Mulgrew Miller, R.I.P.
I’m sure glad I got to see Mulgrew Miller as often as I did. Before he made much of a name for himself, I first saw him with Mercer Ellington at the UMass Spring Concert in 1978, a day-long event that also featured McCoy Tyner, George Adams, Buddy Guy & Jr. Wells, and Patti LaBelle. Then over the next decade, I saw him with Betty Carter, Art Blakey, and Woody Shaw, and numerous times since on dates of his own and with Dave Holland and Ron Carter. Besides the UMass concert, the only other local appearances I recall him making were with Tony Williams at the Iron Horse in the mid-90’s, but refresh my memory if you remember others.
(photos by John Herr)
Grew’s power and precision as a pianist made him a focal point of the bands I heard him with, and were among the qualities that attracted many leaders, for Miller was one of the most in-demand sidemen of the past three decades. Joe Lovano said of Miller's playing on their 1995 performance at the Village Vanguard, "Mulgrew is one of the most elegant, swinging, tasteful piano players today. He plays with an inner beauty in his sound and his whole flow...When he comps, he's so much a part of what everyone else is playing that you're not really aware of what he's playing somehow. He's so in touch with everything." The Greenwood, Mississippi native appeared on hundreds of recordings, and led a couple of dozen of his own. His trio recordings on Max Jazz, Live at the Kennedy Center and Live at Yoshi’s (two volumes each), are among the mainstays of my programming and are as state-of-the-art as any in mainstream piano jazz in this century.
In recent years, I saw Miller on a few occasions at Smalls, and when I heard him there in 2007 with Louis Hayes, Steve Nelson and Myron Walden, we met and began a brief correspondence. I didn’t really know Grew personally, but in my limited exchanges with him, he was every bit the kind and courteous gentle giant that those closer to him are describing in e-mails and on Facebook this week. Grew suffered a stroke on Friday which gave rise to an outpouring of notes, prayers and good wishes; now with his death yesterday at age 57, the jazz world is in mourning. Read the New York Times obituary by Nate Chinen here.
And here’s a sample of what I’ve read this week by the players who knew Grew best:
Dave Holland wrote: “Mulgrew Miller, a beautiful man and a great musician who will be missed by so many. His eloquent music and gentle nature always moved me.”
Earlier this week, pianist Renee Rosnes said, “Praying for Mulgrew Miller and his family during this difficult time. He is one of the most gentle and warm spirits I’ve ever known, and certainly a musical hero of mine. I hope he can feel how much he is loved by so many.”
Drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. posted this note on FB: “Mulgrew meant more to me than just his musicianship. The true gift of this man was his humanity and his kindness. When I first encountered him in 2001, he began showing me things about the drums and the ride cymbal that were a direct lineage from his time with Art Blakey and Tony Williams, and there is not a time I don't sit down on the drums...and use what he taught me.
“Furthermore, after I first met him, I got his email address and asked him if he would be my mentor. He said he was shocked, because most young musicians never asked him that. For the next 12 years up till three weeks ago, Mulgrew would come to my gigs and check in on me and give me musical advice and personal advice. He cared about every aspect of the musicians that worked with him....
“Lastly, there was a time when I was not working that much and just trying to figure out what my next step was in the music, and Mulgrew breathed life verbally into my destiny telling me to hang tight, and just wait it out...that there was something special inside of me and I just needed to be patient.”
In addition to his busy career as a player, Mulgrew was the Director of Jazz Studies at William Patterson University in New Jersey. Here’s an example from last summer of Prof Miller illustrating for a group of students in Tel Aviv his way of comping on “All the Things You Are.”
I’ve been playing Miller’s music all week in Jazz a la Mode and will continue to pay memorial tribute tonight and tomorrow. Here he is with Tony Williams and the great quintet that included Wallace Roney, Bill Pierce, and Ira Coleman.