As I look into this sad, rainy Friday, I can’t think of anything but Mulgrew Miller, whose funeral was today.
There are a lot of people my age in New York who come out of a tradition that Mulgrew is very much a part of, both the rough and tumble pre-Wynton straight ahead Jazz, and the music that followed it, the young lions and beyond.
The history of my Jazz playing and Mulgrew Miller are inseparable. From the beginning of when I was getting serious with the music right up until I moved to New York, he was a formative influence on me, my playing, and my outlook.
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, you aren’t necessarily aware of the outside Jazz world. The city as a whole shirks the idea of modern Jazz somewhat, and even the people who were aware of modern music weren’t exactly hanging out with 15 year-olds in the Cleveland Jazz scene. My teachers, however, Jackie Warren, Steve Enos, and Ernie Krivda, were very supportive in having their students learn the history of the music. This was done more by their obvious passion for the music of the past, rather than dictum. When Ernie or Jackie started talking about someone like Dexter Gordon or Fats Waller, they didn’t even need to tell you to check it out, you were just so inspired by how much they loved it that you had to check it out for yourself (keep in mind, this was before every computer had Napster or filesharing enabled as a normal practice. The only computer I had in the house was my mom’s work computer, so there was no filesharing or burned CDs around). At 15, by the way, buying a CD is a huge deal. That’s 2 CDs a month if they’re coming from my allowance (later 5 CDs a gig. Much better!). Committing to those purchases was a big thing, and it made me more passionate.
So by the time I was 16 in 2006, I had what I thought was a fairly good grasp on the music of the past. I could distinguish Teddy Wilson from Earl Hines, and McCoy from Herbie. I knew one good record from each major artist and could sing the songs and solos off of each of them. I always say that if I had practiced instead of listened so much, I’d be a much better pianist! However, since I was so in the know about history, I hadn’t spent any time on the present. When the 2006 Tri-C Jazz fest came around, I went to see something like 10 shows of people I’d never seen before, including Mulgrew. Naturally I had no idea what I was in for
The Tri-C Jazz Fest was like Christmas to me at that time. I’d get the whole week off school, just to go and hang out at the festival, talking with real live musicians, attending clinics, and doing all sorts of things that never happened in Cleveland. The first clinic I attended was one of Mulgrew’s, just talking about the piano and being a Jazz musician. Instantly, in that soft speaking voice and brilliant playing, I was hooked. He played some solo, which I can’t remember too well, and gave some advice. I asked what he was listening to (to lean on the knowledge I actually had at the time, of course!) and he said “Only Art Tatum and Glenn Gould. They perfected the piano, and I don’t feel like there’s enough time in life to listen to much else!”
As I said, it was 8 years ago, and the memories are a bit foggy, but there are some overarching feelings and specific anecdotes I remember quite clearly.
The most important point about that year was that I never saw Mulgrew play with his trio. I only say that I sat beside him as he played with the big band that I was a part of, and watched him sit in with some younger college bands.
The other point that completely changed me was his blindfold test, hosted by Willard Jenkins. I was excited, because at that time, I had only played listening games with my friends, and didn’t know that there was an international column that was devoted to it. Very exciting stuff for me. So I was excited just to play along, thinking in my 16 year old head that I would guess everything correctly and look like a badass in front of the Cleveland teenage Jazz mafia. Of course I knew something like 3 out of the 11 tracks that were played and didn’t look like a badass at all. However, Mulgrew got 10 out of 11, pegging the 11th as a Portuguese (I think) pianist whose name he couldn’t remember, all coming out after telling me that he only listened to Glenn Gould and Art Tatum! Anyone who knows me will not find it surprising that seeing something like that at a young age completely altered my course as a musician. Seeing a man with such control of the history, with such an amazing analytical ear, truly molded my current stance on listening and knowing the music.
