There are moments, epiphanies as Joyce called them, when we see and hear things more clearly, recognize the importance of a particular point in time, and bookmark a moment as something to remember.
A woman with a certain air, a summer sunset, an overheard remark, all are candidates for inclusion in the mental scrapbooks we make for future reference. One page in mine was writ in a humble enough setting; a Barnes & Noble store on Cape Cod, in the dead of winter.
From several rows of shelves over came the sounds of a jazz CD, back when people bought music in person. Through the fog cut a pair of hands on a keyboard, combining a mix of old and new styles that I had hitherto thought of as antithetical. A bastard child of McCoy Tyner and say Red Garland, a pianist of a prior generation whose style swung hard enough to be invited to play with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, but whose block chord style might be derided as “cocktail lounge” pianism by a jazzbo purist.
One was moved to ask, in the manner of those assisted by The Lone Ranger, the masked cowboy of TV and radio, “Who was that jazz man?”
I checked out the “Now Playing” rack and discovered that the man I had heard was Mulgrew Miller. Born in 1955 in Greenwood, Mississippi, Miller died in 2013 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, at the age of 57, shortly after I heard his music in that store. He was well-regarded by fellow jazzmen in his lifetime but, like so many masters of America’s classical music, never received the attention, acclaim or financial rewards he deserved during his too-brief lifetime.
Miller grew up in a family that lived on a plantation, in a house that for some reason contained a piano that no one could play. He started banging around on it at the age of six, and at the age of eight received his first lessons. He played blues and rhythm and blues at dances, and gospel in church. His principal influence was Ramsey Lewis, a pianist who pulled off that most improbable of feats; he recorded two songs in the mid-sixties, The ‘In’ Crowd and Hang On Sloopy, that were Top 40 hits. You will search your memory long and hard and probably come up empty for the last time that happened in the world of American pop music. Miller heard these songs as a boy, and profited from listening to their hybrid of jazz and soul styles, with voicings derived from African-American gospel music.
Miller formed a trio that played at cocktail parties, and at his brother’s suggestion sought out the music of Oscar Peterson. After seeing the great Canadian pianist on The Dick Cavett Show Miller said “It was a life changing event. I knew right then that I would be a jazz pianist.”
Miller went on to college at Memphis State University, where he met pianists James Williams and Donald Brown, who introduced him to music of Wynton Kelly, Bud Powell, and Phineas (pronounced, I kid you not, “FINE-ass”) Newborn. After leaving college in 1975 Miller took some lessons from the Boston-based master teacher Madame Margaret Chaloff, mother of baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff and a sort of keyboard guru to a number of jazz pianists, including Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. Miller would later say that he should have stayed with Chaloff longer, but he was “restless, constantly on the move.”
He spent the next three years as pianist in the legacy successor to the Duke Ellington Orchestra, led by Ellington’s son, Mercer. It was here he had the chance to develop a style that was a welcome synthesis of past, present and future; an orchestral approach that didn’t seek to dazzle, but which included enough personal touches and innovations to keep the ear interested in what he was saying. He left the Ellington alumni association to join Betty Carter in 1980, then spent time with Woody Shaw, whom he had met as an undergraduate, and who had predicted that the young pianist would end up working for him someday.
That gig led to an invitation to join Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, which has served over the years as a sort of finishing school for successive generations of up-and-coming jazz artists too numerous to mention here. After his apprenticeship with Blakey he moved on to Tony Williams’ group, where he remained for seven years, recording on the side with Wingspan, a Charlie Parker tribute group. (Think of that prospect next time you see an ad for an Aerosmith tribute band at a Motel 6 lounge.) He appeared as a sideman on albums by a number of better-known musicians, either on their way up, down, or on the comeback trail, until finally in 2002 recordings with Miller as leader began to be released by the Maxjazz label.
It is these recordings–Live at the Kennedy Center, vols. 1 and 2, and Live at Yoshi’s, vol. 1 and 2–that you are most likely to hear if you create a Mulgrew Miller station on a streaming service, and it is on them that, in my opinion, Miller’s claim to a place in the top rank of jazz pianists of the 21st century, is most soundly based; lyrical, soulful, complex, a combination of the best elements of very disparate strains of the instrument and the idiom.
Miller suffered a stroke in 2010, and tried to adjust his lifestyle to effect a recovery; he went on medication, changed his diet, and took some weight off his ample frame. But it was too late in the game, after too many long years on the road; three years later he was admitted to Lehigh Valley Hospital having suffered another stroke, and he died there five days later.