Ron Miles: Jazz Gentleman, Part 3
[Editor's Note: In Florence Wetzel's in-depth interview with Ron Miles, the Colorado-based trumpeter covers the rest of his releases, including an exclusive first look at his forthcoming album, Quiver (Enja, 2012), due out later this year.]
AAJ: So next you have another Sterling Circle release, Laughing Barrel (2003), which has seven tunes, all your original compositions. Rudy Royston is on drums, and you have two other great musicians: the bassist Anthony Cox and the guitarist Brandon Ross. Could speak a bit about Anthony and Brandon, and how they came together with you on this release?
RM: Well, Anthony was going to be on that record in the early '90s when I was first trying to contact Bill. He was on the list of my favorite bass players that I wanted to reach out to; his album Dark Metals (Polygram, 1992) had just come out then, and he had those great records with saxophonist Joe Lovano. I was a huge Anthony Cox fan. He actually said back then that he would do the record, and so we stayed in touch a little bit.
I knew Brandon from singer Cassandra Wilson's records and saxophonist Henry Threadgill, and I was just a huge, huge fan. He had heard My Cruel Heart, and he told me that at first he thought it was a guitarist's record, because the song "Finger Palace" starts off the album with a big, heavy guitar riff. I think whoever was playing it for him said, "I think this is some guitarist's record," and Brandon said, "Yeah, but who's the trumpet player? That's who I'm interested in." I think Brandon maybe even contacted me at some point. And I thought, "Man, this would be so great to get these guys together and play!"
So again, I wrote a bunch of music, knowing that this was going to be the band, and we just set out to do it. And the same thing: Mickey recorded it, and we were just all in a big room together, and it was pretty easy to do. All those guys have a history with all kinds of music, Brandon with Cassandra and playing banjo and all those kinds of diverse songs in addition to the skronky stuff, and Anthony had the same thing, too. So doing my tune "Sunday Best" with those guys was easy: "Yeah, we know, we got that!"
"Psychedelic Black Man" was written for Anthony, really. The song was already written, but when we were working on it, he just kept saying, "Psychedelic black man!" He kept saying it over and over again, and I said, "OK, man, we'll call it that!" We had a hard time playing that tune, and they asked me to play it on the piano. I can't really play the piano, but it was the same kind of vibejust me playing on the piano, just the vibe of my non-piano playing, and they knew what to do: "OK, we hear what you're saying, or what you're trying to say." And then we took off from there.
AAJ: That's something that's really interesting about this record, because one reviewer classified it as mainstream jazz and another classified it as free jazz. But then there's also your song "Sunday Best," which exemplifies the kind of Americana or Colorado sound that you sometimes refer to, which is also like your song "Just Married."
RM: There's also "Jesus Loves Me," actually, which we also recorded on Coward of the County. It's kind of stripped down on this record; that's the only one that carried over from that point. But yeah, there's a mix of music here.
The song "Parade," was actually written at a time when I had hurt my neck. Have you ever had that thing where you're kind of like [mimes being unable to turn head], and you can't sleep? So I was up all night, and Showtime was having a Queer as Folk marathon, and I was really into itI love soap operas, I just love them. One of the episodes had a gay-pride parade, and it was so beautiful. Other pride parades are like, "Well, we can't have those folks show up at our pride parade, because that's not the side we want to show to the public." But a gay-pride parade has all sorts of folks: wild folks, conservative folks and all sorts of folks in between. It just was so beautiful, and the next day I wrote "Parade." I think I wrote it just straight out; it was really pretty easy to write.
When I started to write these more "song" songs, from that point on I only wrote at the piano; I never picked the trumpet up at all. The only time I would even change the key was when it went out of the range of the trumpet somehow, but for the most part, a song would just show up where it was. Sometimes the songs would have a lyriconly a sentence or so, because I can't really write lyrics, but it would have enough of a lyric that I could generate the song. "Coward of the County," I think, was that way, and just about all the songs on this record were that way, too; they were composed at the piano in that kind of process.
AAJ: Your next CD Stone/Blossom (2006) is also with Sterling Circle. This is a really interesting release because it has two discs: Stone is seven of your tunes, and it's generally straight-ahead jazz with a quartet of you, Rudy Royston on drums, Kent McLagen on bass, and Eric Gunnison on piano. Then on the second disc, Blossom, you have a whole range of personnel: there's Rudy Royston, Greg Garrison on bass, Roger Green on guitar, Erik Deutsch on piano, Glenn Taylor on pedal steel guitar, and Eric Moon on organ, accordion, and keyboards. The music is different, tooit's six of your tunes plus two really interesting covers: "I'll Be There" from the Jackson 5 and "I Woke Up in Love This Morning" from the Partridge Family. One reviewer said that the album's a mix of jazz, 1970s love-rock, and Americana.
