Allison Miller: Breaking Ground
It takes a rare individual to excel in multiple artistic genres, particularly when success unfolds in the public spotlight and presents very different contexts. Certainly technical ability is important, but it also takes a peculiar blend of flexibility, curiosity, and determination. Perhaps that is what makes drummer, composer, bandleader, and outspoken feminist Allison Miller such a charismatic musician and personality.
As a drummer, she has distinguished herself in both the jazz and singer-songwriter genres, playing with some of the most illustrious representatives of both musical schools. She is equally confident playing free-jazz with Marty Ehrlich as touring with popular icons Ani DiFranco, Brandi Carlile, and Natalie Merchant. Her star qualities led her to being featured in the Showtime series L World, and have given rise to a growing lesbian fan club. She is an accomplished bandleader whose recently released jazz album, Boom Tic Boom (Foxhaven Records, 2010), has received consistent accolades. Her playing is subtle and texturally rich, and in the hands of band mates Myra Melford (piano), Todd Sickafoose (bass), and Jenny Scheinman (violin) her compositions navigate a brilliant tension between straight-ahead melodies and experimental improvisation to create a soulful balance.
All About Jazz: When did you first start playing the drums?
Allison Miller: I first started playing when I was ten.
AAJ: How did that come about? What drew you to the instrument?
AM: I always wanted to play the drums. To me there's not really any other instrument out there [laughs]. I actually started playing [when] my mom signed me up for band and I played a little snare drum. I had been going to this music camp for a couple years and taking voice and piano. And finally I was old enough to play the drums, so I started on the drums at [a summer] camp. The first song I learned on the drums was "Billie Jean" [laughs]. And I played it with the big band. It was super fun.
AAJ: I always think it is interesting that some people know from very early on what instrument they want to play. They are drawn to a certain thing or sound.
AM: I think people who do know that are pretty lucky, you know? To actually know what they like.
AAJ: After "Billie Jean," as you got further into learning the instrument, what were the early jazz influences you encountered?
AM: My first major jazz influence was Tony Williams. Particularly his playing on Miles Smiles (Columbia, 1966) and Nefertiti (Columbia, 1968). In high school, that was when I first felt myself fall in love with the music. I had been introduced to jazz before; Big Band jazz, Buddy Rich, things like that. I appreciated the technical ability of his drumming, but it didn't pull me in musically. With Tony, it just blew my mind. After Tony, I got really into the music of Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, and Elvin Jones. And Thelonious Monk, as well.
AAJ: Did you know early on that you wanted to pursue music professionally, or did that develop later?
AM: I pretty much knew early on.... There was one fleeting moment when I thought I wanted to be an archeologist, then that went away [laughs].
AAJ: I was at the show at Bossa Bistro and I saw your whole family was thereand they were very vocally supportive. It sounds like they have been supportive of your career all along.
AM: They have. They really have. I was fortunate enough to have supportive parents. I was excelling pretty quickly at drumming. I always got positive reinforcement and I believe that has a lot to do with whether someone has the confidence to pursue music professionally. I have a lot of students who are really good players but they get no encouragement outside of the lessons. They tend to think that they can't continue this as a profession. I always tell my students that if you want something bad enough, you can have it. It just takes a lot of discipline in life.
AAJ: Is that because your parents have a particular interest in music? Are they musicians?
AM: My mother's side of the family is from a long line of musicians. My mother is a pianist and a choral director. She's classically trained. She went to school for music and all that stuff. My grandmother Sugarwe called her Sugar or Money; I don't know why we called her that but those were her nicknamesshe was an organist. A professional organist in Oklahoma. And my grandmother's sister was a professional singer and her daughter a pianist. My cousin is a very famous Opera singer. I'm kinda the one musician in the family that went the other route, other than classical music.
AAJ: I think for families that don't have that kind of musical background there is often a difficult moment when the decision is announced to be a musician. I hear lots of stories of parents saying, But wait, how are you going to pay the bills?" Sounds like you did not have to go through that.
AM: No. My parents were really supportive. They really invested in me. They recognized that I was really interested in what I was doing. When I first started they got me this little drum pad. And I had a drum pad for awhile. Then they gave me a snare. But they wouldn't get me a drum set and all I wanted to play was drum set. I played for two years on a little practice drum setone of those things that just have the rubber pads. I played on that for two years. I think after that they realized "she hasn't give up yet, she really wants this. 'Cause it's not exactly fun to play on those rubber pads. They realized that I took this seriously. They have been supportive ever since.