I've been emailing you from airports and in between gigs, and on the road. What are you up to lately? What are you working on?

MM: Well, right now, the two big things that I have is music directing for Leslie Odom Jr., which has been a blast. It's been a whirlwind of fun and excitement that I didn't even quite expect to happen so quickly, so soon. Of course everyone loves Leslie but, I don't know. I wasn't expecting it to go so fast and be so busy. But I do that, and the other big thing that I do is music director for Amateur Night at the Apollo, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. So those two keep me very busy.

KG: So tell me how you and Leslie started working together.

MM: I got called randomly, 2015-ish, to play with him at the Elsie Fest. I think Hamilton had just came out? It was a "thing," but he wasn't a big, big thing yet. So we did that, and I didn't hear from him for a while or his management for a while so I was like, "Maybe I bombed the gig," but it worked out. And I think with the show getting jumped off, it took a lot of time. Eight shows a week is definitely a commitment.

KG: Especially that show.

MM: Especially that show. And then it's all the promo stuff that the actors and singers have to do. The rehearsals, the put-ins. So a lot of time was taken. So once I think that show was up, and they knew that they were gonna be nominated, he started to do more things. So around, I think March, after the show had opened, Elsie Fest was maybe August, so March they started to call and say, "Hey, we're gonna start doing some things again with Leslie. Are you interested in playing?" and I was like, "Heck yeah, why not? Great singer, great talent, great music." I know the band's gonna be killer so, why not?

KG: That's early days? So you've been with him since the beginning?

MM: Yeah. 2015, yeah.

KG: So how about did you go putting the band together, coming up with the show that we now know that we're gonna see on PBS?

MM: Wow, that was big credit to his manager, Joseph Abate, who found some guys, trial and error, put some guys in. I mean, everyone that has been called has been really good and really great musicians, but it still takes certain musicians to be able to gel. When... I don't know how we all just got together, it was that first rehearsal, right before we had his shows at the McKittrick, before his album release. Right before that we had a rehearsal, and everybody was in the room and it was like, "Hey, these guys are actually pretty good." We all found each other rather quickly, which is rare. A lot of bands go through four, five years of finding... "Oh god, this person didn't work out, they're a great musician, but can't deal with that personality. Or this person never shows up on time. They're great, but they're three hours late for a rehearsal that is now over, you know." So but to find this group of guys has been pretty awesome.

KG: What is the common thread that kind of keeps you working well together?

MM: We all listen to each other. We listen to each other as we're playing, we listen to each other as we're musically talking. As we're talking on stage, as we're talking offstage. We have our differences, you know, but we're able to listen to each other to be able to complement the other. No one on stage is trying to outdo the other. No one is trying to say, "Hey, look at me! I'm really good! Look at me! Let me show off." It's really more of we all find our space, we find our placements. And there are times when we clash and it's like, "Oh, cool, I heard that. I was gonna do something different, but okay, cool, you know, that's on you." Everyone again knows when to jump in, when to step in, when to find their space.

KG: Now, as music director, how do you function in the group. What is the role of a music director in this case? It's seems a little different every time. You know, I'm talking to Ben Cohn, whose Stephanie J. Block's music director, and Todd Almond who worked with Andrew Rannells, and it seems like everyone has a slightly different role, slightly different relationship with the artist, or in this case, you know, the full band, because you guys are playing together, regularly. So how does that work for you?

MM: For me, it changes. And the role can change, varying per gig. With Leslie, my role as music director is really to make sure that the music is together with the band and to make sure that the orchestra understands what the song should be. That's also something, being part of the music, being a music director that I take serious, is to be able to read the room. To be able to understand when Leslie may say, "Oh, I want to take it a little slower" and to know that may not be what it should be. Because sometimes slower doesn't necessarily mean more sensual, or you know sometimes slower can mean it's just too slow. So sometimes you have to put the edge on it, and it can be ever so slightly, but that edge is what changes it from a regular song to something that's more engaging.

