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.

Strong Women

AAJ: I'd like to turn to your new album, Boom Tic Boom. In the press release for its debut you explained that it was inspired by important women in your life. Can you elaborate a little more about that?

AM: I am blessed to have some really, really great friends. I mean, I have great female and male friends. But at the time I wrote the music for the record I didn't say, "I'm gonna write a record for all the inspirational, radical, powerful women in my life." I just started writing the music and it turned out that it was all the women I was hanging out with during that time period that were inspiring me.

For example, "Big and Lovely." I wrote that song for my great friend Toshi Reagon, who is from DC. She is a great singer/songwriter and probably one of the most powerful performers you'll ever see. We hang out a lot when we're in town. She's a touring musician too, so we both have a lot of free time when we are home and we like to eat really good food, so we go out a lot and eat. We were hanging out one night and we had this amazing feast at this little French bistro down the street from where we live. The next morning I woke up and that song just came out. And it was because I was thinking of Toshi. It directly related to her because we had just had this great night.

The song "Cheyenne," the first song on the record, I wrote for my really good friend, the great drummer Jen Gilleran, from Colorado. We had been hanging out in Cheyenne and that song came out. It wasn't intentional or planned. I didn't even realize that all these women had inspired me until after I wrote the music. I thought, "Oh my gosh, this song is totally because of her. This one is because o f my mom, because she is amazing. This is because of my sisters." It just came out that way.

I also have a lot of really radical, feminist powerful, political friends of mine. So we are always getting into these huge debates [laughs].

AAJ: Let's talk about that a bit—after all I'm writing from a political town. One thing I noticed at the show is that there were a lot of lesbian couples in the crowd. It was really refreshing to see that in a DC venue, especially since there were also a lot of people there who were coming to see a night of jazz. It made for an interesting mix of folks, and an unusual one. I'm wondering what your reaction is to a scene like?

AM: I love the fact that lesbians come out to hear me play jazz. Jazz is sophisticated music. It's not always easy to listen to so the masses aren't drawn to it. Unfortunately, neither is the media these days. I feel like it is a dying art form. Maybe not dying, but it doesn't get the kudos it deserves. So if I can be a transport or a vessel to turn people who wouldn't normally find jazz in their life onto it, then I'm doing my job.

I feel like these people come because I am out and I am in the media. I've played for iconic feminist singers like Ani Difranco and famous out singers like Brandi Carlile now. I'm in this community that is very homocentric and I have fans. Those people are hard core fans. And they are just fans of me. Whatever music I am playing they are into. I love that.

And actually at that gig in particular there were a lot of women there. More than a lot of shows we did that week. And a lot of those women bought CDs. I didn't think they would. I thought they would say, "This music is too weird for me." But everybody was super into it. I loved it. I love it.

AAJ: It was very inspiring to see that different blend of people. For the usual jazz fans too, who were looking around and thinking, "There's something different about this crowd." I think that is a positive as well.

AM: Yeah. And there were a lot of young people as well. There was a handful of really young guys there as well, which I thought was fun. I've done so much teaching down in that area that I also have these high school-aged boys who are into it as well, which is fun.

AAJ: In the past you have commented on the challenges of being a female drummer. You must get this question all the time, but do you think the challenge of being an out, woman drummer in the jazz world, do you think that continues to be a challenge for people or are things changing?

AM: I do think it is changing, but it is still a challenge. I like to say that until the bandstand looks like a typical block in New York City we still have a long way to go. Where you can go hear a band that is every color and gender on stage. I think it is way easier for let's say a twenty year-old female drummer now than it was for me when I was twenty. And it was way easier for me when I was twenty than it was for Terri Lyn Carrington, or Cindy Blackman, or Geri Allen, or any of these great masters.

But we have a long way to go. The way to change it is to reach out. To make sure that women like myself who are out there making a living playing music reach out to kids—female and male—to show them that yes, women fit in on the drums. To make it a regular image. Because it is all about image. Once the younger generation that doesn't know the difference thinks it's normal to see a woman on drums than it will become normal.

To me it's totally normal. I never even thought about it until I was like twenty-one and people started saying 'It's odd that you are a female drummer' And I would say, "Really? Why? It's all I can ever imagine doing."

Selected Discography

Allison Miller, Boom Tic Boom (Foxhaven Records, 2010)

Todd Sickafoose, Tiny Resistors (Cryptogramphone, 2008)

Agrazing Maze, At the End of the Day (Foxhaven Records, 2005)

Allison Miller, 5am Stroll (Foxhaven Records, 2004)

Photo Credit

Pages 1: Smith Banfield

Page 2-3: Joanne Weisner

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