[JPL] As the Detroit jazz fest's artist-in-residence, pianist Mulgrew Miller celebrates the icons who shaped him

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Sun Aug 22 11:47:04 EDT 2010


*As the Detroit jazz fest's artist-in-residence, pianist Mulgrew Miller 
celebrates the icons who shaped him*

BY MARK STRYKER
FREE PRESS MUSIC WRITER

The apprentice system was once the lifeblood of jazz. Gifted young 
musicians moved to a major city like New York, signed on with one of 
dozens of working bands and assimilated the subtleties of the tradition 
on the bandstand.

But that system has been running on fumes since the 1980s. Economic and 
cultural changes decimated clubs, reshaped the recording industry and 
moved jazz further to the margins of contemporary culture. Few 
opportunities remain for young musicians to crisscross the country with 
name bands or work steady local gigs with veterans. Meanwhile, former 
apprentices who paid their dues struggle for their day in the sun.

Pianist Mulgrew Miller, artist-in-residence of the 2010 Detroit 
International Jazz Festival, just made it under the wire. Miller joined 
the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1977 at age 21 and for the next 17 years 
worked steadily with some of the most imposing leaders in jazz -- 
drummers Art Blakey and Tony Williams, Detroit-bred singer Betty Carter 
and trumpeter Woody Shaw. At 55, he's one of the most respected and 
recorded musicians of his generation, a standard bearer for mainstream 
values of swing, melodic improvising, harmonic sophistication, polished 
technique and a tall drink of the blues.

He is, in other words, a flame keeper.

"There are just certain things you can't learn from a book," says 
Miller. "How to play with good time -- that has to be experienced. 
Swinging -- you can't teach that. Communicating with an audience -- you 
have to learn that in the heat of the battle. I've been fortunate to be 
around real visionaries. That strengthened my ethic to pursue true 
creativity."

This year's Labor Day weekend jazz festival is dedicated to flame 
keepers who have carried the torch for modern jazz. The idea is to 
connect the dots in the lineage, honoring past masters like Blakey, 
Carter, Gil Evans and others by showcasing musicians they nurtured, 
among them Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Maria Schneider. The 
indefatigable drummer Roy Haynes, as much a brushfire as flame keeper at 
85, is also on the bill.

But the brightest spotlight falls on the Mississippi-born Miller, who 
makes four major appearances. He leads his sextet called Wingspan, plays 
duets with fellow pianist Kenny Barron, joins bassist Robert Hurst's 
quartet and appears opening night with the neo-gospel vocal ensemble 
Take 6. He'll also make a couple of other cameo appearances.

Miller is a good match for Detroit. He's not so much a star as a 
blue-collar hero, known for his versatility, collegiality and 
consistency: an aesthetic kin to the many jazz musicians from Detroit 
who are better classified as profound stylists and craftsmen than 
innovators. Miller long ago forged his influences, especially McCoy 
Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Wynton Kelly, into an individual 
identity.

"I refer to Mulgrew as the dean of piano players of his generation," 
says alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, a member of Wingspan. "He has an 
amazing flow, almost a stream-of-consciousness, to his playing. Working 
in clubs or on the road there can be a lot of distractions, but he's 
able to focus effortlessly. From the time he sits down, he's in the flow."
Learning the ropes

Miller is a tall, husky man with an earnest face and salt-and-pepper 
hair and mustache. He lives with his wife of 28 years in Easton, Pa., a 
small town in the Lehigh Valley 70 miles from Manhattan. The couple has 
two grown children.

Miller spoke by phone about his apprentice years. He joined the 
Ellington band right out of Memphis State University, after being 
recommended to Duke's son, Mercer, who was leading the group. As green 
as an unripe tomato, Miller knew only a few Ellington songs, and because 
there were few written piano parts among the band's music, he had to 
learn nearly everything by ear.

"I became a man in that band," says Miller. "You're living on a bus with 
18 different personalities of all extremes. You had to learn how to get 
along with all different types."

Musically, his 3-year tenure also left a deep mark, especially the 
realization that Ellington often broke the rules of standard harmony and 
orchestration. Miller recognized, for example, that in parts of "The 
Liberian Suite," one of Ellington's most advanced works, any note he 
played at the piano, even those that were technically wrong according to 
standard harmony, was being played somewhere in the orchestra. The 
lesson: Any note, even a "wrong" one, can work in the service of 
expression if you understand how to use it.

"I recognized that the rules can be broken," says Miller.

That lesson was reaffirmed years later when Miller began working with 
vanguard modernists like Woody Shaw and vibist Bobby Hutcherson: "They 
played wrong notes all the time -- but they put them in the right place, 
and they made the wrong notes right.

"Bobby had a way of flaunting that a note didn't belong in a chord. He'd 
let it ring. As an accompanist, I had the challenge of helping that note 
sound right. That gave me enormous insight into harmony."

In 1980 Miller joined Betty Carter for nine months. She was a daredevil 
whose scat singing proved that a vocalist could improvise with the savvy 
and surprise of any horn player. Her 20-minute flights of fancy demanded 
endurance and concentration from her band.

"With Betty you had to be super alert at all times," says Miller. "You 
never knew when songs or tempos would change or when you had to shift 
gears in energy or dynamics."

Given her way of deconstructing standard tunes and ballads, the paradox 
of working with Carter was that she taught Miller the primacy of melody. 
Though she rarely sang a melody straight, she often coached her pianist 
through the specifics of tunes, proving that her wild interpretations 
were based on thorough knowledge of the fundamentals.

Miller took note. His merger of discipline, spontaneity and quick 
reflexes became a calling card, and it's largely why he quickly became 
so in demand around New York and has appeared on an estimated 500 
recordings.

"When I play a note that he doesn't expect to hear, he doesn't mind 
following that direction," says veteran bassist Ron Carter, who employs 
Miller in his trio. "That's what this music is all about. First we're at 
the house and then, suddenly, we're on the highway. These things go by 
fast and you have to grab something in the moment."
Freedom to explore

Miller's three years with Shaw from 1980-83 brought him into the orbit 
of one of the greatest jazz trumpeters and musical architects of the 
last 35 years. The music was wide-open post-bop, ranging from abstract 
forms to Latin structures and standard ballads. Miller's most potent 
memories are the freedom he had with Shaw to explore, and the 
trumpeter's relentless creativity and deep commitment to all kinds of 
music. The group might be having dinner and a string quartet by Bartok 
would come on the radio and Shaw would say, "Now Mulgrew, watch what he 
does right here."

After Shaw, there were three years with Art Blakey and the Jazz 
Messengers, a hard bop university that trained dozens of leading 
musicians for over 30 years. Miller then spent seven years with Tony 
Williams, a one-time prodigy who had helped revolutionize jazz drumming 
with Miles Davis in the '60s.

Williams' idiom was more progressive and liberated than Blakey's, but 
both drummers played like exploding sticks of dynamite. Both redefined 
for Miller how a drummer could -- and should -- swing a band through the 
power and depth of his cymbal beat.

"It's the beat that grabs people first," says Miller, repeating a mantra 
that he emphasizes to the sidemen in his bands and his students at 
William Paterson University in New Jersey, where he's director of jazz 
studies.

In the end, each of the key figures that Miller worked with before 
leading his own bands was defined by a mind and spirit driven by an 
extraordinary intensity. They were also great listeners. "I learned from 
that," says Miller. "They listened on levels that others just don't hear."

Contact MARK STRYKER: 313-222-6459 or

stryker at freepress.com <mailto:stryker at freepress.com>

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Dr. Jazz
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