I. DIMINUENDO AND CRESCENDO IN ‘GREW
Every generation in Jazz contains a coterie of pianist/composers that influenced the idiom. On the short list, the 1920s yielded James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith; 1930s – Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller; 1940s – Nat Cole, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell; 1950s – Horace Silver, Bill Evans; 1960s – McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, etc.
(Again, this is a short list – not a comprehensive one.)
The 1980s produced extraordinary talents like Donald Brown, Kenny Kirkland and Mulgrew Miller. “Doctone” (Kirkland) was a super-versatile beast that could hear a butterfly breathe, “Silk” (Brown) composed music that became the soundtrack for the decade and “‘Grew” conjured up ridiculous “sideways” lines and a “wtf?!?” approach to melody.
Mulgrew’s most obvious influences were always apparent (Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner among them), yet he was still singular. You knew him the minute you heard him or if you didn’t know for sure who was playing, you thought you were listening to someone who had really checked him out. At some point or another, most pianists who came of age in the mid-1980s were stricken with Mulgrewnosis.
Quite simply – Mulgrew was, what the cats affectionately call, a monster. Nothing eluded his skills: harmonic ingenuity, fluid and articulate lines, velocity and clarity. His conception seemed to evolve out of his intense work and apprenticeship with the ill-fated Woody Shaw, much in the way McCoy Tyner’s conception was enhanced during his tenure with John Coltrane’s quartet. Like another well-respected journeyman – Hank Jones, Mulgrew was that rare musician whose knowledge of musical theory and standards combined with a unique approach to piano-playing made him a valuable asset on any project. A band or recording that featured him in the piano chair always had a fresh and edgy sound. These qualities placed Mulgrew on an elite tier of gentlemen alongside Hank Jones and Kenny Barron as the most frequently recorded pianists in Jazz.
I suspect that part of the reason that Mulgrew never gained wider access to audiences is because his concept was singularly musical. His enviable improvisational exploits flowed endlessly and effortlessly. But, when Mulgrew ascended to that higher plane, you had to have already been onboard for liftoff; this would have been especially difficult if you were not a musician. This also meant that whoever happened to be holding down the bass and drum chairs at the time were going to need to ably support ‘Grew’s fantastic flights of fancy, while neither constraining him or getting in his way. He had to have known all of this about himself; yet, he was the most humble man you’d ever want to meet. How could a guy with such influential musical prowess not have more career visibility? Looking back, I can see why this became a conflict.
As a sideman, Mulgrew didn’t ego-trip. He understood the supportive role of an accompanist and was very easy to play with (and get along with), not to mention being a musician of the first water. It may not have been his intention, but Mulgrew wound up inheriting the mantle of leadership from former employers Art Blakey and Betty Carter – the best Jazz institutions that ever existed. In his own bands, Mulgrew wasn’t into hiring the flavors-of-the-month, but rather cats with musical perspicacity. If the two were somehow combined, fine – but this was not his impetus. Some thought he made rather abstruse sideman choices at times, but if Mulgrew had a cat up on the bandstand, believe me, it wasn’t because he was doing anybody any favors.
Mulgrew was not a politician, nor was he a publicity hound. He wasn’t a stage hog and didn’t mind letting cats blow. Although he was full of personal and artistic integrity, this was often viewed as not playing ball by the powers that be. To fuel and maintain a high profile career, one is expected to hire the right musicians, play the right music, say the right things and kiss the right rings. Mulgrew possessed the kind of artistic authenticity of someone fully committed to the idea of Jazz. He wasn’t the type of cat who you could label as “limited” merely because he chose to do one thing amazingly well vs. dibble and dabble in a bunch of self-aggrandizing pursuits in some feeble attempt to convince people that he was diverse. The uninformed misappropriate “diverse” as not wanting to be labeled or stuck in one style, which essentially means, they don’t really master much. Somewhere in all the muck and mire, lies the explanation for a seven-year gap of no recordings of him as a leader between 1995 and 2002, save for a solo recording in 2000. Mulgrew remained hopeful and positive about the current state of Jazz; me – not so much.
Upon final confirmation of his death, I promptly whipped out my Mulgrew Miller-led discography (of sadly less than 20 projects) to reminisce and was reminded just how much he had influenced me. We bonded on such a human level; I hadn’t really paid attention to how strong an impact he had on me musically. Grew-vy is a tune I wrote that hints a bit at Grew’s Tune. When Kenny Kirkland died in 1998, I composed Doc’s Blues with a tip of the hat to Mulgrew’s Portrait of a Mountain. Honestly, these were things that I didn’t notice until well after the fact. Well, that’s how influence works – I digested so much of his work and then figured out a way to turn it into something from which I ‘grew. ;^D