RM: I think that's exactly right! I told those guys on Blossom that I wanted our love for that music to be just no holds barred; I said, "I just want it to be incredibly soft and incredibly hard, all of it in there."
The original idea was to do all the music as a quartet record and to have a double quartet record. We even recorded some of the songs from Blossom as a quartet, but the quartet's relationship to pop music isn't the same as the people on Blossom. Rudy's on both of the records, though; he's the person who always fits!
I remember the guitarist Roger Green came by one day and played the beginning of "Since Forever," and then it was like, "There we go!" I wrote all the tunes on the piano, so they were supposed to be piano tunes, but I heard what Roger did and it was like, "There we go! That's it!" Then I was ready, and I set about finding folks to play on Blossom. So the people on Blossom really were my band after that for a while, for the most part; the band was also called Blossom.
With the song "Since Forever," I'd never even heard the Byrds, but I imagined that that's what the Byrds sounded like. And it turns out they do sound like that, because everybody I've talked to says, "It sounds like something the Byrds would do," and I said, "Yeah, it does!" I just heard some kind of jangly guitar thing.
But, you know, the songs on Blossom are not all the same; they change meters, they move around in their subtle ways, but they're so tuneful that I really didn't want any of the compositional trickery or devices to be in your face. I wanted those things to almost not even be noticed. Same thing with "I Woke Up in Love This Morning," which I loved from the Partridge Familyit's almost unrecognizable on this record. When I arrange songs, for the most part, I just pretend like I wrote them, and so I wonder, "If I wrote this melody, what would I have done with it?" So all the chords on this tune are different from the original version, and there's this other part that's not even in the original that I thought would be nice to have in there. I thought, "This part would be better in seven, I think; it kind of flows." So that's the idea with that song.
The same thing with the Jackson 5 song "I'll Be There." Glenn Taylor came up with this beautiful pedal steel part, and that made the song jump off, and then I was home free from there. People were playing thumb pianos and all sorts of stuff; there's even a Casio trio at some point on the record, which was supposed to be my homage to "Dead Man Blues" by Jelly Roll Morton; that song has a clarinet trio, but I thought I'd have a trio of Casios and have it be my '70s love-rock mix with Jelly Roll Morton. No one gets the Jelly Roll Morton reference at all when they hear it: "What? Something's buggy; it's Casios." And it is; it's a Casio trio. So that was really fun to do.
With the quartet record Stone, again it was all recorded in the same room, live with no amplifiers, no headphones, just us playing. And so that allowed that record to be what it needed to be; it didn't have to try and be that other thing on Blossom. And the pop sensibility that some of the musicians brought to Blossom could also be its thing, too; people didn't have to feel like they had to go over to the music on Stone. And like I said, Rudy is cool either way; he's fine, no matter what.
AAJ: Another interesting feature on this release is that on Blossom you play the cornet throughout the whole record.
RM: Yeah, I think I switched in the middle, after we did the quartet record. I played this really heavy Monette trumpet, and it was just so heavy that I switched to the cornet. I always loved the cornet, and so we made that switch, which corresponds with the music we were making at that time.
I must have played the cornet for seven years exclusively, and now I play a trumpet with my cornet mouthpiece; it gives me a little bit of both instruments, which I like. I switched to cornet when I started playing with the singer Madeleine Peyroux; it was right around that time.
AAJ: Did you just take up the cornet at that point, or had you played it previously?
RM: I played it occasionally, and I always liked it, but you know, if you're playing in a section of trumpets, the cornet maybe doesn't work so well. But at the point I was recording this album, I pretty much realized I wasn't playing in sections too much anymore; I was the only one there, so I could play cornet if I wanted!
AAJ: So there's a long interlude from Stone/Blossom to your next release, Quiver (Enja, 2012), which is coming out this year. In the interim you were involved with many, many projects, such as playing in Brandon Ross' group Harriet Tubman, playing in pianist Wayne Horvitz's group Gravitas Quartet, traveling to Thailand for the Bangkok Jazz Festival in 2009, playing with guitarist Charlie Hunter at the Telluride Jazz Festival in 2010, performing composer Gil Evans' arrangement of Juan Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" in Germany in 2012but that's another interview altogether! So let's just jump forward to your new release, this time a trio with Bill Frisell and the great drummer Brian Blade. When did you first met Brian?