After that week, of course I was hooked on Mulgrew. A few months were devoted to getting the best Mulgrew I could find on record (again, before credit cards and the ability to order online were an option). I found his latest four records, the MaxJazz library of him at the Kennedy Center and Yoshi’s, and memorized every one of them. Although I haven’t listened to them in years, I can still sing every solo. These records, especially the first Kennedy record, became the core of my playing, and along with the heaps of Oscar Peterson I was listening to at the time, represent to me my musical childhood.
Of course when he came back to town in 2007 I got to the restaurant hours early and saw both shows. I distinctly remember the feeling of that first tune and having the realization that Mulgrew was even better in person, and that there’s a reason everyon says that live Jazz is superior. Thinking back on the night, I believe the band was Mulgrew, Donald Waldon on tenor, Robert Hurst on bass, Steve Nelson on vibes, and I BELIEVE Jason Brown sitting in for Louis Hayes on drums, but it may have been someone else.
The music was on such a high level that night that it consistently comes up in late night Jazz conversations about the greatest concert I’ve ever seen. I was sitting a foot and a half from Mulgrews hands, and I remember many things vividly. One was his intense concentration. It was Donald’s gig, so he didn’t know the music completely, and was taking cues from the band, but he was completely comfortable in the situation. I was so deep into his playing at that point, but I still remember it surpassing my expectations, even though it wasn’t his music. Then there was the one tune that Donald talked him through in 5 seconds(“You’ve got three chords, ok? They hit here, here and here. Then just follow us and the tune’s done. 1. 2. 1234.), which he nailed. Then he played Relaxin at Camarillo in Db. Then he knew the obscure ballad that Donald called, “Never Let Me Go” or something like that. The professionalism was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, but so was the focus, that red-hot fire in the belly that Mulgrew consistently displayed throughout his entire career.
After high school ended, I started having summer jobs and more gigs, the cash from which went directly towards my CD habit. I began to slowly fill my Mulgrew collection, filling my shelf with all of his other modern albums and any gems from the past I could find. When I went to play at the IAJE with the Tri-C performance combo, I got to meet him again, and of course, only my bandmates Conrad Reeves and Johnny Cochran got a picture, something for which I’m kicking myself.
He had nothing but empowering things to say, glad that the young kids from Cleveland had come to check out New York. He also mentioned to me to get in touch with David Dempsey so that I could apply to WPUNJ, where he was head of the program, and said that they’d love to have me at their annual Summer camp.
So of course I applied to WPUNJ and didn’t get in, and went to the Summer camp. It was the only camp I ever went to, and I can think of two massive positive experiences that I had there, one involving Jim McNeely and one involving Mulgrew. Mulgrew walked in on my combo playing “You Can Depend On Me”, an Earl Hines tune from a favorite Dexter Gordon record of mine, and sat in for me at the piano. As he got up from playing, he said “You’ve got to remember Martin, that it can’t always be short notes or long notes. Phrasing and articulation are some of the most important parts of the music. Check it out on the records.” Of course, that stuck with me too, and now I’m a much better player for it. These days I’ll even say that they’re the most important parts of the music I listen to, what my ear is naturally drawn to.
I didn’t see Mulgrew for a long time after that, around a year, until I caught up with him again in New York. It was right before I was headed to university in Toronto, and I remember he told me “You can succeed wherever you are, just remember: get to a bandstand as fast as possible.” It made me hit the shed and the session circuit in Toronto harder than I ever thought possible, let me tell you.
As I was in Toronto, I realized that most of my classmates weren’t that into checking out the history, so I conned them into listening to the music I listened to by showing them Mulgrew. “Hear that? Listen to how he responds to that cymbal beat! Listen to his double time! THAT’S how music should feel!” I’d say, over and over again, to the point where one of my good pianist friends from Toronto became even more of a Mulgrew devotee than I was, as I had started to shift to other things, Monk, Cedar Walton, and the like. I was Mulgrew’s greatest champion, and I realized eventually that he had quite the history in Toronto, and that he used to come up and play quite a bit. My first university piano teacher, Gary Williamson, knew Mulgrew, and played one of his tunes, “Prometheus” in his repertoire quite often, and taught it to his students.
