Written by Becca Pulliam from WBGO-FM
The pianist Mulgrew Miller died on May 29, 2013, following a cerebral hemorrhage. The jazz world is grieving the loss of this “wonderful musician and great spirit,” in the words of fellow pianist Kenny Barron. As saxophonist Loren Schoenberg so aptly says, “Mulgrew could levitate a bandstand.”
Thinking about his piano alone, Miller’s right hand was the great embellisher; the whole keyboard was his canvas. His left hand could stride and swing with great authority, and when the two hands got together, he sent the train down the tracks. Yet he could lay down a carpet of flowers. What a touch. Miller deployed all his gifts and accomplishments anew every time we recorded him, and he always seemed to be with us, grounded in the shared love of the music.
He expressed his credo as a writer with these words: “I strive to compose beautiful melodies and interpret them with a beat that dances.”
Miller was born in 1955 in Greenwood, Miss. At 6, he started playing by picking out hymns and harmonies on the piano, always on the black keys. As he told WBGO’s Gary Walker in an on-air conversation, he didn’t realize that those keys are considered to be the difficult ones to play in.
Mississippi was ground zero for the Civil Rights Movement, and Miller lived that history. “I was in the first wave of children that integrated schools,” he says. “I didn’t go to school with white kids until I was in 10th grade.”
At 14, when he saw Oscar Peterson on The Joey Bishop Show, Mulgrew Miller set his musical direction. First, he went to Memphis State University and met fellow pianists James Williams and Donald Brown. Then, Miller went on the road with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, conductor Mercer Ellington and — in an awe-inspiring sequence and back to back — vocalist Betty Carter, Newark-born trumpeter Woody Shaw, drummer Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, and drummer Tony Williams.
Later, “Professor Mulgrew” shared lessons learned from those experiences with his students. For eight years until his unexpected death, Miller co-led the Jazz Studies program at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., with his colleague David Demsey. WPU has one of the oldest jazz programs in the world; it began 40 years ago under bandleader Thad Jones.
Now, Miller’s students and colleagues, bandmates, fellow musicians and jazz lovers worldwide are mourning his loss. We thank him and his family for sharing him. Here, we highlight four performances — solo and duo piano, his sextet Wingspan (the name is a tip of the hat to Charlie Parker, a.k.a. “Bird”) and the Mulgrew Miller Trio.
Mulgrew Miller, piano (WBGO’s 25th Anniversary Party on Park Place in Newark, N.J., April 2004)
Miller, piano; Kenny Barron, piano (Detroit Jazz Festival Artist-In-Residence, 2010)
Wingspan: Steve Wilson, alto and soprano saxophones; Duane Eubanks, trumpet; Steve Nelson, vibes; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Ivan Taylor, bass; Rodney Green, drums
Mulgrew Miller Trio: Miller, piano; Ivan Taylor, bass; Rodney Green, drums (Kennedy Center Jazz Club, October 2012)
Thanks to the 2010 Detroit Jazz Festival, Artistic and Executive Director Terri Pontremoli and Marketing Director Chris Harrington, and to Director of Jazz Kevin Struthers at the Kennedy Center. Recordings are by AuraSonic Ltd., New York; MetroMobile in the Midwest (Chicago); and Greg Hartman at the Kennedy Center. Surround Sound mixes are by Duke Markos.