Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Miller, Marcus

Electric bassist Marcus Miller's warm and vibrant tone creates a bridge from the fusion styles of the 1970s to a more contemporary sound. Rooted in rhythm 'n' blues and the approach of Jaco Pastorius, Miller developed his own signature techniques for slapping, picking and plucking the bass, which can be heard on popular recordings by artists such as Luther Vandross and Grover Washington Jr., and in the late bands of trumpeter Miles Davis.

Marcus Miller was born on June 14th, 1959 in Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in a musical family, and counted pianist Wynton Kelly as a cousin. Miller's father was a pianist and an organist. Miller started playing the recorder when he was eight years old and followed with the clarinet when he was ten. Miller attended the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art in Manhattan.

As a teenager, Miller played electric bass with the rhythm 'n' blues group Harlem River Drive and followed up this experience with flutist Bobby Humphrey in 1977. He played with drummer Lenny White before joining the house band for the Saturday Night Live television show in 1979, then trumpeter Miles Davis's group in 1980.

Even as he worked professionally as a bassist, Miller pursued a degree in music and business at Queens College in Flushing, New York, where he also played in the school's student jazz ensemble. As his career grew, however, he eventually set aside his pursuit of a college degree.

Miller can be heard on several of the Miles Davis's albums after the trumpeter returned from a six-year hiatus in the early eighties. Released in 1981, The Man With the Horn featured Miller on all of tracks. On "Fat Time,":Miller provides a solid bass foundation, popping along with Al Foster's funk-inspired drum beat. On the album's title track, Miller draws on his roots in rhythm 'n' blues by laying down a smooth groove that complements Robert Irving III's arrangment with both sensuality and precision.

Miller performed with Davis through 1982 and is also heard on the trumpeter's live album We Want Miles. Songs of interest from this release include "Jean-Pierre."

The early 1980s also marked a time when Miller became an in-demand session musician. Miller is heard playing bass on saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.'s hit "Just The Two of Us," as well as the song "Let It Flow."

Among the dozens of recording artists Miller backed during this period saxophonist David Sanborn, with whom he first worked with in 1977, pianist McCoy Tyner and vocalist Luther Vandross. Miller's tenure with Vandross lasted from 1983 until the singer's death from a heart attack in 2005. Miller won a Grammy for his work on the 1991 album The Power of Love. Miller started a funk band called the Jamaica Boys in 1986, which also included drummer Lenny White. The group released several albums up until 1990.

Miller continued to work with Miles Davis during the 1980s, taking on the role of producer after the trumpeter switched from Columbia Records to Warner Brothers. Miller was the producer of Davis's 1986 album Tutu, which reflects the production values of its era. Miller's use of keyboards and strong bass grooves gave this album, like others by Davis in this period, both a funk and a pop feel, but Miller added to this levels of sophisitcation not heard on the previous albums. Other songs of interest from Tutu include "Full Nelson."

Miller and Davis produced the soundtrack for the movie Fiesta in 1987 and he also worked on Davis's 1989 album Amandla, which featured the song "Catembe."

Miller's work as a solo artist began in 1983 with the release of Suddenly, and 1984's Marcus Miller. Both albums can be considered soul or funk, with Miller's signature bass sound are all over these recordings. On Suddenly, Miller does just as much synthesizer programming as actual bass playing, and his adherence to pop-funk is felt on every song with smooth vocal tracks and heavily programmed backing beats.

During the 1990s, Miller began scoring films. He scored a wide range of films ranging from House Party and Eddie Murphy's Boomerang to the Damon Wayans' feature The Great White Hype. During this decade, Miller seemed to abandon jazz altogether. He worked as a producer for the show "Michelob Presents Sunday Night." Miller released his own albums in the 1990s, which include The Sun Don't Lie in 1993 and Tales in 1995.

Since the 2000s, Miller has focused more on his solo reordings, which fall somewhere between light jazz and fusion. A good example of this is his 2005 Koch Records release Silver Rain, which featured the song "Bruce Lee. Many of the cuts off of this album display Miller's versatility on keyboards, bass and programming and defy easy categorization, because of his ability to draw on multiple styles at once.

Miller has also returned to his jazz roots on some albums, including 2001's M2, which won the 2002 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. In 2008 Miller released Marcus, an album that featured the song "Blast!" Miller was also featured as the bassist on alto saxophonist Tom Scott's Cannonball Adderley tribute album Cannon Re-Loaded and is heard on "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy."

While he started off working in jazz, like many musicians of his generation, Miller began to embrace other styles of music in the 1980s and did so with the same open-minded approach he had applied to jazz. Miller's work as a producer and instrumentalist made key in the late sound of Miles Davis and his contributions to soul and rhythm 'n' blues are known for their character and careful execution.

Select Discography

with Miles Davis

The Man With the Horn (Columbia, 1981)

We Want Miles (Columbia, 1982)

Star People (Columbia, 1983)

Tutu (Warner Bros, 1986)

Music from Siesta (Warner Bros, 1987)

Amandla (Warner Bros, 1989)

as Marus Miller

Suddenly (1983)

Marcus Miller (1984)

Silver Rain (Koch, 2005)

Marcus (Concord, 2008)

Contributor: Jared Pauley