I am deeply saddened at the death of Mulgrew Miller, who succumbed yesterday to his second severe stroke in several years. He cannot be replaced, but his impact will linger. It’s hard to think of a pianist of his generation more deeply respected by his peers. He found ways to refract various strands of post World War Two vocabulary — Oscar Peterson and Bud Powell, Monk and McCoy, Chick Corea and Woody Shaw — into a singular soulful, swinging conception. I heard him live dozens of times, whether in duos and trios at Bradley’s or Zinno’s, or with his magnificent, underrated, and influential group Wingspan at the Vanguard and other venues, with his working trios, and on dozens of sideman dates with the likes of Joe Lovano, Von Freeman, and a host of others. I can’t claim to have known Mulgrew well, but nonetheless had many opportunities to speak with him, casually between sets at a gig, and more formally at several sitdowns on WKCR and, once over dinner for an article — I didn’t have quite as much space as I hoped to get — that appeared in DownBeat in 2005. I am appending the article, the transcript of that conversation,of a conversation a month before that on WKCR, and an amalgam transcript of separate WKCR encounters in 1988 and 1994, one of them a Musician’s Show. We did a very far-ranging WKCR interview in 2007, as yet un-transcribed.
* * *
Mulgrew Miller: No Apologies:
Ironies abound in the world of Mulgrew Miller.
On the one hand, the 49-year-old pianist is, as Eric Reed points out, “the most imitated pianist of the last 25 years.” On the other, he finds it difficult to translate his exalted status into full-blown acceptance from the jazz business.
“It’s a funny thing about my career,” Miller says. “Promoters won’t hire my band, but they’ll book me as a sideman and make that the selling point of the gig. That boggles my mind.”
“Mulgrew is underrated,” says Kenny Garrett, who roomed with Miller in the early ‘80s when both played with Woody Shaw. “He’s influenced a lot of people. I’ll hear someone and go, ‘Man, is that Mulgrew or someone who’s playing like him?’ When they started talking about the ‘young lions,’ he got misplaced, and didn’t get his just due.”
Miller would seem to possess unsurpassed bona fides for leadership. As the 2004 trio release Live At Yoshi’s [MaxJazz] makes evident, no pianist of Miller’s generation brings such a wide stylistic palette to the table. A resolute modernist with an old-school attitude, he’s assimilated the pentagonal contemporary canon of Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett, as well as Shaw’s harmonic innovations, and created a fluid personal argot. His concept draws on such piano-as-orchestra signposts as Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal and Erroll Garner, the “blowing piano” of Bud Powell, the disjunctive syncopations and voicings of Thelonious Monk, and the melodic ingenuity of gurus like Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton. With technique to burn, he finds ways to conjure beauty from pentatonics and odd intervals, infusing his lines with church and blues strains and propelling them with a joyous, incessant beat.
“I played with some of the greatest swinging people who ever played jazz, and I want to get the quality of feeling I heard with them,” Miller says. “For me it’s a sublime way to play music, and the most creative way to express myself. You can be both as intellectual and as soulful as you want, and the swing beat is powerful but subtle. I think you have to devote yourself to it exclusively to do it at that level.”
Consequential apprenticeships with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra, Betty Carter, Johnny Griffin and Shaw launched Miller’s career. A 1983-86 stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers put his name on the map, and he cemented his reputation during a long association with Tony Williams’ great cusp of the ‘90s band, a sink-or-swim environment in which Miller thrived, playing, as pianist Anthony Wonsey recalls, “with fire but also the maturity of not rushing.” By the mid-‘80s he was a fixture on New York’s saloon scene. Later, he sidemanned extensively with Bobby Hutcherson, Benny Golson, James Moody, and Joe Lovano, and from 1987 to 1996 he recorded nine well-received trio and ensemble albums for Landmark and RCA-Novus.
Not long after his fortieth birthday, Miller resolved to eschew club dates and one-offs, and to focus on his own original music. There followed a six-year recording hiatus, as companies snapped up Generation-X’ers with tenuous ties to the legacy of hardcore jazz.
“I won’t call any names,” Miller says. “But a lot of people do what a friend of mine calls ‘interview music.’ You do something that’s obviously different, and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention. I maintain that jazz is part progressive art and part folk art, and I’ve observed it to be heavily critiqued by people who attribute progressivity to music that lacks a folk element. When Charlie Parker developed his great conception, the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him. Even when Ornette Coleman and Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was intact. But now, people almost get applauded if they don’t include that in their expression. If I reflected a heavy involvement in Schoenberg or some other ultra-modern composers, then I would be viewed differently than I am. Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé.