RM: Well, Brian and I played on a record of Bill's called The Sweetest Punch (Decca, 1999), which is a record of Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello's music. That's the only time we had played together, but I would see him from time to time on the road, and he would always say, "It would be great to play together!" Obviously I didn't have to say to him, "It would be great to play with you," since everybody wants to play with Brian! I would say that, too, of course, and I always thought, "Wow!"
Bill and I had talked about doing another Heaven record, but maybe having somebody else join us, and we said, "Let's see if Brian will do it." Then Brian said he would, so we said, "OK, let's go ahead and make that happen." Then same kind of thing: I set about getting some music together with the idea of this trio in mind. So that was the groove there.
AAJ: So three tracks were recorded live at Dazzle Jazz in Denver, and the rest were recorded in a studio in Denver with producer Hans Wendl. Both Brian and Bill were here for a while, and you did a few concerts as well as a master class at CU. So what was your experience doing this CD? It sounds like you guys really got to spend time together during the process.
RM: That was the great part of it. Bill and Brian are both incredibly busy, but they also really wanted to make the music as good as possible, so Brian wrote me and said, "Hey, maybe I could show up a week early and we could play a bunch." Then the week turned into only a few days, but that was really the way they wanted to approach it, so we set up this master class at CU and played before we went into the studio. I think we had a rehearsal day, the class at CU, and then two days in the studio. So that was the idea there.
And again, those two are just so quick at everything. They hear everything, and they know what to do, so the key was just picking some songs that would be really fun for them to play. So that's what I tried to do.
AAJ: You have six of your own compositions, and you have three interesting covers: the song that bandleader Paul Whiteman wrote and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke played, "There Ain't No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears," Duke Ellington's "Doin' the Voom Voom" and composer Henry Mancini's "Days of Wine and Roses." How did those particular tunes jump out at you?
RM: Well, "Days of Wine and Roses" we recorded when we were here at Dazzle. Bill and I had played that song a lot over the years, and that night at Dazzle we played a bunch of music, just trying stuff out, and some of it was really hard. I think we were about to do an encore, and I said, "Do you want to do something hard or something we know?" And they said, "Let's do something we know." I said, "OK, let's play 'Days of Wine and Roses.'" I think we only did the song that night; we didn't even do it the other night. So that was the choice there.
"Doin' the Voom Voom" was a song that Don Byron does with his Bug Music group. I toured with Bug Music quite a bit over the years, and that was always my favorite song. We did a long tour in the UK, and we played in Australia, and Don had this presentation, "Bug Music for Juniors"; he would have these Warner Brothers cartoons playing, and we would play along with them and do some of that music, then he would talk about Duke and the bassist John Kirby and stuff. "Doin' the Voom Voom" was so great, and I always kept that in the back of my mind. Finally I decided, "I'm going to figure out how to learn this song." So I got my headphones out and got pencil and paper, and I wrote the song out as best I could; I think I did a pretty good job figuring out what "Doin' the Voom Voom" was. So that seemed like a good choice for this record. Also, the form is really neat; it's not just a head with solos, it's got an extended form with different sections. I thought that would be fun for the trio to sink their teeth into.
"Ain't No Sweet Man" was recorded by the Paul Whiteman band, and Bix was in that band, and so was the singer Bing Crosby. Our connection to the song has a couple parts; Paul Whiteman's from Denver, so there's that, and then there's Bix Biederbecke, of course. He's so masterful, and Bing, too. In the original version of the song, there's this thing that Bix and Bing Crosby both had, a mix of this "voodeo do"-ish thing with a soulful thing; it was really such a beautiful mix they were able to accomplish. I listened to a bunch of versions of this song that people have done since then, and it always seemed to be more "voodeo do"-ish than anything else. I played the original song, and I transcribed it, but I felt like to really get something going, I had to just go back and change it. So I changed all the chords and added a little riff for Bill to play, and that seemed to push the song more into a zone where we could do something with it. Because I didn't want it to be, "Oh, you're doing old-timey music." I wanted it to be a living, breathing thing. I really like the version that we were able to come up with a lot.
