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Ron Miles: Jazz Gentleman, Part 3

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Practicing and Composing

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 line—so 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 part—those 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.

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