John Mitchell

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There are some details in the life of this vintage jazzman that are as ordinary as his name. There is, for example, his decision to switch from banjo to guitar; this was a move seemingly every picker…
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There are some details in the life of this vintage jazzman that are as ordinary as his name. There is, for example, his decision to switch from banjo to guitar; this was a move seemingly every picker in a jazz combo or dance band made sometime during the '30s, as if they all were following orders from some kind of anti-banjo diocese. When his existence was last acknowledged by jazz researchers, John Mitchell was working as a building superintendent in New York City, a pretty ordinary occupation despite the bravura implied by its shortened form, "super." Mitchell the super, not to be confused with many other performers who have the same name, then dropped out of sight -- the tenants in his building may have known where he is, but even that can't be assumed based on the norm of relationships between Manhattan renters and their building superintendents.

Seeking work in Europe with expatriate jazzmen such as pianist and arranger Sam Wooding and reed player Willie Lewis was an option for performers who were not satisfied with musical employment possibilities in the United States -- and it has remained an option although the names of the bandleaders have changed. But there is something that happened to Mitchell while gigging in Europe in the decade leading up to the Second World War that very few American jazz musicians experienced: he was captured and held as a prisoner of the Third Reich. This unfortunate development took place following Mitchell's decision to leave the Lewis band and hang loose in the Netherlands, a very bad idea once the storm troopers came marching in.

Mitchell's professional career began in New York City in the early '20s. He strummed banjo accompaniments in a band led by Johnny Dunn, which worked behind singer Edith Wilson. For a bit more than a year beginning in 1922 Mitchell was a member of the Plantation Orchestra, and while he left this group before it went off on a British tour, he did manage to make it overseas with Wooding in the spring of 1925. The Wooding outfit stayed busy until the early '30s, after which Mitchell joined up for what turned out to be a decade with Lewis.

Shackled by the Gestapo from 1941 through 1944, Mitchell was then repatriated and became a member of the Jimmie Lunceford band through 1946. Subsequent to this he developed into a part-time player, then left music completely. A somewhat typical early jazz accompanist on either guitar or banjo, Mitchell's performances are available on reissue collections by Dunn, Lunceford, Bill Coleman, and Jelly Roll Morton, among others.