AAJ: So in addition to these three covers, six of your own tunes are on this, and it's interesting that three tunes are portraits: "Queen B," which you said at Dazzle is for your daughter, Justice; "Mr. Kevin," which is for Kent McLagen; and "Rudy-Go-Round" for Rudy Royston.
RM: Actually, there's four; there's also "Guest of Honor." That's another portrait, too; it's a little bit of a long story, so I'll see if I can make it not so convoluted! Because all these songs have multiple reasons; sometimes when you're explaining the context of a song you say, "It means this, but it also comes from there, too." I think that sometimes people talk about autobiographical writers or confessional songwriters and what their songs mean, but then the writer's like, "Well, it's kind of that, but sometimes a song just needs a bridge." So some of the words might have nothing to do with the confessional part, but it just makes a better song.
So with "Guest of Honor," I'd been playing some with Jason Moran, and he had this trio with me and him and the guitarist Mary Halvorsonshe's a master. And every time I'm around Jason, I'm always struck by his relationship to the African-American piano tradition. He's such a smart guy and such a great player; to me, he's one of the greatest piano players who's ever played, without qualification. And that just got me thinking back to the pianist Scott Joplin; for the longest time I've wanted to write a rag, but I've never been successful. But being around Jason and Mary got my mind kind of thinking, and then these two pianists asked me to write something for their wedding, so I was like, "OK." Plus my son's name is Honor, so all that was getting the song going.
Then I thought of Scott Joplin. His famous opera is Treemonisha. It's a really great story, but he also wrote a political opera before that called Guest of Honorbut we don't know what that sounds like because no one has the music for it anymore. We know Joplin was touring with this opera because there are playbills saying he's coming and playing it, but that's it. The story was about Booker T. Washington being the first African American invited to a State dinner at the White House, when Teddy Roosevelt was president, which was a huge political scandal at the time. So with Joplin, you get this sense that this guy was a revolutionary cat, touring this political opera, which at this time was fresh in everybody's mind. And this goes back to this whole avant-garde thing, about the history of this music always being avant-garde.
So all that came up with "Guest of Honor." Once all this came to my mind, I sat at the piano and wrote the piece out. And it was also about trying to figure out a way to play it, because in the '70s, Anthony Braxton and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams would do rag pieces; the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] guys were kind of delving into that too, a little bit. So there's that whole connection with this song, too.
AAJ: So this release is coming out in the fall on Enja. That's exciting.
RM: Yeah, it'll be great, I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully we can play a handful of times. I talk to Bill and Brian occasionally, and they certainly would like to play together. We'll see if I can get in line behind saxophonist Wayne Shorter and everybody else!
AAJ: That brings you right up to date with your discography as a leader, so let's touch on some other aspects of your music. There seems to be two main aspects of being a musician: one is very private practice and wood-shedding, and the other is the public act of performing. So first, in terms of your own practice and private time with music, what are the nuts and bolts of your daily life as a jazz musician? You have a family and a job, and you play locally and out of town, but what's your routine?
RM: Well, especially on the trumpet, I think you have such a physical relationship to the instrument that it really requires that you practice every single day. And I do; I was sick for a while, so I didn't get to practice then, but really for the most part there'll only be a couple of days a year that I don't practice, and that's usually because plane travel has dictated that I get in to some place at a time that doesn't really work, or I have to leave early. But outside of that, I play every single day.
My practicing is just getting technical things together, playing things through different keys, working out different stuff, like working out songs that are coming up for gigs or recordings. And since I still play classical music occasionally, I play etudes, too. Because for me, I feel that if I don't play that music, my sound turns in on itself a little bit, so sometimes being forced to play certain things is good. The thing about classical music is it's forte and it's piano; you're supposed to do certain things at certain times, as opposed to playing jazz where you can say, "I don't really feel like doing that." Practicing classical music keeps me projecting and keeps my sound alive. The Chicago Symphony guys would always say, "Imagine there's a golden ball of resonance hanging in front of your bell, and your job is to keep it alive and afloat." So practicing that music gets me into that zone a little bit more.
My improvising practice is a lot of playing by myself so that I can play songs, I can accompany people, I can play through the harmony, I can keep the time, I can walk the bass lineso I can do all those kinds of practical things. Also I practice playing very slowly because for me, the idea is that the better I know a piece, the better I know the components of a piece, and then the less I have to play in order to get the point across. I think that for me and for a lot of people, overplaying is a result of trying to keep your place or those kinds of things. So if you can remove that, then you don't have to play as much, and that allows you to hear more, and it allows the people you're playing with to play with you as well. It also allows the audience to sometimes complete a sentence without you having to spell it out. By playing less, you can leave more to the imagination of everybody who's playing.