“A lot of today’s musicians learn the rudiments of playing straight-ahead, think they’ve got it covered, become bored, and decide ‘let me try something else.’ They develop a vision of expanding through different areas—reggae here, hip-hop there, blues here, soul there, classical music over here—and being able to function at a certain level within all those styles. Rather than try to do a lot of things pretty good, I have a vision more of spiraling down to a core understanding of the essence of what music is.”
This being said, Miller—who once wrote a lovely tune called “Farewell To Dogma”—continues to adhere to the principle that “there is no one way to play jazz piano and no one way that jazz supposed to sound.” He is not to be confused with the jazz police. His drummer, Kareem Riggins, has a second career as a hip-hop producer, and has at his fingertips a lexicon of up-to-the-second beats. When the urge strikes, bassist Derrick Hodge might deviate from a walking bass line to slap the bass Larry Graham style. It’s an approach familiar to Miller, who grew up in Greenwood, Mississippi, playing the music of James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Al Green in various Upper Delta cover bands.
“It still hits me where I live,” he says. “It’s black music. That’s my roots. When I go home, they all know me as the church organist from years ago, so it’s nothing for me walk up to the organ and fit right in. I once discussed my early involvement in music with Abdullah Ibrahim, and he described what I went through as a community-based experience. Before I became or wanted to become a jazz player, I played in church, in school plays, for dances and for cocktail parties. I was already improvising, and always on some level it was emotional or soul or whatever you want to call it. I was finding out how to connect with people through music.
“By now, I have played jazz twice as long as I played popular music, and although that style of playing is part of my basic musical being, I don’t particularly feel that I need to express myself through it. To me, it’s all blues. The folk element of the music doesn’t really change. The blues in 1995 and in 1925 is the same thing. The technology is different. But the chords are the same, the phrasing is the same, the language is the same—exact same. I grew up on that. It’s a folk music. Folk music is not concerned with evolving.”
For all his devotion to roots, Miller is adamant that expansion and evolution are key imperatives that drive his tonal personality. “I left my hometown to grow, and early on I intended to embrace as many styles and conceptions as I could,” he states. “When I came to New York, I had my favorites, but there was a less celebrated, also brilliant tier of pianists who played the duo rooms, and I tried to hear all of those guys and learn from them. The sound of my bands changes as the musicians expand in their own right. I’m very open, and all things are open to interpretation. I trust my musicians—their musicianship and insights and judgments and taste—and they tend to bring things off in whatever direction they want to go. In the best groups I played with, spontaneity certainly was a strong element.”
Quiet and laid-back, determined to follow his muse, Miller may never attain mass consumption. But he remains sanguine.
“I have moments, but I don’t allow myself to stay discouraged for long,” he concludes. “I worked hard to maintain a certain mental and emotional equilibrium. It’s mostly due to my faith in the Creator. I don’t put all my eggs in that basket of being a rich and famous jazz guy. That allows me a certain amount of freedom, because I don’t have to play music for money. I play music because I love it. I play the kind of music I love with people I want to play with. I have a long career behind me. I don’t have to apologize to anybody for any decisions I make.”
* * *
Mulgrew Miller (11-22-04) – (Villa Mosconi):
TP: I’m going to ask you a broad question. It might be embarrassing or hard to answer. For a lot of pianists, a lot of people your age and younger, and some who are older than you, too, you’re regarded as the heir to the throne. You know this. Tommy Flanagan was quoted a few times. A lot of pianists in their mid-40s think of you as the guy who brings the tradition into the present in a way that they admire. I don’t mean this as a way for you to brag on yourself. But what is the position that you think you occupy within the piano lineage at this point? What is it you think you represent? What is it you think you’ve been able to accomplish?
MILLER: Whoo! Well, first of all, I consider myself an eternal student of the music. Perhaps I have been able to bring a fairly wide palette of ideas and a range of stylistic things that I have amalgamated into a sound. That sound that I have probably lends itself to a lot of different ways of playing. Because one can be a student of sort of a narrow range of styles. For instance, one can be a student of maybe the ‘60s piano players, and be good at that; or one can be a student of that as well as some of the earlier styles; and so on. My initial influences were people like Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal and Phineas Newborn and Art Tatum and those kind of people, and sometimes you don’t find that in a guy my age and younger. A lot of times, their biggest influences are maybe Oscar, but usually it’s… [CAESAR SALAD ARRIVES] Usually, a guy might start off liking one of Miles’ many piano players, which I do love, too.
TP: In the Musician Shows that we did, Wynton Kelly was in there, Bill Evans was in there…
MILLER: Yes. But my foundation in jazz comes from an earlier basis, the old Art Tatum thing and Erroll Garner and Oscar.