And again at the Apollo it changes because it's really more intense there. I know Leslie's gonna sing in key, every time. At the Apollo, when you're dealing with amateurs, you're not so sure. I heard Ray Chew, who was there before me, he said... he likens working at the Apollo to being a Marine. You never really kinda know the conditions you're gonna get, because at any point, a singer could change key. And as a music director, you kinda have to say, "Are we gonna stay here and make them look bad? Or we're gonna try to find them and at least try to support the best we can?" I'd rather go support, and sometimes it's hard, it's a quick like, "Oh no, this person is not in key, what do we... and I have to yell out in the middle of the song, 'Change to A flat!'" I'd rather support than to leave them stranded and say "Well, this is the key we started in, we have to stay here." Because everybody's not professional. So give them the best opportunity to make it.

KG: It sounds like a really fun job.

MM: It is. It's about two hours of just sheer fun. A lot of people don't realize how much fun it really is. They're like, "Oh, yeah, it's cool," or "It's mean because you boo people." I get it, but when you're in the environment and when you're in the spirit of fun, and you realize it's not booing to just be mean, you know, it's booing to like, "You know what? Yeah, well there's someone else who's a little bit better than you. Let's try it, come on, boo." And there are a lot of people that take the boos as fuel. And they end up singing and winning. I mean, how many times have people been booed for whatever reason on the stage and they hit that one right note, or play that one right note or make that one great dance move and it's like, "Oh my god, they're cool."

KG: A boo changes to applause really fast.

MM: Real quick.

KG: So given all the projects that you're working on, you clearly have a very eclectic style, I would say. So where does that come from? Maybe let's start with your training, then we'll talk a little bit about your influences?

MM: Grew up in church. Dad's a pastor, granddad was a pastor, couple of aunts are pastors, that kind of thing. So I grew up around music all the time. About the age of six, I was like, "Oh yeah. I know what I wanna do. I wanna play the piano." My dad was like, "Yeah, okay, cool." I was like, "But I know how to play." He's like, "Nah, you don't. You've never played. You don't know what you're doing." I was like, "But I do know what to do right now." He didn't believe it. Okay, cool. I pestered him, whole service, weeks. So he was finally like, "Okay, go." And I walked over there and played. So he was like, "Oh my god, you know what you're doing. Okay, lessons."

So they immediately put me in classical lessons. I took classical through college. Even once I moved to New York I was still taking lessons a little bit, classically. So I took classical for about twenty plus years. And moving to New York, I was like, okay, I can't just focus on one style of music, because New York is big and has so many styles. I wanna be able to do as many as possible, and do as much as possible. So I kept up with my classical, of course did gospel because of church that I grew up in. Always have loved jazz, so it was like oh, well that came natural. Blues came natural, even playing country came natural. It just all kinda came because of the love of music and just the desire to listen and hear more and not necessarily pigeonhole myself. I get it that I have a "sound" that leans towards a certain genre, but I'm capable of doing it all.

KG: Did you come here right out of college?

MM: Yes.

KG: And why New York? Was that always the plan?

MM: It was either New York or Los Angeles, because I knew those were the coasts for music. My brother lived in Los Angeles so I would visit there, and I didn't like the energy. It was more like, "What can you do for me?" and New York is like "Okay, do it." You know? Yeah, it's cool that you've worked with these people or if you played with… Nah, I need to see it. Just do it. L.A. is like oh, you can say you've played and worked with everybody and then you've become somebody. But here it's more, uh-uh. Show me.

KG: So what were those early days in New York like? What kind of jobs were you getting?

