On the death of Mulgrew Miller

2 Jun

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I have a routine, perhaps morbid, upon hearing of the death of a prominent musician: I play their music. I scour my collection, and when I find it lacking, I listen to Pandora and YouTube until I’ve exhausted it.

This week I’ve been listening to pianist Mulgrew Miller, who died at just 57 years old on May 29. His is the latest passing in what’s been a sad few months for pianists: Dave Brubeck’s death was well noted last December, Don Shirley’s less so in April, and Miller’s very much so, especially by his fellow musicians, in late May. (And it’s been a sad few years for fans of the piano before that: Ray Bryant, Hank Jones, Andrew Hill, Oscar Peterson, etc.)

In my collection I found two CDs of Miller’s and a 1990 record — which would make it one of the last I bought — in their alphabetical places. I played them for five straight days and wondered why I didn’t have more.

That could hardly be Miller’s fault. “Mulgrew is very much in demand and finds it difficult to say no — particularly to people whose music he appreciates,” wrote producer Orrin Keepnews on Miller’s 1990 album From Day to Day.

Miller must have been as generous in his musical tastes as contemporaries said he was personally — Miller once estimated he played on 500 albums. It’s possible he wasn’t exaggerating, but if not it begs credulity to wonder when he also had time to teach at Williams Paterson University

“If the jazz world had a most valuable player award, pianist Mulgrew Miller would be a leading contender . . .,” James Hale wrote in 1993 for the Ottawa Citizen in advance of a Miller concert there.

That wasn’t just because of the frequency of Miller’s playing, but the quality of it. Fellow pianist Eric Reed called Miller “the most influential jazz pianist since Keith Jarrett.” (Ironic that Jarrett was born and grew up outside of Allentown, Pa.; Miller, a native of Mississippi, settled in nearby Easton, Pa. When asked by the newspaper there why, Miller said that he “heard (Easton) was the jazz mecca of the world”).

And yet Miller led and played discreetly. Even on his albums, Miller didn’t dominate. Kenny Garrett’s sax or Eddie Henderson’s trumpet were just as noticeable on the album Hand in Hand pictured above as Miller’s piano, if not always as memorable.

Every obituary or appreciation of Miller last week described his playing as “soulful,” as if it were a band mate. His Mississippi roots were evident. It was there that he first, as a young boy, heard Peterson and was inspired by him (as a young boy, Peterson first heard Art Tatum and was intimidated by his playing. Fortunately, he got over it).

Miller grew to be a big man, 6-foot-2 and wide, which presented a contradiction. Lehighvalley.com said, “Miller’s entrance to the stage resembled a giant stalking a Steinway . . . ” but he “commanded a presence that would soon be overshadowed by the graceful notes of his craft . . .”

Wrote Hale: “Everything he plays sounds like it’s from his heart. He plays with emotion, and always swings.”

Maybe that’s why bassist Christian McBride cited the words of Duke Ellington on his Facebook page upon Miller’s death: “We loved you madly.” And why he challenged those who love jazz. “I hope every self-respecting jazz musician and fan,” wrote McBride, “takes this day to reflect upon all the music he left us.”

McBride was wrong in only one respect. It should take more than a day.

Below is a link to Grew’s Tune, off the 1993 album Hand in Hand:

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