TP: Did you get to that early?
MILLER: In my mid-teens. When I started playing jazz, those were the players that I heard first. A little while later, I heard McCoy Tyner and Herbie and Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett.
TP: There are quite a few players who have become adept at playing a fairly broad timeline, but you seem to have been there a little earlier than some of them. But maybe it’s just because you’re older.
MILLER: Yeah! [LAUGHS]
TP: Perhaps you came first in that generation by dint of playing with Mercer Ellington and Woody Shaw and Art Blakey. But sensibility-wise, is that something you’re predisposed to? Are you very open-minded? Did you come from an open-minded background? Because it’s not like you’re from one of the big cities. You’re from a fairly small town in Mississippi. You played in the church, you played rhythm-and-blues. I’m sure there was some talent, but maybe a parochial world-view or maybe not—I don’t know. But tell me something about what you see giving you the curiosity and wherewithal to explore all this.
MILLER: Expansion and evolution is part of my motto. The reason I left my hometown was to expand and grow, and if I was going to do that, I had the notion early on to embrace all these different things, especially in terms of piano styles and ranges of conception and so on. If I heard a great piano player, I liked him. When I came to New York, I made it a point to hear every good pianist who was playing, not just my favorites, so that I could learn something from everybody who was playing.
TP: Give me a few examples.
MILLER: My favorites would be Cedar Walton or McCoy Tyner or Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal—or among my favorites. But of course, in New York playing the duo rooms there was another less celebrated tier of pianists you heard, but brilliant all the same. I tried to hear all of those guys and learn from them.
TP: Let’s talk about the Memphis approach to piano playing. You and James and Donald Brown coming up behind Mabern and Phineas Newborn…there’s a distinctive approach. It seems like gravitating to New York was a natural. You all fit into what the New York thing was or was becoming. Can you talk about some of the stylistic things you brought to the table when you arrived?
MILLER: I’m glad you brought that up, because I have never ascribed to a Memphis school of piano. Even though there are similarities in our styles, but most of the people who influenced either one of the pianists that you are naming from Memphis, are not from Memphis. If you talk to the late James Williams and Donald Brown and myself, you’d find that, yes, we were all inspired and influenced by Phineas Newborn and Harold Mabern and Charles Thomas. That’s the soil in which we were rooted. But you would also find that we’re all influenced by Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner and Hank Jones and OP and all these people who were not from Memphis, and in various ways and various degrees. So I don’t ascribe to a city as a way of identifying a certain sound.
TP: Is it more some of the influences that were available Memphis, or a way of filtering that information? Or does it have to do with all of you playing R&B and church music?
MILLER: Well, yeah. But what I’m saying is that a person living in Texas, having the experience, if he didn’t announce where he was from, you might not know if he was from Memphis or not.
TP: I’ll take your point.
MILLER: Or Alabama, let’s say, Do you think a guy from Birmingham…
TP: Are you thinking specific?
MILLER: No, I’m not.
TP: Because in the Jazz Messengers, for ten years, it was James, Donald and you coming out of that nexus. So it’s not as though I’m trying to put capital letters…
MILLER: One of the things I think we have in common is that we all studied a certain breed of piano players, which critics call the mainstream. We’re all students of that breed of piano player. But we’re not the only ones. And my point is, I don’t think we all sound alike.
TP: That wasn’t my implication at all.
MLLER: Right. So a guy from Hot Springs, Arkansas, might sound more like me than a guy from Memphis.
TP: But I suppose I’m trying to trace the continuity from when you started forming your ideas about how music should take shape up to this point. And music being such a social art and having such an oral component… I’m just thinking that this was the early ‘70s, the type of jazz you play wasn’t particularly popular or in the air, you were playing a lot of different music, and you each have a personal way of bringing the lineage into the future.
MILLER: I was discussing my early involvement in music with Abdullah Ibrahim one time, and he had an excellent term for describing that experience. He called it a community-based experience. Which I had early on. One of the interesting things about jazz is that players come from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences. But before I became a jazz player or wanted to become a jazz player, I had varying experiences playing in the community. I played in church. I played in school plays. I played proms. I played for dances in an R&B band. I played for cocktail parties. So there’s what I’d like to call a social connection there that I think maybe was nurtured early on in my playing, a kind of connection to people. The point I’m trying to make is that before I became a jazz player, I was already improvising, and I was always on some level emotional or soul or whatever you want to call it. I was already in the process of finding out how to connect with people through music.
TP: Is that still how you see what you do?
TP: It’s still consistent.
