MILLER VARIATIONS (III): A Glance at Mulgrew Miller in Three Parts

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III. FAREWELL, DOGMAN

You gotta get your mind right before you attend a funeral: getting up that morning and knowing that part of the intent that day is to bury someone. The first, second and third things on your mind; all during the drive to the location of the ceremony. You’re there now and you have to get out of the car and walk into the building, not having any idea who or what you’ll see first. Funeral jitters.

It was unreal. I was kind of okay until I entered the church and saw Nat Reeves with tears in his eyes and – of course, crying is contagious. A compilation of a few of Mulgrew’s recordings was playing softly. The coffin was opened and I could see him, even though I knew that wasn’t really him. The stark reality of it all was, again – unreal. There was so much confusion as to exactly what was going on during the 4 days Mulgrew lay in the hospital, which didn’t make the anxiety of exactly how to respond any easier to endure. Yet, there was a horrible sense of the inevitable. But, the news of his death wouldn’t be as shocking as the funeral itself.

In the 2½ hours we droned through the observance, there were two awkward moments that, fortuitously, were quite necessary to take our minds off of the fact that one of Jazz’s greatest warriors was cut down on the battlefield. The first snafu occurred about halfway through the service, when one of the church officials introduced the playback of a live-recorded version of Mulgrew’s poignant Farewell to Dogma:

“And now, we’re going to have a CD by Mulgrew Miller entitled ‘Farewell, Dogman’.”

Now, as sad as we all were, we were ruined by that. But, it didn’t stop there…not by a long shot.

Most of you will know that a “homily” is a sermon delivered in a shorter amount of time than in a regular church service. In the context of a funeral, a homily briefly summarizes the life of the deceased. This particular homily did neither. Retired (or so we thought) pastor Dale Lind embarked upon a stroll down memory lane with the late early Jazz guitarist Lawrence Lucie, stumbling upon a minor treatise on candle ashes, finally wrapping up his 25-minute meander with a digression on The Wizard of Oz. With every passing minute, tears of sadness turned into tears of smothered laughter – some, barely controlling themselves. Someone’s cell phone kept ringing – I swore it was Mulgrew calling to shut it down. Ironically, the funeral was mildly indicative of how I used to see Mulgrew operate in minor conflicts – quietly letting the situation yield to its inevitable conclusion.

In addition to making us delve into a deeper level of feeling, great art inspires us to ascend to a higher level of consciousness. Hence, Mulgrew’s life embodied an immaculate painting or musical masterpiece. His music made us think, his words made us smile, his neglected career profile made us angry and his death made us cry. But, the sum and total of him should make us appreciative and glad that God loaned him to us, even if just for a short while. Mulgrew motivated us towards human betterment, but without him here in the physical, the Jazz scene is gonna have one hell of a time staying on point. Grown men cried in front of each other and hugs grew stronger and lasted significantly longer. Some said, “Let’s keep in touch, bro,” – but won’t. Some said, “Man, we need to get on that bandstand!” – but, won’t. Business as usual will resume and then we’ll see each other again at the next cat’s funeral – or our own.

If I could siphon a single word from this whole ordeal, it would be “live.”

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MILLER VARIATIONS (II): A Glance at Mulgrew Miller in Three Parts

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VARIATION II: GETTING TO KNOW ‘GREW

Back in 1985, I was sporting a 1980 brown Ford Thunderbird, which I spent more time pushing than driving around the city of Los Angeles. Keep in mind, this was right around the time compact discs had begun to flood the scene, but I had no such thing in my “hooptie”, just a radio/cassette player. The sound system was “tricked out” and actually cost more than the car itself, which I bought used (now “pre-owned”) from a vato down the street.

