Marcus Miller: The Man of Many Hats
Composing is something Miller has done for many years, starting at a young age. The Brooklyn-born musician grew up in a musical family and played various instruments, primarily clarinet, before ever picking up the bass. His father played piano (he was a relative of famed pianist Wynton Kelly) and he tinkered with that too. With no real formal bass instruction in school, he concentrated on clarinet and dabbled a bit with the that. "I played a bunch of instruments trying to find where I was most comfortable. I enjoyed music so much that it was fun trying out all those instruments," he says.
At about the age of 13, he picked up the electric bass for the first time. "Completely fell in love with it. But I never completely put the other instruments down. I really focused on electric bass, but I would go back and play my clarinet from time to time, or saxophone or keyboards. As my career has gone on, I've begun to bring those voices back. It's really a nice thing. I've been playing bass clarinet a lot. During my shows, it's such a nice contrast to go from playing the electric bass, which has a kind of percussive, metallic sound, and all of a sudden switch to bass clarinet, which is very warm, very wooden sounding."
Miller attended the High School of Music and Art, where he majored in the clarinet, receiving a well-rounded education. He notes, "I was playing the clarinet in school and playing the bass in the clubs and in dance bands and stuff like that."
"I listened to all those Motown records in the 70s and Stax Records. A group called Mandrill, which was a really popular funk band on the east coast. Sly and the Family Stone. At that time the bass was really driving the music. The drums weren't mixed in those days like they are now where they dominate the sound of the record. Back then the drums was just another instrument and the bass was the loudest thing. So I really got excited about those bass lines," recalls Miller. "Then later on I wanted to see what else was around in music, that's when I got into jazz. I started listening to fusion first. I listened to Stanley Clarke, Alphonso Johnson, Jaco Pastorious. Eventually I went back and discovered Ron Carter, Paul Chambers. By the time I was 16, I was into it all."
He later went to Queens College, majoring in music education, and continued on clarinet there while participating in the jazz ensemble. But he was still in high school, around the age of 15, when he began getting gigs. In college, Miller began to get more work on bass and he eventually left school.
"Back in those days, everybody needed a bassist, so there was a lot of work to be done. Plus, I lived in New York and was born and raised in New York. A lot of kids had to wait until they finished school and they had to move to New York or L.A. and start waiting tables until they could make a name for themselves. Since I'm from New York, I was already on the scene. By the time I was 16 or 17, I was already making a little name for myself."
Miller stuck to the electric bass, a natural voice. Fusion groups that dominated the jazz music landscape all had electric bass players and even Sonny Rollins had switched to the use of electric. His first gigs on a bit of a larger scale were with Bobbi Humphrey, a popular flautist in the 70s, keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith, I did some recordings very early with him; and drummer Lenny White, who had chosen to end his work with Chick Corea and Return to Forever. "I think those three things got me started in terms of people saying, 'Who is that guy?'" says Miller. It included making records as well as touring.
"With Bobbi Humphrey, we'd do gigs in D.C. and in Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Milwaukee. Not to far, but gigs around. I was in her band for about a year and then when was about to make an album for CBS. Ralph McDonald was her producer. I wrote a song for Bobbi and asked if she was interested in recording it for her album. She said she was, so she brought the song to Ralph and said, 'Here's a song a kid in my band wrote and I'd like him to play bass on it.' Ralph tolerated it. So I came in. It was nice, because I got to meet Ralph and Steve Gadd and Richard Tee and Eric Gale. They were all working on the record. That was very cool.
"I did the same thing about a year later. I wrote Bobbi another song. This time it wasn't such a spike, because Ralph said, 'He wasn't horrible last time. Let him come in again,'" Miller recalls with a chuckle. "This time I put a bass solo in the song. So I got to play for Ralph and those guys. A couple weeks after that session, man, my phone started ringing for studio session work. It turned out that Ralph had begun to recommend me to people. It took off like wildfire. Within six months I was working seven days a week, all day long."