MILLER: It maybe isn’t as consistent as I’d like it to be. But you hear different players, and some people communicate… It’s something about what they do that reaches people on a certain level more than some other players. I’m not sure where I fit into that whole thing. But I began trying to make that connection real early in my development.
TP: What’s more important on some level, communication or the aesthetic?
MILLER: As I think I understood you, for me, one is not different from the other. Communicating in the moment is what… I’m a very moment kind of guy. I’m not an over-organized musical mind by any means. My intention, my agenda when I sit down at the piano is to connect with people. I think that comes first.
TP: You’re talking about coming up in this community-based experience. The scene has changed so much.
MILLER: It has.
TP: And the social nature of music-making has changed a great deal. I was just noticing in the recording session, these guys who are half our age, how they’re behaving and what they’re thinking about. The drummer, who is extremely talented, is relaxing between takes by scratching on Doug E. Fresh. The trumpet player’s twin is doing a video verité of the whole thing. Everyone is, on one level, extremely sophisticated about technology and art and ideas, and on the other hand, there’s a sort of naiveté that’s kind of charming as well. Not that I went to so many sessions 20 years ago, but that scene would seem unimaginable twenty years ago. You relate and employ in your band very young musicians, people who will commit to you.
MILLER: Well, they are products of their own time, as I am a product of my own time. However, as you stated, the scene is different now. I think one of the things is that musicians don’t find the scene now as enticing as it was when I came on the scene. There aren’t as many bands, there’s not as many clubs to play in across the country. Sometimes they look in other directions for a way to express themselves and for other career options. Let’s face it. The scene as it is now is not terribly encouraging to a young artist, and they come on the scene and see another little fellow in another arena making hundreds of thousands of dollars just rapping, rhyming. They’ve grown up with that. So in their minds, this beats sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.
TP: Well, Kareem Riggins, your present drummer, is a successful hip-hop producer. So you’re experiencing all that first-hand.
MILLER: Yes. And my bassist is involved in pop music as well.
TP: When you were coming up… I know Donald Brown was a house musician at Stax/Volt. Did you ever do anything like that?
MILLER: At Stax? No. I came in a little town where there was nothing like Stax…
TP: I meant once you got to Memphis.
MILLER: No. That scene was just about on its last legs.
TP: But do you think that then… It seems the young players today maybe compartmentalize a little more. It’s like hip-hop is hip-hop… It’s like Lampkin was saying to Duck when Duck was doing that rap, and saying, “No one my age raps,” and he said, “Jazz musicians!” So here’s a young guy who obviously has a lot of respect for what being a jazz drummer means, but he also has respect for what the other thing is. He’s not trying to conflate one with the other. I think at that time, a lot of jazz musicians were trying to mix the two, sometimes with success and sometimes not so successfully.
MILLER: True. For one thing, jazz musicians playing in R&B bands go way back! Benny Golson and Coltrane played in R&B as it was known then. Which at the time, though… what we called R&B then sounded a lot more like jazz than it does now.
TP: Tadd Dameron was arranging for one of those bands.
MILLER: Yeah! And through the decades, people like Idris Muhammad, who was playing with Sam Cooke and so forth…
TP: He invented the Meters beat. Not to mention Blackwell.
MILLER: Yeah, exactly. So all these people… McCoy played with Ike and Tina Turner at one point! So this thing about straddling the fence, so to speak, is really old. As I said, I grew up playing the music of James Brown and Aretha Franklin and Al Green and all that kind of stuff.
TP: Does that music still mean a lot to you?
MILLER: I still enjoy it. Because it’s soul music. It’s black music. And that’s my roots. It still hits me where I live.
TP: But there some musicians among your contemporaries who present that music and arrange it and work with it on records. You haven’t done that so much on your records. There may be implications of that vibe on one tune or another. But it isn’t an explicit reference in what you do. Is that deliberate?
MILLER: Well, you see, by now, I have played jazz twice as long as I played pop music. By now. Although that is a part of my basic musical being, I don’t feel particularly that I need to express myself through that style of playing. However, I am not against paying homage to my roots, as it were. It’s nothing for me to go into a Baptist church… Like, when I go home, it’s nothing for me to go to church and walk right up to the organ and fit right in. I do it. I did it this August.
TP: Do you do it in Pennsylvania?
MILLER: No. I don’t have time to be involved in a church. But if I go home and visit a church in my community, they all know me there as the church organist from years ago. So they all assume that that’s what I’ve come to do.
TP: There are different ways that artists construct their persona as they grow and develop. Some people want to be completely autobiographical and encompass everything. For instance, such as Cassandra Wilson did in the last few years. You played with her on one of the best straight-ahead singing records of the period. But now she’s bringing in everything. But it doesn’t seem that to do this gnaws at your insides.