MM: I wasn't getting any jobs. First six months were very difficult. It was like, wait a minute, did I make the right decision? I have a cousin who lives here, Shedrick Mitchell, who's a phenomenal musician, piano player, organist, producer, writer, who's worked with any and everybody. He was Whitney Houston's piano player for the last 10 years of her life. Right now he's out with Maxwell. He's been out with any and everybody. Stevie Wonder, he's done that. He's played at the Super Bowl, he's done that. So he's worked with a lot of people, and I didn't want to come here and be his little cousin. You know? So I would hang out with him, but it really wasn't to get work, per se, it was just to see how the business worked. To see how people flowed in and out of circles.

So my first real job was a theater gig, I did Crowns at Second Stage. It was a great show, it was fun. It was a good transition for me, it was off-Broadway so I didn't feel too much pressure, but it was still… It was a good introduction to theater. After that I did another off-Broadway, it was a gospel show called Pure Gospel Valentine. It was at a theater that is no longer there, it was a small little theater. But it was a great show, made a lot of friends that I still keep in contact with 15-16 years later, you know? And then after that it was nothing. I did no theater for 7 years.

KG: See, that's so interesting, the next thing I was gonna say was so then were you just doing show after show after show after show? Did you just kind of fall into it? Really!

MM: No, no. I got nothing! I tried and it just didn't work for me. No one seemed to accept me in the theater world, because again I have a sound that sometimes leans more towards a gospel sound, or more towards a jazz sound, or more towards a blues sound, and I think when I was trying to get in it wasn't, that was a little too unacceptable. You know, it was like, okay, if you do it, it was a Jason Robert Brown show only. You know? Or it has to be a jazz show. So I didn't do anything. The next show that I did was Baby It's You. And that was the Shirelles, and then from there I think I did Memphis. Nice Work If You Can Get It I did, subbing, and then Motown, which got me my Broadway conducting credit. And that was pretty cool.

KG: That's a turning point.

MM: That's a major turning point. You know, your first show that you conduct, Smokey Robinson's in the house and he's like, "Hey man, good job!" I was like wow! Wow. You know? That, okay, I'm kinda cool now! You know? Life is starting to look up for me.

KG: So now that you've reached this pretty high level in your field, how do you approach the work and what you choose to do, or don't choose to do, or you know, kind of goals for the future?

MM: I consider everything that is presented to me. Because for me it's not about the money. Money is great to have and it's good to be able to put something in the bank, but you can have a lot of money and still be very empty. Whether that be emotionally. For me that would be musically. I would be so empty. I think that's also partly why I don't have consistent theater work. My mind is that it has to be able to do a lot of things, and to be... I mean, I would love to do a theater show, that's why I did Motown, because of the flexibility of it. It was still structured, but it was still a lot of fun because, how can you not have fun playing something like "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," you know? The music of that era is just, it's fun to play. Even if it is just "ch-ch-ch-ch-ch," it's still fun to play.

Whatever theater I do will have to have bits of freedom for me, musical freedom, so that way I can still bring Michael to whatever job I do. And that's kind of how I choose work is, am I able to bring myself? Or do I have to fit fully into some role that's not really me? I'm confident at what I do. What I know, I know. What I'm good at, I'm good at. What I can learn, I will definitely try to learn. You know? But I want to always be able to, whatever project I'm on, to bring myself and to insert myself fully. And that, again, I think that's why I continue to work is because I give my all, every show I play. I give 100%. Just because it may be my last. Who knows? I don't know. To me, there are so many other musicians that could be doing this. But I was lucky enough, blessed enough, graced enough to be chosen for the gig, so do it. And do it to the best of my ability.

KG: We were talking about the challenge of doing a show eight shows a week. You know, the music doesn't change...

MM: Right.

KG: The process isn't really that different from show to show...

MM: Once it's up, it's up.

KG: Do you run into, do you feel like there's ever that same struggle being on the tour with Leslie? Is the setlist sort of the same every night? Is it the kind of an improvisational nature of some of the numbers that keep it new and exciting?

MM: It generally has been the same show, I mean, we've swapped songs in and out for the most part, but it's for the most part the same show. It has to be the same show, especially when you have orchestras. And that can, that can get very hard at times. The monotony of it... it's like I know what this song is, and again, after doing the same song for a couple years it's like okay, I don't know if I can think about this song any differently, you know?