AAJ: So when do you carve out this time for yourself?
RM: Oh, I get up really early, and I stay up really late. I'm an early riser and a late stayer-upper! I'll find the time no matter what. During the school year it's difficult, because not only do you teach classes, you also meet with the students. But I never want to be in a situation where I'm working with a student and I'm thinking, "I should be practicing right now!" Because then you're not really present with them, and they need you to be present with them at that point; that's why they're there to talk to you! So I'll just make sure that I've done something already in the day. Then it's like, "OK, when I show up to teach, I'm good." And also I know, "OK, I'll be home later," so I can be up to midnight and fit a little bit in, and I'll be good, too.
AAJ: Do you have a private music room in your house?
RM: Yeah, we do. We have a music room, which we added on to our house shortly after my son, Honor, was born. It's all ready to go: there's guitars and amps, there's a drum set, and there's a piano. There's also my little four-track cassette recorder that I record some of these more complex songs on; when I can't play everything on the piano, I play one part and then put them together. Probably around the time of Woman's Day, I started making demo tapes. I would drive around in the car and put them in the cassette player and just listen to them as songs and see if that seemed complete, or was that interesting, or did it need another partthose kinds of things. So that was always good for me. I can't really play the bass or guitar very well, but I could do it just enough to plunk through songs.
AAJ: So in terms of your composing, does that come into your practice time, or is that something different? For instance, do you carry a notebook, and then things come to you?
RM: Yeah, I've got bunches of notebooks filled with stuff that never makes it anywhere, mostly, but every once in a while it does. It's interesting to see the genesis of stuff. And I'm not one of those people who can write on a deadline; I mean, I can really just write when I hear stuff. So over the course of a year, generally I can come up with an album's worth of music. But I'm not one of those people who you can tell, "Write something peppy for tomorrow!" I can't really do that; the song just sounds like the song I wrote.
Then we play the songs, too; that's part of it, because when you play something, you get a sense of whether it's a good vehicle for improvisers or whether it's just a song that's a set song. That kind of song might end up being something that will show up in a concert, or maybe it's just an interesting thing that you have lying around.
AAJ: So in terms of the second aspect of being a musician, what's been the evolution of your experience as a performer? Did performing feel natural to you, or is it something you had to work on?
RM: Oh, I think it's something I'm still working on a lot. And I must say that jazz and improvising performances have always felt more natural; whenever I have to play a concerto, I'm incredibly nervous. The walk from the dressing room to the stage is like the walk to the gallows, quite honestly! Every time I walk out there to do a concerto, I keep thinking, "I'll never do this again!" Then you start playing and it's fine, but it's never really felt as comfortable as being in an improvising situation.
And to that point, a couple weeks ago I was in Germany. I played Juan Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez"; it was Gil Evans' arrangement for Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960), which was in a more classical context. But I wasn't nervous at all; it felt totally natural to me. But the Haydn Trumpet Concerto still kind of freaks me out a little bit even though I've probably played it a dozen times.
I play with my eyes closed much of the time, and I remember not even that long ago I looked up and realized, "Wow, everybody's looking at me!" Then I realized, "Well, what do you do when you're in the audience? I'm looking at people, too; I guess that's what we do!" It just kind of clicked in my mind: "Wow, everybody's just looking right at me!"
But I think after a while you come to grips that you are who you are in the performance. Some people are really comfortable and extroverted, and some people are introverted. And when we think of the people that we love as performers, we embrace all those different types of performers. So you just figure out that people are there because they like the music, and as long as you're honest, it should be good.
AAJ: Thinking about the issue of promotion and the idea of a career, nowadays it seems for the most part that the gatekeepers at the big labels are gone, and self-promotion is necessary. How do you negotiate that, and what advice do you give to your students about this issue?
RM: You know, I'm probably not the best person to answer this, because I'm not very good at that. I feel like, for the most part, I've been very fortunate in that people have been very helpful to me over the course of time. I read about people who do stuff by themselves, and I'm always so impressed because that hasn't been my story at all; people have always given me guidance or a helping hand, so I've been very fortunate in that regard.
As much as anything, I think it starts with just developing an interest in your art, or whatever it is, in your own community, and going out and trying to meet like-minded people, and just being a part of the community. It's not only having people be interested in your stuff, but being interested in other people's stuff, too. That's part of the idea. And then from there, things have a chance to grow.
