A Fireside Chat with Roberto Miguel Miranda
Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.
Roberto Miguel Miranda: My father was my first music teacher. I really loved my father deeply and I wanted to be just like him and that is how I started playing music. I started playing my father's instrument. My father is a percussionist and a singer and I actually started singing when I was twelve years old playing percussion and to this day, I still play the conga drums. My dad played all of the Afro-Latin percussion instruments, the conga, the bongo, maracas, clave, and to this day, he has a great voice, baritone voice. But I didn't sing too long and got real interested in percussion and played congas for the first three and a half, four years, I played conga drums. My brother and I had a band. He was the trap drummer and I was the conguero. When I was about fourteen years old, I took a music class in junior high school and I first walked in and asked for a trumpet. I wanted to study trumpet and the band leader, who I found out later, actually taught Charles Mingus and Buddy Collette, he said that all of the trumpet positions were taken and so I asked about guitar and he said that guitar wasn't an orchestral instrument, but that he could use some bass players. That was when I was fourteen. I took the bass for one semester and left it alone, didn't touch it again for three, three and a half years. Then one day, the bassist in the band that my brother and I had couldn't play with us any longer. His dad wouldn't let him play in the band anymore and so because I had had one semester of string bass, I played the bass. The rest is history.
FJ: That childhood affinity for percussion does reveal itself in your bass playing.
RM: Yes, absolutely. I have heard it in my own playing. I see it come out every once in a while. When funk bass came out, the cats started using their thumbs and really hitting the bass. I related to that immediately. Then I started thinking about it and realized that Milt Hinton probably invented funk bass way back when he first started playing because he has been doing that for years.
FJ: I also hear some Mingus.
RM: Let me say that Charles Mingus is one of the musicians who I spent many years trying to sound exactly alike (laughing). There were other bass players who influenced me very deeply, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro. Believe it or not, there were two bass guitar players who influenced me very deeply, Jaco Pastorious and Stanley Clarke. Stanley influenced me on both bass guitar and upright bass.
FJ: Los Angeles is held in very high regard when developing original improvised music is concerned.
RM: Fortunately for me, I had the three mentors that I always talk about, Bobby Bradford, John Carter, and Horace Tapscott. Those guys were always trendsetter without being trendy. They, along with my father, have let me know what is truly important in life. Just like Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah, I have been able to live in the midst of all of this sin, but still understand that my relationship with God is the single most important thing and because of him, I have been able to keep my head on straight to some degree. Because of my belief in Jesus Christ and God sending me really wonderful teachers like my dad and John, Bob, and Horace, I have been able to keep the priorities straight. Lately, the Lord has been kind enough to allow me to play with Kenny Burrell, who is truly a master musician and who has taught me many, many things. I have just been fortunate that I have had good teachers. That helps keep me away from the trends and frankly, Fred, I don't think that, although LA is certainly the center of that kind of temptation, anywhere you live in the world, they are going to have those things that try to take you away from center. I think that it is only through being exposed to the truth, that you can remain centered or even know what the center is.
FJ: Give readers insight on the impact Bobby Bradford has had on you musically.
RM: Well, I remember one time when Bobby was talking about Arthur Blythe's sound because Arthur Blythe has this incredibly unique sound on alto saxophone and Bobby described Arthur's sound as a laser beam. Taking that description from Bobby Bradford and applying it to him, Bobby has always been able to remain completely focused musically speaking on what is important in the music. The way that he lets me and the people around him know that he is focused is that he writes tunes, this is just one example, but Bobby, compositionally speaking has remained focused in terms of being able to write tunes and actually writing tunes that are miniature works of art prior to the improvisation and the improvisational approach, just the music by itself, just the head, just the written part is this miniature masterpiece. Another way he lets us know that is every once in a while, Bobby plays a note. It might be behind somebody else's solo or in the middle of a collective improvisation where everybody is playing twenty or thirty notes and Bob just picks one note or one motif and it is the fattest, juiciest, most beautiful note that he could have picked, he puts it in absolutely the most funkiest, most danceable, most intelligent place he could have put it. He continues to do that and he has done that ever since I have known him. Also, at some point, during almost every performance that we play with that band, Bob manages to be at a place and help the band be at a place where everything is just happening. Bradford is a gift, Fred. He is a gift to the music. The cat is just a creative and sensitive human being and his art reflects that reality.
FJ: And Horace Tapscott, who to me, is an icon of the music.
RM: Horace was like that also. For some reason, the term griot comes to mind. He was an Afro-American jazz griot because he certainly kept the history of the music from the very beginnings, all the way up to and including the day he died. John was the same way. At some point, they will go all the way back to the beginnings of the music and they will bring it up to today. We might do all of that in one composition. All of these guys were also brilliant instrumentalists, brilliant. They were truly fine technicians, but they never let the numbers get in the way of the music. I always really appreciated that about them. The music was more important than the numbers and they were committed to continually bring the numbers to the high level. I have been blessed. God has been good to me.
FJ: Recently, Henry Grimes was found to have been living in Los Angeles for the past three plus decades and both of you played a gig featuring three bass players.
RM: Yeah, we are doing a three bass thing along with Nels and Alex Cline. For one thing, it helps me to realize and know that God requires respect for the elders. Henry is sixty-eight years old. The person who really helped bring him out of retirement, he is just going to turn eighteen. He fell in love with Pharoah Sanders and fell in love with Henry's playing and this is a guy who has been studying with me know for three years and is one of my best students. Not only is he a student of the bass, he is a student of what you do for the community that you become a part of. Not only are you a musician in this community, you are a member of the community. He took it upon himself to help Henry. Here you have this young, eighteen-year-old kid hanging out with this sixty-eight-year-old master jazz bassist and there is this reverence there. That in itself is to me, a validation that God expects and demands respect from the young folks to the elders. The elders are there to help the young folks.
FJ: Has it been a challenge to be spiritual in a secular industry?
RM: That is what the war, the inner war is all about. We are constantly attacked by Satan and his demons in the form of making money or becoming famous. You are always on the frontline, but thanks to Jesus Christ, we know who will ultimately be victorious and as long as we follow our captain and remain true to him, we know the ultimate outcome. There is hope in that and that is one of the things that helps me to continue to engage in the battle.
FJ: Why have you not recorded more?
RM: The opportunities have not presented themselves. To be quite honest with you, Fred, I was really taken aback and surprised that people who were going to jump at the opportunity to put out my album, didn't. The album includes some of the finest musicians in jazz music, the late Billy Higgins, Kenny Burrell, Billy Childs. These are guys who people know about. Then it includes some of the finest musicians who people don't know about, Charles Owens, Bobby Bradford, and Don Littleton. I thought that people were going to pick this album up because anybody who knows anything about the music is going to want to pick this album out. I sent out twenty letters and I may have gone about it in the wrong way, but I didn't get one letter back. Actually, I got one and it was a letter of rejection. I put it out myself and to this day, I am looking for a distribution deal. But in spite of all of that, I am happy and to top it all off, I am saved. What am I going to complain about? I am a happy man.
FJ: And the future?
RM: I have a couple of dates at the LA County Museum of Art. I will be there with Bobby Bradford's group and also with Theo Saunders. There is also a new venue opening up in Pasadena called the Boston Court Theater and I will be there with my trio July 18 and 19. Currently my trio is Don Littleton on drums and percussion and Nate Morgan on piano.