As I was getting ready to exit my ride to walk into the house, this blazing track came on KKGO 105.1-FM, which I recognized as the chord changes to The Days of Wine and Roses, but totally done in by some new composer’s wizardry. Halfway through the performance, I was back on the road, on the way to the nearest record store, because I knew once deejay Chuck Niles announced who this monster was murdering these changes, I was going to have to snatch that joint up. (No smartphones, no Shazam, no SoundHound apps.) Well, by the time I got to Sam Goody’s, the tune was over. Chuck back-announced it and I asked myself, “What the hell is a Mugloo Milner?!?” Needless to say, I got that straightened out and copped what is still a prize possession – “Keys to the City”, Mulgrew Miller’s first recording as a leader on the Landmark label. So, I popped the CD in my player at home and learned the entire album. (The tune, by the way, was Promethean.)

When I first met Mulgrew, he was playing with Tony Williams at Catalina Bar & Grill (back when it was on Cahuenga). I was the only Black teen in the house that night, so it was easy for him to zero right in on me with that big down home smile of his. After the gig, I wound up taking him to a Thai food place around the corner and then finally, to a nearby Holiday Inn, where he was staying for the week. By the time I got home, it was about 3am and moms was absolutely furious (again, no cell phones.) While she was reading my title clear, all I could hear was that ridiculous solo Mulgrew had just slayed the audience with on Arboretum. Mulgrew would continue to come to LA a couple of times a year, mostly with Tony Williams or sometimes Benny Golson. He knew to look for me and I certainly always tried to look out for him.

Musicians like to joke on stage when announcing each other: “My grandfather used to play his records for me when I was a kid”, etc. This is one of the oddities of the Jazz world; age doesn’t seem to be so apparent because the music and the musicians seem timeless. Mulgrew was 15 years older than me, but always addressed me as if I were his peer. You would think with the age difference, his vibe would be more avuncular, but he was really much more big brotherly. He was painfully humble and extraordinarily compassionate. Perhaps, it’s this disposition that kept him from the exposure he desired, but even Mulgrew might shun the idea that he was entitled to anything. However, he was hardly passive, rather, he just opted to pick his battles.

He became more than a musical hero to me; he became a mentor and a friend. And ironically, I always noticed my blood pressure decreasing when I was around him. Maybe he has nine lives…

MILLER VARIATIONS (I): A Glance at Mulgrew Miller in Three Parts

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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 listnot 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

In Remembrance of Dave Brubeck

images-7But, it’s about so much more than that…

When I was 4, my Aunt Barbara gave me an inch high stack of used vinyl records that she purchased for a quarter from a flea market. Included in that stack was Dave Brubeck’s “Time Further Out”, recorded May/June 1961. When I put on the first track, “It’s a Raggy Waltz”, it struck a chord with the funny, adventurous side of my “old soul.” That’s all I knew; here’s what I DIDN’T know then:

I didn’t know that this record was over 10 years old.

I didn’t know that Mr. Brubeck was a leading force in the “Cool Jazz” era.

I didn’t know that he, along with Max Roach, was a master of odd time signatures.

I didn’t know that Dave Brubeck was White and Modoc.

I didn’t know ANY of that and didn’t care.

Here’s what I do know: we have to stop guilt-tripping young musicians into playing Jazz. They’re not going to find their place that way and ultimately, this is what freedom of choice is all about as an artist.  If they have to ask too many questions and don’t have the innate desire to consume this music with love and burning passion, then there’s a good chance they weren’t meant to play it. If there is a contingency that wishes to label swinging as “old hat” and “outdated” – I can’t do anything about that, except to keep being pro-swing. “Anti-“ is going to get you nowhere – fast.

The only way to “preserve” the music is to keep playing it. History gets written down – we learn about it. We’ll never forget wars, inventions, catastrophes – largely because these events have been documented (with some accuracy) and re-told over the ages. For those of us that love swinging, we have to simply continue in that vein. If we allow ourselves to get discouraged because of who’s on what magazine covers, who’s on whose gigs, who’s in which venues – we become bogged down in the mire of bullshit that has absolutely nothing to do with being artistic: performance, creativity and the edification of others.

Let’s find our way back home.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012