That's where I think the rock 'n' roll or punk aesthetic comes through; that's what alternative music bands have done forever. I think that sometimes art music bands believe there's a system in place that says, "Well, you're great," then this system is set up for people to acknowledge your greatness, and that's how it works. They don't think it's just getting down and drawing up a poster, and then playing at the coffee shop and generating a buzz from your friends and having things go from there.
But I think that's something I see happening more and more, and I think it's a healthy thing. I think that's one of the things the big labels kind of squashed, because everybody was going for that big contract and skipping over all these other thingslike we were talking about apprenticeship being one of those things that people skipped over. And so I think that's the thing I notice.
For the most part, I just tell my students to do it for the right reasonsbecause you love music and you respect your audience and you respect the people that play the music, who came before you. And again, like we talked about with the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble, if no one comes, you still play, and it'll work out. Because in the end, those gatekeepers never had the music, anyway; you always had the music. That won't ever change. But you have to have the music first! You can't just expect to have the trappings of being a musician or an artist; you have to make the sacrifices and have the commitment, and if you do that, something will happen.
AAJ: There's something that you've mentioned in a few interviews as the "Colorado sound" in jazz. You attribute that special sound to growing up here, and to the different kinds of music that are available. Could you speak a bit about that?
RM: When I was coming up, and even still today, I think that if you were in a more cosmopolitan place than Denver, you could be into a specific type of music and only do that kind of music. In New York and the bigger cities, there's enough of an audience that you could say, "I want to play post-Ayler acoustic jazz music," and there's enough people so that you can generate a bit of a buzz. But here, there's not quite that kind of scene.
So again, like we talked about, it's not only having people be interested in your music, but it's you being interested in other people's music. And that gets you checking out these other bands, like, "What bands are you into?" "Well, I'm into this." "OK, let me check that out." And that can turn into: "Hey, I need somebody to play on this session; could you do that?" "Yeah, I can play here." "Great." So there's that kind of back and forth between different types of musicians.
Like when I played with Bruce Odland, I didn't know who the Talking Heads or those kinds of bands were, because I wasn't really into pop music that much. Or, like I said, I didn't know who Ginger Baker was, or Cream or Hendrix or any of those guys. But because I was playing with these different musicians, I began to see, "Oh, that's really great music; I really like that." And so the Colorado sound comes from that kind of eclecticism.
But also the thing that I think makes the eclecticism here so powerful is that it's an eclecticism that seems to pick the good stuffat least the good stuff for people out here, the things that we seem to like. It's the kind of commonalities between Public Enemy and Hank Williams and Scott Joplin, then all this other music, like Bjork. That can all be in there, like, "OK, that's where we get there." So that seems to be what's unique about this kind of place. When I think about the musicians that come out of here that have gone on to great thingslike Rudy Royston, the pianist and keyboardist Erik Deutsch, and even the non-jazz bands from herethat's something that we all share.
There's also this sense about melody being really, really important; the music is essentially melodic music. And new melodies are always what makes the music move forwardthat and bands. I mean, Charlie Parker's melodies sound like Charlie Parker blowing; Jelly Roll Morton's melodies sound like Jelly Roll Morton blowing, or same with Duke Ellington. So it's like you come up with a melodic world and habit, and that allows people to get on to that musical world.
AAJ: As you mentioned, there's this amazing crop of Colorado-raised or Colorado-trained musicians who are out in the world now. You mentioned Erik Deutsch and Rudy Royston, and there's also trumpeters Nate Wooley and Kurt Knuffke, drummer Colin Stranahan, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and guitarist Kaveh Rastegar from Kneebody. In addition to those players, there's also the current Colorado scene, where there's wonderful people who have been around for decades, many whom you've mentioned in this interview, and then there's all these great new people coming up, like guitarist Dave Devine, bassist Matt Smiley, saxophonist Josh Quinlan, trumpeter John Lake, pianist Steve Denny, vibraphonist Greg Harris, singer Kim Dawson, the group Three Squaredthere's so many! Could you speak a bit about the scene here in Colorado for young musicians?
