[JPL] As the Detroit jazz fest's artist-in-residence,
pianist Mulgrew Miller celebrates the icons who shaped him
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
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
"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
"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
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>
Dr. Jazz Operations
Oak Park, MI 48237
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