But the beauty of it, even with playing the same show, is that I have really awesome musicians. That we push each other like none other. Like, "Okay, you're not gonna play that same solo you did yesterday, right?" Or, "Okay, yeah, let's find something new to do." From the beginning at the McKittrick to now, these songs to me really don't sound the same. The understanding of the songs we have now, the understanding of what we can do with the songs now. Okay, yeah I'm going to take this song a little bit faster today. So yeah, Leslie may have to work a little harder to breathe, but it's something about the energy of the room that's allowing me to push it a little bit.

KG: Now, tell me about the show, the night we recorded for Live From Lincoln Center. For our listeners who will see the show hopefully on PBS shortly.

MM: Oh, they will.

KG: Tell us about that room, tell us about how it felt, tell us about how you walked out of that taping feeling.

MM: To walk into the room and to see the view, that's the first thing you get when you... I mean, even coming from the side, the wings, you still see that view it's like… oh my goodness. And I had to catch myself, I'm glad we kinda were able to sit there for a moment and play through some things, because I found myself staring out the window. So often, just: one, grateful to be there; two, the view is amazing; three, just, recognizing where I was, who I was around and the length that I've come, from a kid from St. Louis, growing up there, going to college in Indiana, and then moving to New York, just the route that I've gone, it just, it was a big moment for me.

KG: Was this your Lincoln Center debut?

MM: Yeah.

KG: Wow! Congratulations!

MM: Thank you, thank you. Again, being in New York for 15 years there's places that I wanted to play, places I knew one day I would play, but when it actually happens it's like, "oh, wait, it's actually happening!" And a good buddy of mine has always told me to make sure that I sit in the moment. Remember the moment, recognize the moment. Whenever you have these kinds of shows that you do with orchestras, with Leslie on PBS, with the commercial, you know, have time and just take a moment to just recognize it, and just be grateful for it. Because there are so many that want that that can't, that won't, you know, it could have been anybody else but you're there so enjoy that. Be unapologetically present.

KG: I love that, that's good advice. So for our listeners, why should someone tune in and watch this, what can they expect?

MM: What you can expect is real good music, quality music. Great voice, Leslie's... he's charming, he's a consummate professional, just the guy to watch out for. And top-notch musicians, the scenery is beautiful, the song selection is beautiful, the heart behind the production is beautiful. So, please watch. Please enjoy, please call in, please request it more and more!

KG: Tell us how much you love it!

MM: Tell us!

KG: So, clearly music is a big love of your life...

MM: Absolutely.

KG: But from looking at your Instagram feed you have another love of your life. Tell me about the little traveling Yorkie named Piano.

MM: Ah, my wife Annastasia Victory and I have a dog. His name is Piano Mezzoforte.

KG: You can find him on Instagram.

MM: You can find him on Instagram: Piano Mezzoforte. He's the coolest chubby little Yorkie ever. He's very mild-mannered. I think the reason we named him Piano... because every time we practice, he has to be right there. We used to practice in, we only had a, it's called a Fender Rhodes. And he was so tiny he had to sit right on top of it. And he would just sit there, and I think the vibrations from the instrument, it always lulled him to sleep. So now, he has to sit right on a chair right next to my wife or myself, and be there while we practice. It can be 2 hours, it can be 3 hours. He's there. Doesn't matter who's in the other room, if somebody's practicing, Piano is right there.

KG: Your littlest fan.

MM: Yeah, our littlest biggest fan.

KG: Right, right! Well I hope he will be tuning in to see you and Leslie and the band on PBS, Live From Lincoln Center on April 27. Coming up soon!

MM: Awesome, thank you for having me.

KG: Thank you, Michael.

This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell, Eileen Willis, Hannah Lyons, Valerie Martinez, and Ian Goldstein.

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