MILLER: No, it does not. Well, my experience is that I played with some of the greatest swinging people that played jazz—Art Blakey and Tony Williams and Johnny Griffin and Woody Shaw. I’ve been so captivated by that whole experience that I want to deepen that. Not necessarily to isolate myself from everything else. But that’s my focus because I see how that is so special. The way THEY did it was so special! Not everybody who’s playing swing music (let’s call it that for now…swing-based music) swings with that same quality. In today’s world, it’s possible to be expansive, to do a little bit of this and a little of that. But somehow, when I hear some of those groups, I don’t hear the quality of the feeling of swing that I heard when I played with those guys. So my focus… Rather than to dilute that by trying to do a whole lot of things pretty good, I want to do that really well.
TP: Let’s talk about what it is that makes that approach to music so special. There are a number of people, your peers included, who love bebop and swing music, and it’s about the only thing they love. Or at least, publicly that’s what they say…
MILLER: Well, it’s not the only thing I love. But what makes it so special for me is that, of all the different areas of music that I might delve into, that is, I’ve found, the most creative way of expressing myself. You can express power and beauty all at the same time, and yet express intellect. And the swing beat is powerful but yet subtle. So I am just enthralled with all of that. When I played with guys like Art Blakey and Tony Williams, and when I heard Elvin Jones, and when I play with Ron Carter, and all of the great swingers that I’ve played with, I see how that music affects people. For me, it’s a sublime way of playing music. So I think you have to be devoted to that in a singular way almost to do it at that level.
TP: When did you begin to be that devoted to it?
MILLER: When I heard Oscar Peterson. I knew that I wanted to play this music with that kind of quality of feeling, and with that kind of integrity.
TP: Let’s talk about why this music, against all odds, and with this culture the way it is, still survives. There may not be a big market, but there sure as heck are a lot of young musicians who can play. And most of them are willing to learn. Obviously, there’s jazz education. But if it were just jazz education, then the music would be an artifact. And it’s not. Perhaps you can address through some of the young musicians who play with you.
MILLER: I think young musicians are hearing and feeling the same thing I felt when I first heard the music. When they first hear this music, they see an opportunity to express themselves at a level that they had not been able to do previously in whatever other musical pursuits they were pursuing. I think this music that we call jazz is the only form of music that offers that opportunity, to have an integration of sophisticated harmony and sophisticated melody and sophisticated rhythm all at the same level, and be creative and improvise within that. I mean, you have sophistication in classical music in terms of harmony and melody, but the creative level is not there. I’ve played all of these musics on some level—R&B, and I’ve studied classical. But Jazz is the most enthralling music because you can express all of that. You can be as intellectual as you want to and yet be as soulful as you want to at the same time. So to me, that’s what captivates the young musician.
TP: For instance, John Lampkin knows all the hip-hop and drum-bass stuff. His beats are up to the second. I’m sure Karriem is the same way.
MILLER: Yes, he is.
TP: Though with you he plays the function. But are you paying attention to all these things? Are you incorporating what’s happened since Art Blakey and Tony Williams died, and the music of your sidemen into your own conception?
MILLER: Only what they bring themselves. At this stage of the game, I’m not trying to delve into that area with them. But they bring their own sensibilities from that. And things might happen on the bandstand that might not have happened with an older group of musicians. And I mean, just slightly older. For instance, Derrick might slap the bass a la Larry Graham.
TP: Whereas Peter Washington wouldn’t.
MILLER: Yeah. Peter Washington wouldn’t do that.
TP: Lewis Nash probably wouldn’t be playing those beats that Lampkin…
MILLER: Yes. However… [LAUGHS] That wouldn’t be called for with me. But something like that might happen.
TP: So you think all this is healthy. People incorporating this inclusive… For instance, Donald seems to want to do rap as well as rappers, and do smooth jazz as well as anyone doing smooth jazz. That’s sort of his stated purpose, and he doesn’t do a bad job, and doing these things doesn’t dilute what he’s able to do. I don’t know what the total effect is, but…
MILLER: I don’t see it as unhealthy. Let me put it that way. However, I don’t see how being good at rapping will help your understanding of what melody is, or deepen your knowledge of what harmony is. Most jazz musicians today have a pretty good knowledge of melody and harmony. But even with the vast knowledge that’s out there, many of us are not even close to the core of what that is all about.
TP: Who is?
MILLER: Who is? Well, I can tell you who was.
TP: We also have to be careful not to search for the unreachable Holy Grail. Those cats may not have thought they had it either.
