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Marcus Miller: America's AmBASSadoor

Jim Worsley By

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Getting phone calls from South Africans thanking me for writing "Tutu" and hearing how much support and encouragement that song gave them when they were fighting against apartheid is a very special feeling. —Marcus Miller
Marcus Miller is most often described as a jazz, funk, soul, fusion, and R&B bassist. As much as that is accurate, it is a description that falls well short of the mark. Miller is a high-end musical sponge who manages to incorporate today's cultures and rhythms into his compositions, layered within the framework of sound he has polished over the past four decades.

He is perhaps best known as a musician in connection with Miles Davis, David Sanborn, Luther Vandross, and Herbie Hancock. Within the industry, he is acclaimed and in high demand for his arranging, producing, and compositional skills. Over the years, Miller's substantial journey has led to genre-defying excellence in music and character defining excellence in life.

The same passion and enthusiasm he has for music is found in his concerns for humanity, communication, and education. The following is a recent dialogue that illuminates Miller's passion. It was a joyous conversation that touched on the past, the present, family, history, our world, and, of course, music.

All About Jazz: Just last night you were performing at the Hollywood Bowl with Herbie Hancock and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. I believe that it was a one-hundredth-anniversary celebration for the LA Philharmonic.

Marcus Miller: Exactly, the one-hundredth-anniversary of the LA Philharmonic. They had a few different artists performing with the orchestra. Katy Perry, John Williams, and Herbie Hancock among them. With Herbie, we did an orchestral version of "Rock It" with a rhythm section. It was pretty cool. You've been to the Hollywood Bowl(stated as an assumption, not a question).

AAJ: Yes I have. It's a special venue.

MM: Very cool, very nice. Then we are headed to Kuwait tomorrow to do two gigs with Herbie. Every once in a while Herbie will ask me to play a few gigs, and I love to do it. It's nice sometimes to just be the bassist and not have to worry about the whole leadership thing.

AAJ: I can understand that. The Kuwait shows will be more of a traditional quintet?

MM: Yes, that's right: guitarist Lionel Loueke, drummer Trevor Lawrence Jr. , and keyboardist/saxophonist Terrace Martin (in addition to Hancock and Miller).

AAJ: Do you find it somewhere between challenging and interesting to merge the set-in-stone arrangements of an orchestra with the improvisation and inventiveness of jazz?

MM: The secret is with the conductor. If you can have a relationship with him, and he understands how improvisation works, it really comes down to as simple as when we get to the letter D, have the orchestra stop playing, and we will let you know when it is time to start playing and resume with letter D on the charts. So we can open up a window, is what I call it, to improvise and do our thing. And then we give them a cue they can come back in with the orchestrated set arrangements. So, it's really having a series of windows and opportunities to let the band improvise before the orchestra continues. It's really the same as with a big band. Big bands play arrangements but there is always an area for a solo. Sometimes the big band will come in with a little lift underneath the guy's solo. But yeah with an orchestra that is the first thing you have to figure out. It doesn't take long because when you are at your first rehearsal you will have your first train wreck. You take a break and figure out how to resolve the issue. It's not as difficult as before because a lot of the orchestra members now have a familiarity with jazz. Before, there were some pretty tall walls between the two disciplines. Now you have guys coming over and saying that they really like what you did with this or that.

AAJ: I've had the pleasure of seeing and hearing you play live several times. That includes at least three dynamic shows well into the past with David Sanborn, Hiram Bullock, and Omar Hakim. Firstly, if you could comment on your innate chemistry with Sanborn, and also is it true that you and Hakim went to high school together?

MM: Yes, well, I'll answer the second part first. Omar and I met in high school. We went to La Guardia school at the time. La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts was split into two campuses. One was for musicians and dancers, and the other for musicians and artists. Omar and I both went to the one for musicians and artists. Our campus was uptown in Harlem. Since then they have consolidated the two and they are at Lincoln Center. Omar was an amazing drummer even back in high school. None of us could believe how good he was, and I basically just attached to him. He introduced me to a whole set of talented musicians that really helped my development.

AAJ: That would be back when you all were playing in your basements?

MM: Yeah man, we had a group called Harlem River Drive that was pretty cool. We both did a lot of playing and developing together. Then I was playing with Mike Mainieri. You know that guy, Mike Mainieri?

AAJ: Yes, plays the vibes.

