In conversation with mulgrew miller
By Tomas PeŮa
When I caught up with Mulgrew Miller, he was on his way to a rehearsal for a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of two legendary jazz albums: Miles Davisí Kind of Blue and John Coltraneís Giant Steps, both feted this past February by Jazz at Lincoln Center. During the course of the interview, Mulgrew spoke about how, when he was younger, he often had to pinch himself and ask, "Am I really on the bandstand with Art Blakey?Ē Well, thatís exactly how I felt when I talked with Mulgrew, one of the greatest jazz pianists of his generation. Once, while attending a jazz camp at the beginning of his career, Mulgrew was singled-out by trumpeter Woody Shaw. ďYeah, I'm going to see you in New York in a couple of years,Ē Shaw said to the aspiring young pianist with a funny name, and he was right. The rest, as they say, is history.
Welcome Mulgrew, itís a pleasure to talk with you. You grew up in a small town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta during the '60ís. Musically speaking, it must have been an incredibly rich environment.
Well, itís probably a little bit different than what you might imagine. I grew up in a little town called Greenwood, so it wasnít like I was walking down a country rode and there were guys sitting on the porch playing the blues. But yeah, the blues were all around, and there was church music and country music and I was there right in the midst of the civil rights movement during the early '60ís and '70ís.
Why did you choose the piano and not some other instrument?
I like to say that the piano chose me! My father bought a piano when I was six years old. This truck pulled up in front of the house Ö and there was a piano on it. As a lot of kids do when there is a piano around, I started picking out little melodies by ear. I heard a lot of hymns when I was growing up, so my earliest recollection of playing was a hymn. When my father would come home from work, I couldnít wait to show him how I had found the melody to a hymn. From that point he vowed to find me a teacher.
You started your formal training at the age of eight. Did you go to school or take private lessons?
I took private lessons with a gentleman named Mr. Albert Harrison. In fact, he still lives there.
You came up in the gospel and blues tradition, but it was pianist Oscar Peterson who opened-up your eyes and ears to jazz.
Thatís true. I first saw Oscar on television on the Joey Bishop Show.
What was it about Oscarís style that grabbed your attention?
It was that which made him probably one of the most popular jazz pianists of all time. There was very accessible content in Oscarís playing, not to mention his technical prowess. He had that kind of finger-poppiní quality in his playing, tooóa kind of foot-tapping swing thing that attracted a lot of people. To tell you the truth, up to that point I had never heard the piano played like that. I had heard classical piano played with a lot of technique, but I never heard it that way [laughs]. After hearing Oscar, I was a different guy.
In a past interview, you said that prior to hearing Oscar you were 'heading towards jazz.'
But it wasnít until I heard him that I realized the level that I would have to achieve, or try to achieve.
Another musician who had an influence on you was trumpeter Woody Shaw. In fact, Woody foresaw your coming to New York and someday becoming more prominent.
I met Woody Shaw at a student jazz camp in 1975. To make a long story short, after hearing me play he complimented me and said, 'Yeah, I am going to see you in New York in a couple of years.' Well, I ended up in New York two years later to the day, and I saw him at the Village Vanguard. When I went over to introduce myself and he heard my voice he said, 'I know you. You're the piano player with the funny name.'
Woody never received the recognition he deserved.
That is definitely true. Woody was a visionary. His music had a certain sound. He dreamed different ideas from other trumpet players. Miles Davis even complimented him; he said something like, 'Thereís is a trumpet player with something different to say.' There were [other great] trumpet players too, like Freddie Hubbard.
Speaking of Freddie, in the latest issue of Downbeat Magazine you selected one of Freddieís recordings, Ready for Freddy (Blue Note, 2004) as one of your all-time favorite recordings. In terms of recognition, I think Freddie faired somewhat better than Woody.
Well, I kind of feel that no jazz musician gets enough credit in this culture. I am getting a little more recognition than others, but the music itself doesnít get any recognition.
I wouldnít say 'any,' but I agree that jazz is deserving of wider recognition and more respect. Case in point: one critic called you 'the leading pianist of your generation.' First, what do you say to something like that? Second, if thatís not recognition, what is?
