Thursday, May 30, 2013

R.I.P Mulgrew Miller

A few days ago, sadly, Mugrew Miller passed away due to complications from his recent stroke. There was much confusion on Facebook as to whether or not he had passed. I believe he was in a coma for a while. Miller was much too young to pass. I know so many musicians who were inspired by his presence in the jazz world. I regret not having a chance to interview him. I was lamenting yesterday regarding a transcription of "Pressing The Issue" I did a few years ago; I had always wanted to call Miller and ask him if I had gotten the chords right.

Much will be said about Miller in the days to come; indeed, there is an article in the New York Times about his career. Even so, in some ways, Miller had really faded from the limelight of the 80's and 90's; Miller was teaching at William Patterson University in New Jersey, which I can imagine took up a lot of time. Furthermore, it seems as though the jazz mainstream press isn't all that interested in players if they are between the ages of 30 and 70. I saw this from the great guitarist Russell Malone:

A lot of musicians, who ought to know better, have gone on to co-sign and endorse a lot of substandard music, played by substandard musicians, just so they can give the appearance of being open minded, hip, and "down with it". Mulgrew Miller was never about any of that. The man is all about integrity. He never allowed certain individuals, who run the industry, use him validate any mediocre player that they were trying to push and elevate, at his expense. He never let anyone dictate to him who he should have in his band. Instead, he was forever loyal to his sidemen. If they were on the road with him, road-testing the music every night, then they would be on his recordings. I know that now that he is not well, all of the magazines like Downbeat, and JazzTimes are probably going to give him some "love". But where the hell were they when the man was healthy, strong, and playing great? To my knowledge---and I hope I'm wrong--- Mulgrew Miller has never been on the cover of either one of these magazines. I've seen a few articles where he was featured, but never a full-blown cover story. How can they justify that? But I've seen other piano players get cover stories. Some of them more than once. And a few of them can't even play, in my opinion. But through all of that, the man kept his head up and continued to do what he was put here to do. He never lost his cool, he never let his standards drop, and most of all, he never lost his integrity. 

I think Miller, like so many great jazz musicians, didn't get enough credit. Sure, he had a solid career and I'm guessing a somewhat comfortable life, which many musicians never attain. However, Miller was never the darling of the industry or the press. This could be attributed to his style, which was arguably conservative compared to some contemporaries and younger players. Nevertheless. Miller was undeniably part of the music and the more recent history. Miller made some great recordings and influenced countless pianists. Why can we not appreciate folks like this when they are alive? 

It's not a new thing for artists to labor in obscurity and then once they reach a certain age, or are gone, all of a sudden there is interest in their work. Theolonious Monk is a good example; he wasn't appreciated until he was much older. I wonder if this will ever change. Maybe this might influence the jazz media to be more aware of folks who are making viable music sans the industry hype. Well.....probably not. I guess they have to sell magazines. 

Here's a very insightful quote from Mr. Miller himself, regarding the state of jazz as he saw it:

I maintain that jazz is part progressive art and part folk art, and I’ve observed it to be heavily critiqued by people who attribute progressivity to music that lacks a folk element. When Charlie Parker developed his great conception, the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him. Even when Ornette Coleman and Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was intact. But now, people almost get applauded if they DON'T include that in their expression.

While I think that art should always move forward, I do think that you can't go forward unless you understand that which has come before you. Therefore, as a musician and an educator, I agree with this. Also, as a listener and observer of the jazz scene, I think he's right in that a lot of things which are fairly watered down, or lacking in what Miller is discussing, seem to be lauded as the next great thing. I don't consider myself a traditionalist or conservative, but I don't think that newer is always better. Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, as jazz moves more into the educational realm, the folk art aspect is getting obscured.  

But all is not lost; when you have programs where one could study with those who practice the art as a folk art, then you are at least getting exposed to the music from a real source. Which is why it's a great thing that William Patterson had teachers like Mulgrew Miller and James Williams. Books and recordings are great; however, we still have people around who are actually connected with the lineage of great jazz musicians. Let's try to appreciate them more while they are here. R.I.P. Professor Miller.

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