Mourning Mitch Mitchell

by Casey Dolan

Yesterday, the original drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Mitch Mitchell, was found dead in his Portland, Oregon hotel room. He had been relaxing after a tour promoting the music of Jimi Hendrix. Early reports are that he looked healthy on the tour.

The County Medical Examiner said he died of natural causes, although one has to question what could possibly be “natural” in a man dying at the relatively young age of 61.

It is difficult to overstate the importance this man had for both rock and jazz. He brought a jazz sensibility to his playing behind Hendrix, almost never sticking with the usual kick-snare backbeat pattern, but instead utilizing his entire kit. He divided simple 4/4 or 3/4 meters into syncopated triplet figures and his solos were early examples of virtuosic improvisation. Much of his inspiration came from hard boppers like Art Blakey and Coltrane’s powerhouse, Elvin Jones.

I saw Mitchell three times in concert, the most memorable instance being at the Fillmore East, May 10, 1968, with Sly and the Family Stone opening (Sly, who was phenomenal, was inexcusably booed by the audience of Hendrix freaks; not many knew who he was then). I was dead center, orchestra level, and even though this was 40 years ago I have a good memory of Mitchell’s playing. He was astonishing, aggressive but with finesse, shifting between a standard grip and a matched grip. It all seemed effortless, certainly moreso than Hendrix himself who agonized over keeping his Strat in tune and seemed intent on astonishing us with sounds more than skill.

There was no one in ’60s rock who played like this. Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts worked around simple backbeat patterns and Keith Moon was a human windmill with a ferocious attack (not a putdown at all; the Who benefited from Moon’s madness). The majestic John Bonham had not yet appeared and even Ginger Baker, the only other drummer working in a power trio format at the time, Cream, and also influenced by jazz drummers, tended to play just a mite more conservative. The under-appreciated Spencer Dryden with the Jefferson Airplane was pursuing a similar style, but he had five other bandmates to compete with.

Mitchell’s effect on the jazz world was reciprocal. Miles Davis was brought to Hendrix’ music by his wife, singer Betty Davis, and Mitchell participated in the recording of an unissued album of hers as well as some jams with Miles and John McLaughlin shortly before the “Bitches Brew” sessions. It’s clear that Tony Williams was influenced by him when he put together his own trio, Tony Williams Lifetime, with John McLaughlin and Larry Young. In this confluence of drummer greats, fusion was born.

And like Tony Williams when he started with Miles, Mitch Mitchell was very young when he joined Hendrix: 19 years old. Early shots of the Experience, the Mason Yard sessions of Gered Mankowitz for example, reveal a Mitch Mitchell who looked like a 16-year-old schoolboy.

He never stopped playing — the tour before his death reveals that — but never again attained the same status that he had with Hendrix. It was obviously a hard act to follow, but one for which he will be remembered by all who love the art of the drums.

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