I donít think about those things, I play music for the joy of it. [Critical praise] is just something to use in your resume because it impresses people. I try to be honest with myself and about what I need to accomplish. And guess what? There are still Art Tatum and Phineas Newborn records out there, all of the great masters. There's certainly no room for me to have a big head.
In 1977 you arrived in New York with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Prior to that, you had subbed with the band on occasion.
Yeah, I did a few gigs for a pianist named Lloyd Mayers [then the pianist with the Ellington band]. He was a very busy. He was doing all kinds of things, and sometimes he would have to miss a gig or two. I had friend in the band, [saxophonist] Bill Easley, and he recommended me to Mercer Ellington.
That must have been quite an experience. How old were you when you joined the Ellington band?
I was 21. It was the most incredible experience, not only on a musical level, but also on the human level. You are practically living in a bus with eighteen other personalities. I had to learn how to grow up [laughs]. You really have to learn to live with people when you live in that kind of environment.
How long were you with Ellingtonís band?
After that you joined Betty Carterís band.
Well, Betty was a legendary singer who had earned the name 'Bebop' Betty Carter. She was so-named because, more than most of the other singers, she had a bebop kind of format. She was a big-time scatter and never made it to the realm of the jazz pop singer, as did Ella [Fitzgerald], Sarah [Vaughan], and Nancy Wilson. She didnít like that kind of 'politeness' behind her. She wanted you to hit with the same kind of intensity as if you were playing with a saxophonist. Playing with Betty was a great experience for any young rhythm section player.
That was quite a different scene from playing in a big band.
Oh yeah, most definitely. Playing in a small group and then having her was an amazing experience.
After Betty Carter, you joined Woody Shawís band.
I worked with Woody for about three years.
The thing that I find most amazing is that you worked for approximately 16 years without taking a break. Thatís unheard-of!
Actually, it was 17 years. For 17 years I went from band to band.
Just to be clear, at one point in your career you took a seven-year hiatus. I have read various accounts of your hiatus, but I am not clear on what actually took place.
I took a seven-year hiatus from recording and as a leader, but not from performing.
After Woody Shaw you did a brief stint with saxophonist Johnny Griffin. You then joined the 'School of Art Blakey,' better known as Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
Yeah, I was with Art Blakey for three years.
Who else was in the band during that time?
It was trumpeter, Donald Harrison, saxophonist Jean Toussaint and bassist Lonnie Plaxico.
Lonnie Plaxico must have been very young.
Yeah, the group was full of young players. I was the 'old man' in the group.
After the stint with the Messengers, you joined drummer Tony Williamsí band. I understand that you and Tony were close.
I would like to think so.
Unfortunately, we donít hear a lot about Tony these days. Tell me about Tony and what made him such a special person and musician.
Tony was a genius among geniuses. As an instrumentalist and as a musician I rate him like an Art Tatum or a Charlie Parker. As a drum master, technician, and conceptualist he was second to none. There was no one like Tony. He was a true visionary and a true innovator. He was a guy that was really deeply involved with music. Tony was a dreamer, a real dreamer.
In 1985 you signed with the Landmark record label and recorded several albums as a leader, including Keys to the City, Work, Wingspan, The Countdown, From Day to Day, and Time and Again. You also recorded for Landmark as a sideman with Donald Harrison and ,a href="http://www.jazz.com/encyclopedia/hutcherson-bobby-robert">Bobby Hutcherson, among others.
Something like that.
Letís talk about Wingspan, one of my favorite groups.
My first record with that group was called Wingspan. When the recording came out I called the group Wingspan, after a song in the album. Wingspan was also the title of the album. We worked together sporadically. We kept pushing-ahead, and several years later the group came together for a second recording, and that recording is called The Sequel, which is also named after a song on the album. The song is based on the chord changes to Miles Davisí 'So What.'
Your discography reads like an encyclopedia. How many recordings have you made thus far?
500, or something like that. [Laughs]
You've recorded with so many artists, itís difficult to know where to begin. One thing I noticed. You enjoy recording live.
Actually, my discography is not what it seems. It seems like I have made a lot of live recordings, but Live at the Kennedy Center, Volumes 1 and 2 were recorded in one night. Itís the same with Live at Yoshiís, so it would appear that I record live a lot more than I actually do.