MILLER: Well, for instance, Bobby Hutcherson is a person who is creative on a deep level, and his involvement with harmony and melody and rhythm is very deep.
TP: Mr. Nelson seems like he contemporary embodiment of that.
MILLER: Without a doubt. Kenny Garrett is a person who is involved with music on a very deep level. There are others. But I find that a lot of musicians have learned the rudiments of playing straight-ahead and become bored with it. [LAUGHS] But they think that they’ve got that covered, so “let me try something else.”
TP: Why do you think they get bored with it?
MILLER: Well, in a lot of cases it’s because they haven’t had a chance to explore that with one of the great ones. Because if you’ve just come through four years at Berklee School of Music, or you’ve copied X amount of saxophone solos, and haven’t had a chance to do the thing I’m talking about, to see how that works in communicating and connecting with people, then you might be able to think that you’ve attained a certain amount of mastery, but in fact, all you might have is rudiments. And a lot of that will not be effective if you get on the bandstand with Art Blakey or Elvin Jones or Roy Haynes or Ron Carter or Sonny Rollins or Johnny Griffin.
TP: What’s it been like playing with Ron Carter lately? You’ve been doing the trio thing for a year or so now. Is it your first sustained playing with him?
MILLER: Yes. Let me tell you this. When I was listening to Four and More and all those records in college, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would have two different relationships with people on that record—Tony and Ron. For me to have an ongoing relationship with Ron just blows my mind.
Ron is such a deep bass player. He’s unique in a lot of ways, but particularly he’s unique in the sense that he’s found a way to… Well, let’s say that he epitomizes the long, sustained note and the bouncing beat. Sometimes it’s hard to find those two together. A lot of times you find guys with the long sustained note, but no beat. Sometimes you find a guy with a big beat and he gets a thump out of the instrument. But Ron epitomizes that thing about the sustained note and the bouncing beat. His walking conception is second to none. It’s very advanced, Ron’s walking conception.
TP: It seems to me he’s the master of a certain type of counterpoint that’s singular to jazz, both rhythmic and melodic, with a call-and-response feel. Is the record The Golden Striker emblematic of how the trio sounds?
MILLER: Pretty much. We’ve stretched out a bit more since we did that record. Ron is a big fan of the MJQ with John Lewis, and this trio reflects his conception. That’s the kind of effect he wants to get over.
TP: Are there any other situations in which you’re playing with someone’s band as steadily as that?
MILLER: No. My priority now is my band.
TP: So with Ron, it’s because there’s still something you can learn and garner.
MILLER: Well, yes. Ron is one of the few people that I would do sideman work with now. But even in that case, it takes a back seat to my own stuff as a leader.
TP: He understands that, no doubt. He’s an eminently practical man. So you’re not talking about recording sessions or coming in for hire.
MILLER: No, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about appearing on club dates.
TP: I have seen you as a sideman on some club dates. What are the criteria? Does it have to be musically satisfying? Someone you have a long-standing relationship with?
MILLER: Basically, it has to in some way serve my career (let’s be honest about it), and it has to be musically edifying. It has to be challenging. It just has to be on a certain level. Playing with Ron and Bobby Hutcherson. Those are two people that I’ve singled out who I’d play club dates with as a sideman. That being said, over the years I’ve worked a lot with Benny Golson, James Moody, and Joe Lovano. But I’ve scaled back from just doing sideman appearances. This thing with Ron is kind of an ongoing project. It’s not just dropping in on a club to be a sideman. It’s a conception and an idea… And where else would I play with a bass player like Ron Carter?
TP: And the piano plays a very prominent role…
TP: Is it important for you to have a trio as such… It might tempt you to do your next record with Ron Carter and Lewis Nash, let’s say. But I get the feeling you’d think twice about it because you see the trio as an extension of your vision more than just what you play.
MILLER: Exactly. That’s very well said. And with an organized, more or less, trio…
TP: Well, the thing is, it doesn’t seem that organized. You don’t seem to approach it that way.
MILLER: Well, it’s not, in that sense. But it is in the sense that there’s a continuation of musical thought from gig to gig, and if you have a set group of musicians, it evolves over time. That’s the main reason why one would do that.
TP: Is there also a sense of following through on your own experience of having played with elders and passing down information? Do you feel some broader sense of responsibility beyond your career?
MILLER: I do.
[END OF SIDE A]
TP: Kenny does it, Terence does it. Wynton does it even.
