Ron Miles: Jazz Gentleman
AAJ: So when you were at DU, you won a classical trumpet competition at the International Brass Clinic in Bloomington, Indiana, which paved the way for you to attend Manhattan School of Music from 1985-86. How did that come about?
RM: Actually, it's really weird: my trumpet teacher at DU, Joe Docksey, had a plant in his classroom, and he had a contest to guess what date his plant would touch the floor, and the winner got a subscription to the International Trumpet Guild Journal. I won the contest, so I got this journal, and one day I read that they had these competitions.
The year before I did the classical competition, I did the jazz one, which I didn't win. Jeff Beal, who wrote the music for the TV show Monk, he won that year. But trumpeter Brad Goode, who's here in town, he and I were both competing in the finals at that time. There were all these great brass players at the competition, and I remember hearing the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra brass section and all this great music. Trumpeter Woody Shaw was there, and the trumpet-maker Dave Monette was there, too; that was the very first time I met him. I remember he had his new trumpets that cost $1,500, and we said, "Wow, that's so expensive!" We were just all up in arms about it.
So the next year, I entered the classical competition. I recorded some music with my friend David Pearl , who's a pianist, and I played it for Mr. Docksey, and he was like, "Oh, I wished you'd played it for me earlier, because there's all these mistakes, and you're not going to be able to get in." I said, "Oh, I'll try." So I sent in that tape and a jazz tape, too. I got in with the classical tape, but I didn't get in with the jazz tape. When I went there, I asked them why, and they said that I didn't complete some part of the form or I didn't send in something, so they didn't consider me for the jazz competition. I said, "You guys could have just written me or called me!"
So anyway, I entered the classical competition, and I won. And that really made Manhattan School of Music seem like more of a possibility. Because you know how it is sometimes, being from herebefore winning the contest, I don't know how I measured up against these people from New York, California, Texas and all these places. After the contest, I was like, "Wow, OK."
So when I won that contest, all the trumpet guys from the music schools were also at the competition, and I was approached by the New England Conservatory of Music and this place and that place. Manhattan gave me some money, so I ended up going there. When I showed up at Manhattan, they knew who I was because of the contest, in a way that they wouldn't have known otherwise.
I was a classical trumpet major at Manhattan, too. I played in the jazz band, but I studied with trumpeter Ray Mase from the American Brass Quintet, and I had private lessons, too. I was also in a group at school with the saxophonist Bob Mintzer, who was my combo teacher. He was really something, and he was also one of the people who encouraged me. I was starting to write at that point, and he said, "You know, you really have something special in your writing."
The jazz band director was not really very nice. He would yell at me every day, literally yell at me. I'm a pretty meek guy, and I was especially meek thenI was coming from Denver, living at the 34th Street YMCA, which was outjust, like, showing up in New York, living at the Y, and going to school. And he'd yell at me about this crazy Lester Bowie, Miles Davis trumpet stuff I was playing.
Then one day, the New York Times wrote a review of the jazz band and singled me out. Then everything changed; then I was the director's pet project. I remember that day being weird, too, because I couldn't find a New York Times! I didn't usually buy the paper because I didn't have any money, but that day I wanted to buy it because people kept saying, "You're in the New York Times!" I went around all day trying to buy one; I think I had a private lesson, and after my lesson I went by a bodega and finally they had a stack of New York Times, and I bought a half dozen of them and sent them home to my folks.
Then George Butler from Columbia Records called. You have to remember, in the mid-'80s people were getting signed to record deals, so it's like everything went wild for a little bit. But at the end of the year at Manhattan, I felt like the people I loved the most in New York hardly ever played there. I saw [pianist] Cecil Taylor play once; Lester Bowie played once; saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom played once, but that was about it.
But the great thing was that I took lessons from Jane Bloom and Lester Bowie while I was there. Jane Bloom was like my ultimate hero at that pointshe still is; I love Jane Ira Bloom. And Lester Bowie was my main trumpet hero. They were both kind enough to give me lessons, and they both really encouraged me, like "Yeah, you're on the right path, you're doing OK." More than anything, that's what they were doing. I also got to see some of Jane's compositions and see how she notated things and got certain things happening, and I tried to put that in the back of my mind a little. And sitting next to Lester and hearing all his articulations, he sounded just like those records: "Man, that's Lester Bowie, he's right there! Just like breaking out! Wow!"
They both were so kind and generous. You know, they didn't even really charge me anything; they were just like, "No, you're doing alright. You're in there." I remember I said to myself then, "If I ever get a job or start making money, I'm not going to charge people for lessons anymore." And so once I got hired at Metro State College in Denver full time, I stopped charging people for private lessons. It's just part of the continuum, to keep the thing going. So Jane Bloom and Lester Bowie were both important to me.
AAJ: So did you just go to Manhattan for a year, thinking you might or might not stay?
RM: I went thinking I would finish, actually, but the jazz director was so harsh, and also there was the thing about my heroes not playing in New York that much and so many people getting signed. I thought, "I can go back to Colorado and put a band together and still keep this thing going." But it didn't work out quite like that; I went back to Colorado and played and got better, and I played in the brass quintet at CU and stuff. But then, although George Butler was in touch, Miles was on Columbia, and Wynton [Marsalis] got signed, all that kind of faded away. Labels would check me out, but nobody really stepped forward. So then it took a while to generate something, and I just started doing my own music with Distance for Safety.