RM: Yeah, I think that, particularly for these young musicians, it's been really great. Dave Devine is a perfect example. He's from Indiana, too; he's a Hoosier, so we share that. He teaches at Metro as well, and to me he's as good a young teacher as I've ever seen. One of the reasons is that he can really meet students where they live, because he really does love all the music. I remember somebody showing up at school and all they knew was one song by guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Dave's like, "Oh yeah, which one? OK, great!" Or like recently, he picked up his guitar and was playing some Hall & Oates music. But he can also play Wes Montgomery's music or Grant Green or Bill Frisell. He loves the guitar, and he really respects all that music.
When I was coming up, I think that sometimes the generation that came before mine would pooh-pooh that other music. A lot of jazz musicians were resentful of rock 'n' roll music and pop music because they were taking all the jobs and everything. Even the Beatles; some people didn't like them. I mean, how can you not like the Beatles? It's like not liking chocolate or something! I feel like that openness is one of the special things about this crop of musicians. And they're not only open to American popular music; there's also a great understanding of Indian music and other traditions. When bassist Matt Skellenger showed up at Metro, he wrote this crazy music with all these crazy meters that nobody had ever heard before. But I remember talking to him, and I just said, "Man, you've got something! Just keep working on that." Now he's got a band that plays his music seamlessly, and he also plays it so beautifully.
As much as anything, when students show up at Metro, the way I look at it is that they're not even here to be jazz musicians. But for improvisers and musicians, jazz is a great music to learn, because the traditions are so great that they'll enhance whatever music they want to play. I try to go hear the students' bands to hear what they're trying to play, and then we can figure out, "OK, I hear what you're doing. Maybe we can work with this kind of thing here, because the time's a little bit ragged, or the relationship between the bass and drums is not together. So check out this Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell record or this other thing." Or maybe they need to get from the one to the four chord, so we're just going to deal with some of Elliot Smith's songs right now for a little bit. We're enhancing their overall musicianship, and jazz just happens to be the vehicle in academia that works particularly well for that. But the idea is to have them do some indescribable music that we have to make up a new title for! That's the idea.
AAJ: You've been teaching for almost 25 years now. How would you say that your teaching style has evolved?
RM: Well, I can see the evolution when I see a lot of younger teachers show up and make the same mistakes that I made early on! I think one way it's evolved is really having a sense about what you're trying to accomplish and figuring out a direct way to do that. And trying to tie things in as best you can with the students' whole education, which means talking to their private teachers and talking to their other ensemble directors. It's seeing what they're struggling with and what they're good at, and seeing how we can pick some pieces of music or some ensembles that help them in areas where they need something. And it's also putting bands together, getting people who work well together or have similar goals. So that's one of the things.
Also, over the course of time, I can see how repertoire has evolved. I feel so comfortable now asking young improvisers to do "This Land Is Your Land" when they first show up; the same chords are in that as in "Straight No Chaser." Because nowadays, kids are further removed from jazz history than we were. When we were young, Duke Ellington was alive; Louis Armstrong was alive. We might not have heard their music, but you'd see them on the Tonight Show or you'd hear their names being referenced on some sitcom or something. But now it's like we're working with kids who were born in 1994; Miles Davis wasn't even around at that point. So how can these kids talk about that music? But the students do know these American folk songs, so maybe we can start with that music as a basis.
So for their first couple of years at Metro, the students are really dealing with the American folk traditions, and the last couple years they're dealing more with the jazz repertoire. By then, we've already set the groundwork so they're able to improvise, they're able to play in time, they're able to negotiate chord changes, and they're able to play a melody. You can accomplish those things with all sorts of music. So that's changed.
Right now, we're developing a degree at Metro that's actually a folk-and-jazz degree, which will hopefully get off the ground in the next couple of years.
AAJ: That's unique. Is anyone else doing that?
RM: I don't think so much in that sense. But when I played in Germany recently, I talked to these guys who said they were going to a festival in Germany that was a folk-and-jazz festival. And obviously the folk traditions in Germany are really old! The people are wearing costumes, but they're all getting together and improvising.
So I can see that incorporating this other music is a way to give people the knowledge that they need. The titles are less important than ever before, really. It's also about getting people writing freely, too, just making sounds and all that kind of stuff, just improvising games like some of saxophonist John Zorn's pieces. There's also some pieces that Fred Hess wrote; those kinds of structured pieces are good for that, too. So that's one thing that's changed a lot.
There's a different kind of student now, too, in that they don't write anymore. I mean, they really get physically tired writing a lot of times because they're used to typing. So when you're making up tests, if you have them write for an hour and a half, you see that they're really struggling physically. So you make up tests in different ways that ask different things of them, like getting them to go to concerts and talk about the music. You have to use different things to get them listening in unique ways. The students are as brilliant as ever, so you just find new strategies to get them to learn.