MILLER: Some musicians have a vision of themselves as expanding through different areas of music—reggae here, hip-hop there, blues here and soul there, and classical music over here—and being able to function at a certain level within all those styles. I have a vision more of spiralling down to a core, to a core understanding of the essence of what music is. What playing melody really is beyond the language that we have come to know as the vocabulary…
TP: You’re trying to get to something that’ s beyond vocabulary?
MILLER: Yes. For instance, a young musician might have transcribed many solos and be armed with an expansive amount of vocabulary, but may still not understand what creative melodic expression is. Not to mention harmonic expression. Or a drummer might study the styles of several different drummers, but still not have insight. To me, knowledge and insight are two different things. Knowledge has to do with intellectual facts about something. Insight has more to do with a sort of understanding of what the essence of something is, beyond what the facts might be.
TP: You made a comment on the radio in 1994 that people make a mistake about McCoy Tyner. They talk about him as a phase of music or a style of music that is something to get beyond, and you said they’re missing a fundamental point, that he and Coltrane created a sound, that the sound had profound implications and was almost a metaphor for something beyond itself, and that it fundamentally changed the sound of jazz. Which also implies the notion of the music as something broader than itself, as actual narrative, having a similar force. Is that something that you are striving to communicate on some level?
MILLER: Yes. Embracing all that spirituality, so to speak, in the music. I don’t think that’s a sound that’s going to go away. What they did was embrace more universal aspects of the music than had been discovered in the West at that time. They broadened their scope, so to speak. It was a new thing, but those things that we’re discovering about music… These were old things from the older part of the world. So it enlightened Western music, especially in terms of jazz, about what that was. So I think that they were musical prophets in that sense.
TP: Do you ever get discouraged? Do you get the feeling that you’re fighting an uphill battle and you’re holding onto this noble aesthetic that the world no longer is prepared to support? How do you sustain your fortitude in the midst of all this stuff. I’m your age. I get tired. Obviously, you can make a good living at this, but also it’s obviously not all you would like it to be.
MILLER: Absolutely. I don’t allow myself to get discouraged. I have moments, but I don’t allow myself to get discouraged for long. This culture and this society doesn’t do a lot for the morale of jazz musicians. It’s a wonder that all of us are not seeing psychiatrists! As Dizzy Gillespie once said, this culture and this country doesn’t deserve jazz. It has disowned it. I mean, largely. Especially when you consider that every year you have a show called the American Music Awards, and the word “jazz” is not even mentioned. How could that be? So one would tend to get discouraged…
TP: How do you do it? Is it religious faith?
MILLER: Well, it’s faith. Yes. It’s faith in the music. It’s faith based on experience, though. It’s faith based on the fact that I knew that guys before me went through the same thing. In the ‘70s, I heard that Art Blakey was pared down to three people and a singer! Yet in the face of all of that, he just kept on going.
TP: Well, what else was he going to do?
MILLER: The thing is, we all feel like that. What else am I going to do? I could do other things. But I feel like what else am I going to do? I play this music because I feel I have to play it. It’s like a calling to me.
TP: Do you think that’s true for most people who play it?
MILLER: I can’t speak to that. But I’m sure it’s true for many of them. I don’t feel it’s true for all the people who are playing music. A lot of people (I’m not calling any particular names) are responding to the pressure that’s created by the industry to do something different. Because they see that they get writeups when they do something that’s really obviously different. A friend of mine calls it “interview music.” You play a certain way and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention for playing that way. Now, what we have to do is address why is that. From what I’ve observed, it’s that the music is heavily critiqued at this point in time (maybe it always was, but I do notice that it is now) by people who have a heavy Eurocentric perspective on the music. They view the music as something that’s totally progressive. I think that the music is a progressive art form. But it’s also a folk art form.
TP: It’s still a folk art form.
MILLER: It’s still a folk art form.
TP: You’re going against the grain in saying that. What do you mean?
MILLER: I’m talking about the folk roots of this music, which we know is the blues.
TP: The church, too?
MILLER: Perhaps. To me, it’s all blues. Whenever writers and critics hear people… I don’t know what it is, especially African-American players. When they hear them refer to that, it becomes blase in their ears.
TP: Or corny. One or the other. Like some atavistic…
MILLER: Right. But here’s my point. The folk element of the music is something that doesn’t really change. If you hear the blues in 1995 and you hear the blues in 1925, it’s the same thing. The technology is different. One is electric guitar and one is folk. The chords are the same, the phrasing is the same, the language is the same—exact same. I grew up on that. The guitar that Robert Johnson was playing was the same kind of guitar that Little Milton plays. Basically. So that basic sound is there. It’s a folk music. Folk music is not concerned with evolving.
TP: But jazz is an art music.
MILLER: Partially. Well, yes.