Either way, your live recordings sparkle.
Thank You. Itís easier to be yourself when you are recording live. The studio can be a little stifling.
Letís talk about the upcoming show at Lincoln Center celebrating the 50th anniversary of two classic recordings: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and John Coltrane's Giant Steps.
As you know, the show is going to be a tribute commemorating those two landmark recordings. The program has two segments. On the music from the Giant Steps record, we're going to feature four saxophonists: Ted Nash, Sherman Irby, Walter Blanding, and George Garzone. What they have done is, they've arranged all of the tunes from Giant Steps for saxophones, so it almost sounds like a small big band. Portions of some of Coltraneís solos are orchestrated for four saxophones, kind of in the fashion of that group that did the Charlie Parker stuff, Supersax [a '70s band that played transcriptions of Parker solos harmonized for five saxes]. Drummer Jimmy Cobb, who's the only living member of both of those recording sessions, is going to play on both segments.
I'm very excited about what is going to happen in the second set. The a cappella group, Take 6, is going to do the music from Kind of Blue. We are scheduled to rehearse tomorrow. I havenít seen the arrangements yet. I donít know if they are going to sing on every tune, or a few of the tunes, so I donít know exactly how itís going to go.
I have a live version of Take 6, recorded live at the Blue Note in Japan, where the group does a killiní version of Miles Davisís 'All Blues.' Speaking of Miles, did you ever meet him?
I met Miles when I was with Tony Williams. John Coltrane died when I was twelve. At the time I was still in the Delta trying to figure out how to spell the word, 'jazz.'
Are you teaching at all?
Yes, at this stage of my career I am very involved with jazz studies.
I am all for jazz education, but I still get the impression that there is something missing. Meaning, that there is no substitute for the oral tradition, woodshedding and earning your bones by being in the thick of things. Having said that, I realize that the scene has changed and many of the musicians of today donít have the same opportunities that you guys had.
Well, actually they have. Not a lot of clubs, but they do a lot of woodshedding and a lot of jamming among themselves. Whatís missing is the community set-upóthe club scene and the environment. They donít have that.
I've actually had musicians tell me that they have paid club owners to play in their establishments.
Thatís probably true. Our society has turned into such a pop culture. A lot of these kids today are not even used to hearing acoustic instruments. The sound of an acoustic instrument is foreign to them. Thatís one of the reasons why you donít get a lot of support from young people. And of course the music is not promoted. Toss in the recent changes in the music business, the rise in technology, the falling economy, and itís quite a mess.
In a past interview you called the New York jazz scene a 'jazz circus.'
To tell you the truth, itís a wonder that the music has even survived in America.
Ah! But wait, thereís a light at the end of the tunnel. President Obama likes John Coltrane! I read somewhere that he has Coltrane on his iPod.
I heard that. He likes Bird and Miles, too, so there's still hope [laughs].
You've had such a long and distinguished career. Are there any particular moments that stand out when you look back? Something special that occurred, or some magical moment that went beyond being on stage and playing with someone?
I just have to tell you that there were a lot of great moments with all of them, just because they were such phenomenal musicians. I'm not saying that just because I donít have an answer; I am saying it because there have been moments when I found myself literally pinching myself and asking, 'Am I really on the bandstand with Art Blakey?' 'Am I really on the bandstand with Tony Williams or Woody Shaw? This is incredible!' [Laughs]
Do you have any recordings in the works?
No, not really. The recording industry has kind of flatlined, bottomed-out. Even the company that I've been associated with most recently [MaxJazz] has slowed down a lot. If I put something out it will probably be on my own.
Are you currently working on new material, or do you have any idea what type of recording you might put out?
It might be a lot of things. It could be with a trio, or it could be just me on the piano all by myself. I havenít made a solo recording yet.
That would be a rare treat.
Itís about time for me to do that.
Whatever you decide to do, I look forward to hearing it. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, it's been a real pleasure.
Thank you, Tomas.
Visit Mulgrew's Web site: MulgrewMiller.com
Wingspan (Max Jazz, 1987)
The Mulgrew Miller Trio Live at the Kennedy Center, Volume One (Max Jazz, 2006 )
I Remember Miles [w/ Benny Golson] (Evidence, 1992)