Allison Miller: Breaking Ground

Franz A. Matzner By

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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.

Chapter Index
  1. Meeting the Drums
  2. Family
  3. New York Education
  4. Drum Style
  5. Strong Women

Meeting the Drums

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 there—and 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 Sugar—we called her Sugar or Money; I don't know why we called her that but those were her nicknames—she 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 set—one 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.

New York Education

AM: When I moved back to DC after finishing school I was living with [my parents] and gigging in DC. I got a call from a pianist friend in New York to go up there, and then I started going pretty frequently and just loved it. In my mind I had told myself that I wanted to stay in DC and work on my art for five more years before moving to New York. But then when I started gigging in NY I couldn't get enough of it; I moved there within two months of graduating college. I had made no plans, but it just worked out. A friend of a friend had an apartment available in the city. Back in the mid-nineties you could do that for pretty cheap. It kind of just fell in my lap and I just went for it.

I had saved up some money and moved. And somehow it just worked out. I played in subways, any session I could get. Whenever my phone rang, I took the gig no matter what it was. That got me a lot of playing experience and threw me into being an adult making a living playing. It wasn't easy at all. I probably could not go back to my lifestyle then and how I was living.

But it was fun. I was 21 and I loved the city and the '90s were a really good time in NY. A good time to hang out, to hear music every night. There were a lot of good jam sessions back then where you could just go and play. I would go and play and get my butt kicked. I would learn everyday about the history of the music, how to play with other people.

New York was a really great place for me when I was young. It humbled me. I threw myself into a city with two thousand drummers who were better than me—or at least different from me musically. It was really humbling. When I finished college I definitely had a sense that I had learned it all. Then I moved to New York and realized, 'Oh, wait I haven't learned anything yet!"

Drum Style

AAJ: Let's talk a little about your playing style. You've had great success in the jazz world, but clearly also parallel success in other genres, particularly singer/songwriter. Comparing those two, what keeps you focused on jazz drumming?

AM: Those two genres fulfill two very different things for me. Jazz—or I like to say creative, improvised music—that is my first love. That is why I fell in love with the drums. I love the ergonomics of jazz drumming. I love the music. I love listening to the music. When I am home that is the type of music I usually listen to. It fulfills the need for interplay and musical communication with other musicians on stage which is to me why music is music.

Just last night I played a completely free jazz, avant-garde gig. We'd never rehearsed. We don't have any music. We just get up there and play. To me that is the epitome of music. When three people can get on stage and communicate musically, talk to one another back and forth, with their instruments. That is the epitome of music.

Jazz music really fulfills that side of me. I love the feel of jazz. I love the Count Basie. I love Duke Ellington. I love Sunny Murray. Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell duos. I love the whole gamut of the music—whether swinging or straight or free to me it is just all beautiful and it hits me in the soul.

Singer/songwriter music fulfills the side of me that was before I got into jazz. I did listen to a lot of singer/songwriters when I was younger and I do now as well because I [also] play that kind of music. My first love of any kind of music was Prince, Michael Jackson, Joni Mitchell,Jimi Hendrix. I loved all those artists so much. For me, it fulfils that other side of me that likes a really well written song, with good lyrics, with a good groove that is danceable.

The other thing I love about singer/songwriter music is when a singer makes an album that is really well produced. I produce as well [and] I love being in the studio and finding the right guitar line to go under a lyric, the perfect drum part to fit the lyrics. I love finding the right sound for a song. The beauty of singer/songwriter music to me is that when you are playing the drums—and often the drum parts are fairly simple and sparse, I actually love space in drumming—I love finding the right timbre for a song. I could put a two and four-backbeat groove under a handful of songs, but each one I treat with a different snare drum sound or a different cymbal sound, or make the snare sound rattley. These little intricacies that you can do to change the timbre and the feel. I think my OCD side really enjoys the process of finding the right part.

AAJ: I did notice that you pay a lot of attention to the sound. It was interesting to hear you within one song slightly shifting the snare sound. One thing I also noticed is your brushwork. It seemed to me that you use your brushes differently than many others and in different contexts. Often it's like here's the ballad and out comes the brushes. But you seem to use them more frequently and more forcefully. It was a real pleasure to listen to.

AM: I get what you're saying that the brushes are always pulled out with ballads. But I love the sound of brushes on a drum head. I've always resonated to that sound and I do choose to use them more forcefully. It is not something I actually think about that much. Right in that moment I hear brushes and pick them up. I remember that night actually, it was our first show. I think I took a solo on brushes that night. I hadn't planned on it, but the brushes were in my hand at that time and instead of switching I thought, "Why not?" and it felt really good for me.

When it comes down to it playing brushes is more difficult than using sticks. It takes more muscle control. So I have all my students practice their drum rudiments with brushes. There is a particular exercise that I do that I teach my students as well. "Alan Dawson Rudimental Rituals." It is about a twenty minute exercise that Alan Dawson the great drummer wrote. Dawson taught Tony Williams, Terri Lyne Carrington, so many great drummers. And I studied with a drummer that studied with him. We all learned this rudimentary ritual which is a great exercise. And I have all my students do it with brushes. That really improves brush playing.



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