TP: It is concerned with evolving. Ellington was concerned. Bud Powell, Charlie Parker… The genius of it is… Ellington came from a very different background. But Charlie Parker took these rather humble materials and was able to create a universe out of them. Ellington was able to take these vernaculars contemporary to him and create what you call this universe of sound and color.
MILLER: Yes. But let’s revisit the word “art.” There are people who would debate that almost any kind of expression is art. So blues is art. Any kind of musical form is art.
TP: We’re speaking of the progressive conception.
MILLER: That’s something different.
TP: People will say, “Coltrane and Charlie Parker weren’t trying to play the music ten years before…”
MILLER: Yes, that’s true. I’m happy to address that. Because in their progression of the music… When Charlie Parker came up with this great conception, the conception was different, but the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him. Even when Ornette Coleman and Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was still intact, especially in the case of Coltrane. But now we have a situation where the establishment doesn’t care if that element is there or not. If it’s not there, that’s fine. If a guy can walk on stage and not pay homage to that or have that as part of his expression, then they almost get applauded for it. Let me tell you, if you’ve ever seen B.B. King on a jazz festival, then you’ll know that the blues connects with people more than any other… That in this music is what connects to people. I can tell you from experience, you can bring your conception to the stage and play a thousand notes a minute, but after about 45 seconds of that, people don’t want to hear it any more if it’s not connecting with them on that other level that I’m speaking of.
TP: On some level, it’s almost as though the folk expression these days for young kids isn’t hip-hop, but popular music. Because when you were growing up, B.B. King and Little Milton was probably a lot of what you heard on the radio. Nobody’s hearing that on over-the-air radio now. Or, on a more sophisticated level, some of the brother and sister musicians from Latin America who are bringing in folkloric music and vernacular music of their cultures and integrating it on some level. Now, a guy like Ed Simon can say something on the blues as well as his own, and others do it less successfully. But it seems not to be phony, but something that’s real and also progressive. There are all these hybrids going on in jazz. But you’re not dealing with any hybrids, though you probably could.
MILLER: Well, it depends on how you look at it. Jazz was a fusion music from the beginning. Fusion of European elements… So in a sense, I am! [LAUGHS] But I still maintain that this music is part progressive art and part folk art, and there are forces out there now that don’t really care about the folk art. What they attribute progressivity to is something that lacks that folk element. And I say that that view is essentially a Eurocentric view, and most of the writers and critics, whether they be African-American or non-African-American, have a certain amount of that view. Most, not all.
TP: I don’t think it’s as much Eurocentricity as Corporatecentricity. I know a lot of African-Americans who could give a goddamn about the folk element… It’s the fact that a large audience isn’t coming in, or if it’s six figures or not… But I do understand what you mean.
MILLER: If I can get up on the piano and reflect a heavy involvement in Schoenberg or one of those ultra-modern composers, then I would be viewed differently than I am now. Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé.
TP: How does that make you feel?
MILLER: Terrible! Because I know the depth of the musicians that do what I do. I’m not even talking about me. I’m talking about guys like Steve Nelson or Peter Washington or Billy Pierce. I know how, when those guys get together and play together… See, this is an interesting thing, how the PEOPLE enjoy them. The people can have a great time listening to those people play, and the writers will say, “Well, nothing new happened; it was just passé.”
TP: The Europeans wouldn’t book certain bands unless you could be on it, I think.
MILLER: He did some gigs. See, this is a whole nother thing. It’s a kind of funny thing about my career. They won’t book me as a leader, but they’ll book me as a sideman and make that a selling point of the gig.
TP: You’re an iconic guy for that kind of sound.
MILLER: Yeah. If you want the gig, bring Mulgrew in. But I won’t hire Mulgrew’s band. That just boggles my mind. I have seen times when a guy with absolutely no name… He’s a good player, but a guy with no name could get a gig based on the strength of my name being on the bill at a particular club. But yet, it took me years to get in that club.
TP: So on the one hand, it’s “wow!” and on the other…
MILLER: But you asked how I maintain.
TP: It’s like Thelonious Monk said, “I’m famous! Ain’t that a bitch!”
MILLER: [LAUGHS] I have worked hard to maintain a certain sort of mental and emotional equilibrium. It’s mostly due to my faith in the Creator. It’s more that than anything else. I don’t put all of my eggs in that basket of being a rich and famous jazz guy. So that allows me a certain amount of freedom, because I don’t have to play music for money. I play music because I love it, and I play the kind of music I love. At this stage of the game, I can play who I want to play with and I have a long career behind me. I don’t have to apologize to anybody for any decisions I make.
TP: You can sleep at night.
* * *