MM: Yes, and he was getting ready to go to Japan and play with a guitarist named Kazumi Watanabe. He asked me to recommend a drummer. I told him that he needed to hire my boy Omar. He said that he didn't have a lot time for auditions and asked me if I was sure. Mike ended up loving Omar. They played together for a while. That led to Omar becoming part of Weather Report. So then I had a lot of connections of my own, and we were able to help each other with our careers. In terms of David Sanborn, coming from New York the guys I grew up with, you were judged by how complete of a musician you were. You really had to put in your time. You had to be deep into the song. The straight-ahead jazz, the Latin, the Caribbean, etc. If you were limited to one or the other, it was kind of a mark against you. One of those categories is that you need to know how to make pop music with some depth to it. For us, it was really the complete wing. If you could sneak some really interesting harmony into a song that appealed to a lot of people, like Duke Ellington, like Stevie Wonder, that was the ultimate. So for me working with Sanborn I took that kind of mentality to it. So, it was going to be funky and all that, but if you wanted to look deeper into the music there were going to be some interesting things that could appeal to you on a deeper level. So, Sanborn was the perfect voice to create that kind of sound. In the eighties, I had access to three of the most incredible voices of that era. I'm talking about Miles Davis, David Sanborn, and Luther Vandross. All three of them were very influential with their instruments. Of course, by instrument I mean Luther with his voice, Miles with his trumpet, and David with his sax. As a composer, it was an incredible period. Just to be able to write something and know that the guy that was going to be interpreting the melody was a genius.

AAJ: I know that your father was a pianist. What I didn't know until recently is that you are related to the great Wynton Kelly. Tell us about being raised in such a rich musical environment.

MM: My dad's dad, my grandfather, was a minister in the church that Marcus Garvey started called the African Orthodox Episcopal Church. He was also a pianist from a Trinidadian heritage. So he played church music and he played calypso. My dad played the pipe organ. That was his weekend gig. During the week he drove the F train in New York. On the weekends, he played church services, weddings, and that sort of thing. He was incredible on the pipe organ with the bass pedals, the drawbars, and just pulling out the stops. His cousin was Wynton Kelly. As they grew up, their job was to alternate Sundays in my grandfather's church. My dad would play one Sunday and Wynton the next. Wynton had such a remarkable ear that he would play the whole church service by ear. He would just memorize the whole thing. Eventually Wynton started missing his Sundays because he started getting gigs when he was about fourteen years old. He was working pretty steady with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band and with Dinah Washington. Eventually, he started playing with Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery. So, everyone was, of course, very proud of him. But also all our aunts sang and there was just music all around. I didn't even realize, to be honest with you, that it was a musical family because I wasn't exposed to anyone else's family.

AAJ: Yes, I can understand that. It was just the norm for you.

MM: Exactly. We all got together on the weekends and sang and played for each other. My first big performance was on the clarinet before the family. And it was a big deal. So, it was just a part of our life. You realize how beautiful it was in retrospect. And then for me, when I was about ten years old, I started hearing groups like the Jackson Five. Kids my age, that were already professionals, and I said I would love to do that, I love music anyways. But I didn't know it could be so cool!

AAJ: Who were the bass players that you listened to at an early age that inspired you?

MM: Well, first I thought that Jermaine Jackson, Michael's brother, was the baddest fourteen-year-old bassist on the face of the planet because of all those bass lines.

AAJ: I suppose until you realized it wasn't really him.

MM: Yeah it wasn't really him. But I still give Jermaine a lot of credit because playing live it was him, and he had to do those steps and sing his part. But it was James Jamerson on those records. Sometimes it was Wilton Felder. You know that name?

AAJ: Yes, my first thought is of him playing sax with The Crusaders.

MM: Right, and he was also a great bassist, and he would do sessions for Motown. What I've heard is that Wilton is playing on some of those Jackson Five sessions. The Motown bass sound was really the thing in the late sixties into the early seventies. So I started playing bass with that influence. Then, all the funk bands like Kool & The Gang, and Mandrill, and the Issac Hayes bass lines, and about a million others came along. It was the golden era of bass lines in soul music. That's what drew me to it. Then we heard Larry Graham with his plucking style, and, oh man!

AAJ: Graham Central Station.

MM: Yes exactly, Graham Central Station. That sound was dynamic. The Motown sound was smooth, rhythmic, and kind of bubbly. Graham's stuff was just so percussive, and for a young musician, I was, oh man, I got to get some of that. Everyone in my neighborhood was really into that. After that, Stanley Clarke took the bass in another direction. That was exciting. Then Jaco Pastorius came around, and I got really turned onto that and started playing a lot of fretless bass. Anthony Jackson was an influence, as was Paul Jackson of the Headhunters. I kept my ears wide open. Then one day, I'm a junior in high school, and Omar says that it's time for us to stop listening to people. And I said, "Now why would we ever want to do that?" He said that it was time for us to find our own voice. It was the first time I was introduced to the idea of trying to find your own thing. So, I didn't do it right there in my junior year, but I eventually weaned myself from listening to my heroes. That takes a while to trust yourself to find something on your own.
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