At this point I was about as deep into Mulgrew’s discography as I was going to go. The Kennedy records had taught me many things, such as how I wanted my double time to feel, that it was possible to shift in and out of styles, that one didn’t have to play like Miles’ quintet to have interaction in the music. It taught me that there was a way to play over Waltzes that didn’t sound like Chick or Bill, and that bass solos could be just as powerful as anything. I was also venturing deeper, however, slowly learning about the landscape of Jazz in the 70s and 80s, the fire of Mulgrew’s playing with Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard, and of his own groups with Kenny Garret and Steve Nelson. There was a point in my life where I was only playing rhythm changes, and I was looking for a “badass rhythm changes solo” and was going through Sonny Rollins and Bird and all of these people, not being able to find the feeling I was looking for. Then I found Mulgrew on “The Eternal Triangle” with Woody and Freddie and it hit the sweet spot. His fire on that track is hotter than many of even Woody and Freddie’s solos on that record, for my money. I also remembering finally finding “Wingspan” on CD after a year-long search, and the joy that came with listening to the record that I’d heard about for so long, and listening to its counterpart from the 2000s, “The Sequel.” I’d listen to “Wingspan” and “The Eleventh Hour” over and over again, just trying to capture that raw energy that’s present on the tracks. I also remember hearing “Tokudo” with Buster Williams and Carl Allen after a string of sub-par record purchases and remembering that THIS was what it was about. Deep music from deep men. No fluff, no concept, just raw, powerful music.
The next time I saw Mulgrew was at another Christmas-like event, the Detroit Jazz Festival, where he was artist in residence. I got to see him 6 times over 3 days, and it was perfect. At this point, I knew almost every one of his tunes by heart, and was so inside his modern way of playing that every twist and turn seemed like an old friend. A huge highlight musically was seeing him play duo with Kenny Barron, something that I had salivated over since they started doing the gigs a few years prior. I am to this day so glad that I got to see them feeding off of each other, showing their ridiculous mastery of the keyboard in a way that was in no way showy or over technical. It’s rare to see two musicians listening that hard to one another.
That weekend contained one of the biggest thrills of my life, a Blindfold test with him and Kenny Barron. This is 5 years after the initial blindfold test in Cleveland, so I was well aware of the whole culture at this point, and was excited to see Mulgrew slay it again. Dan Ouellete picked some tricky things, however, and there was no perfect score. The last track was a grainy boogie-woogie track with some Basie element in it that stumped both pianists, and I’ve never felt prouder than when I raised my hand and said “Old, old, old, old, Oscar Peterson”. It’s documented(page 82). I have witnesses. My heart still swells when I think about walking up to him that night at the hotel and telling him that the only reason I guessed it right was because he inspired me to reach the highest possible level back when I was 16.
When I got to New York I got to see him a bit more, but the one concert that sticks out is one that he did in New Jersey with Billy Drummond soon after his stroke. He said he wasn’t quite at full strength, but he was sounding just as good as ever! No problems that I could see, and he played a solo piece that expanded and rhapsodized on a theme from the 2nd Rachmaninoff piano concerto (a classical musician in the audience informed me). Really great, and the hook up with Billy was phenomenal.
The conversation I had with him that day was great as well. We talked about Woody Shaw, and how great it was to work with him, how he got Mulgrew into Tai Chi, and all of these things. He also was stuck on the fact that he couldn’t teach as much as he wanted to, that his touring schedule prevented him from taking on students. He was really down about that.
He always was a teacher on some level. He toured, doing clinics along the way. I’ve shown about 50 people the Live at Kennedy Center records, and not a single person has been able to guess that Derrick Hodge was playing bass. I of course, know Derrick primarily from those records, so I’m on the other side of the coin from what now seems to be the entire planet!