But at some point, you can't do that; things have maybe left you behind, and at that point you have to be comfortable enough to say, "I can't relate." And that's a hard thing. Because now I've been at Metro longer than anybody, although there are people working there who are older than me; I've been there a long time, and you don't ever want to be that teacher who's holding on to "Oooh, we did it that way in 1995; that's the way to go!" That's why it's good to have guys like Dave Devine showing up with new ideas. And the pianist Carmen Sandim is at Metro, too. She's another brilliant teacher.
AAJ: So you are turning 50 next year.
RM: Yes, I know! Crazy! I'm going to get my AARP card.
AAJ: So looking forward, what areas of growth are you interested in focusing on in the coming years?
RM: Certainly this past year has been a health struggle for me, so I've been confronted with my trumpet mortality in a lot of ways. I mean, I was wondering if I was ever going to play the trumpet again. I've been playing bass a little bit more, kind of checking that out, and that's been good. And also just thinking about maybe writing some longer-form pieces, things where I'm working with people who actually write words, and coming up with some stories. I think that there's still a lot to be gained there. The songs are essentially lyrical songs, but I just can't write any lyrics. So I'm comfortable with working with other people in that regard.
In terms of playing, I feel like I'm hearing more, and now that I'm playing again, I feel like I'm playing better than ever, so there's all sorts of things I'd like to work on. I'd like to keep playing with Bill and Brian, and I'd like to get a band going around here; I haven't really had a band since Blossom, so I'd like to see about doing that again. Because, like I said, that's the most important thing, to really be more active here in town. I's been a while for me, since I haven't been playing so much over the past year.
AAJ: There's a quote from you on the liner notes for My Cruel Heart that says: "Be humble. Be honest. Be quiet. Love God." Is this a philosophy you've developed, or is it something you've lived from a young age?
RM: I think it developed more so around that time when I did My Cruel Heart, even though as I look back, I think at various points I've been able to achieve that. But at various points over the course of my lifetime, I haven't been able to achieve that, either!
But I think that those are good words, particularly speaking musically. It's so important, like we talked about, to be humble, to accept that we don't know. And as I mentioned earlier, being honest. And to be quietto not just keep talking, to just listen for a little bit. And then as we think about God, particularly being a spiritual person, if you think about music and art, to me that's everything. It's the ultimate expression of all these positive qualities. And just our relationship to each other, and our relationship to love each other as you love yourself.
I mean, that's the thing when you're talking about being in a band and there's an audience and there's the tradition that's come beforeit's about paying respect to all those things. When I play a Monk song, I envision, "What if he's listening to this?" I want to make sure that I play in a way that's creative and respectful and just as if he were here. Same with pianist Mary Lou Williams or whoever we're talking about. So that's a part of that quote, too.
AAJ: Last, but not least, it must be asked: the Scooby-Doo lunch box?
RM: Oh my gosh, yes! I love Scooby-Doo, and it's a perfect mute bag; all my mutes fit in there, so yes, the Scooby-Doo Mystery-Machine lunch box. I also have a lunch box from the girls' store called Justice, because my daughter's name is Justice; I took that lunch box to some middle school and it shocked all the girls because it's so pink, and these girls could not get past thatit was just so pink! So the Scooby-Doo one actually seems to attract less attention than the Justice one.
I've had various things like that over the years because I have kids, and for the longest time I would have their stuff. I had a Powerpuff Girls backpack for a long time because Justice got tired of it and she wanted my backpack. So I said, "Well, I'm not going to buy another backpack. I'll just wear this for a while." So it became a thing, and I put it away after a while because I didn't want it to be a thing, I just needed a backpack!
Ron Miles, Quiver (Enja, 2012)
Ron Miles, Stone/Blossom (Sterling Circle, 2006)
Ron Miles, Laughing Barrel (Sterling Circle, 2003)
Ron Miles, Heaven (Sterling Circle, 2002)
Ron Miles, Ron Miles Trio (Capri, 2000)
Ginger Baker, Coward of the County (Atlantic, 1999)
Ron Miles, Woman's Day (Gramavision, 1997)
Ron Miles, My Cruel Heart (Gramavision, 1996)
Bill Frisell, Quartet (Elektra Nonesuch, 1996)
Ron Miles, Witness (Capri, 1990)
Ron Miles, Distance for Safety (Prolific Records, 1987)