He always had a young working trio, every time I saw him, whether it was Karriem Riggins, Derrick, Rodney Green, or Ivan Taylor, he always was teaching, no doubt influenced by his years with Woody Shaw and Art Blakey. There are so many things that Mulgrew stood for that are fading from the Jazz landscape, but I feel like this is the most precious one.
He was such a kind person. When I went up to him at the New Jersey gig and reminded him who I was, he said, “A ha! You made it, huh?” We talked about how different the scene was when he got to NYC. He was always so warm, in every situation. Slow to judge and quick to help out.
He was such an amazing pianist in so many ways, as well. In the realm of really good straight-ahead pianists, I always heard him as being one iota above the competition in terms of technicality. He wouldn’t play harder music necessarily, than people like Kirk Lightsey, Kenny Barron, John Hicks, or others, but I always felt that he played it all comfortably, and with a higher level of rhythmic precision than some of his counterparts. He was always swinging furiously, which I attribute to his early love of Oscar Peterson. Even though everything always felt comfortable, there was that feeling of the unknown, that he was reaching for something. Maybe not on every tune, but certainly a few times on every gig, which is a pain in the ass, as anyone who plays as much as Mulgrew did will tell you. There’s a high level of dedication involved with that. Dedication and focus.
He was a great utility pianist, in the tradition of Cedar Walton and Tommy Flanagan. If you have Mulgrew on your team, you’re going to have a great soloist, and your solos are going to sound better. He could blend with any rhythm section, and light a fire under any ass that needed it in his firm but gentle way. He had unbelievable ears, but he swore that he never transcribed a day in his life.
One of his contributions to my ear was the ability to take from sources and not reference them, and also to go between styles seamlessly. He was a master transitionist, whether from a fourthy Coltrane plane into a burning bebop phrase (MUCH harder than it sounds. Very difficult to not sound schlocky and to not commit to one or the other.) or from an intro into a tune. Mulgrews intros were always great, especially on ballads, but I feel the genius is in the transition to the head, not in the intro itself.
Another thing that’s amazing about Mulgrew is the opinion others have of him. Among the avant garde or from the staunchest Neo-Conservative to the most anti-establishment math Jazz devotee, young and old, knowledgeable and useless, I have never heard a bad word uttered about Mulgrew Miller. Everyone loves him, no matter their background. There are a lot of petty squabbles in Jazz, and Mulgrew, throughout his years of weaving in and out of different circles of music has avoided every single one of them.
I’m so very lucky to have known him. He made me what I am today, and gave me a role model that I built my life dream out of. I still smile and remember all of my encounters with him(there are more than are written here) every time he pops up on a record, or a young player plays a lick of his. I wouldn’t have listened to music as much. I wouldn’t have paid attention to the finer things in the music. I wouldn’t have practiced as much. I wouldn’t have learned all of the tunes. I wouldn’t have practiced in multiple keys. I wouldn’t be able to comp. The list goes on and on. I keep finding out new things about him to this day, most recently from Oliver Lake, showcasing a side of his playing I’d never really heard before. It never ends. Gotta find this record!
I’ve been thinking about him every day since he died. Instead of my usual ending quote, I’ll leave with the story that still brings a tear to my eye.
The night that I went to thank him for the inspiration he asked me when I was moving to New York. I told him that all of the plans had been made and that I was looking for a place in Brooklyn as we spoke, but that I was super worried about all of the problems that were certain to come my way, and started going on about financials, about this and that. He stopped me, looked me in the eye, and said “Hey. There’s always room for one more. This isn’t a club, we don’t have a limit. If you take care of the music, take care of yourself, and always believe in what you’re doing, you’ll be fine. Trust me.”
I’m never going to forget that. I’m going to miss the hell out of you Mulgrew. I’m not sure what being a Jazz musician is like without you around.