Although Boston is not often associated with jazz, parts of the city have been infected with music's syncopating beat. Mulgrew Miller, jazz pianist and one-time Boston resident, returned last weekend to perform at a commemoration for his friend James Williams, a former Berklee College of Music instructor who passed away on July 20, 2004. Miller, a jazz phenom born in Greenwood, Mississippi, on August 13, 1955, remarkably started performing publicly at the age of nine. Miller's age puts him on the cusp of two distinctly different jazz generations - early and modern. The pianist has performed with, and learned from, both generations.
During the time of the early generation, jazz was an urban phenomena deeply rooted in the African American community. In order to learn jazz, you had to be taken in by a master, someone with years on the scene who was willing to school you. Unlike the modern generation, the earlier one had few universities providing jazz training. Instead, knowledge was passed down from one generation to another, skills were polished through live performance, and each musician became a thread woven into the collective tapestry known as jazz. When discussing the great jazz masters, names like Parker, Ellington, Monk, Basie, Blakey, and Davis quickly come to mind. However, there are many masters known only among the inner circles of jazz. James Williams is no exception. Williams had a tremendous impact on Mulgrew Miller, along with countless other musicians.
While Mulgrew Miller has learned from many significant bandleaders, including Betty Carter, Woody Shaw, and Art Blakey, he is quick to name James Williams as one of his greatest musical influences. In Miller's search to capture Williams' influence in words, he warmly said "I'll always view him as a musical mentor." However, Williams is only part of Miller's story.
"My father bought a piano when I was very young. I was about six years old." Miller recalls. "There was a house full of  kids and I guess it was sort of a residual thing left over from before we had television and radios." Miller elaborated by explaining how at one time in America's past, it was commonplace for families to gather together around a piano during the evening hours. People would sing along and sometimes young children would learn to play. Miller is one of them.
Amazingly, at only six years old, Miller was playing the melody lines to Church Hymns on his family's piano. "At that time my father vowed to get me a teacher, but it took a few years before one came into town," Miller said. He recalls that when he was eight, Mr. Albert Harrison, his first piano instructor, began teaching music in the Greenwood School System. "He's still teaching there today!" Mr. Miller exclaimed, while laughing "he's in his eighties now and he's thinking of retiring." By age nine, Miller had secured his first steady performance, playing in a local Church.
One day, at age 14, Miller heard jazz pianist Oscar Peterson on Joey Bishop's radio show. "Of course I was floored," Miller quietly said while thinking back. He recalls that Peterson played "Yesterday" by the Beatles and another fast, swinging number. It was at that very moment Mulgrew Miller knew he wanted to be a jazz musician.
Central to Miller's musical development is the fact that Greenwood was the home of Baldwin Pianos. "There was one local fellow who tuned pianos for Baldwin. He seemed like everyone else, but he had kind of a shadowy past," Miller said of a Greenwood character known as Boogaloo Ames (who can be heard on Cassandra Wilson's "Darkness on the Delta"). "He knew every standard in the book," Miller continued. "He used to talk about Paul Chambers...he knew a lot about the Detroit scene...if you spoke to him, you knew he had been to other places." With a fond tone in his voice, Miller added, "I hung out with him quite a bit." Miller also cites Ahmad Jamal, Earl Garner, and Art Tatum as jazz pianists whose works have influenced him. However, he cannot stress enough the importance of his interactions with James Williams and Donald Brown, both of whom attended Memphis State University alongside Miller.
"My first year was James' last year" Miller explains. "He was Mr. it!" Miller said laughing. "He was writing, arranging...he had a band...all the hip records. He was everything I wanted to be, really" Miller said of his colleague. In 1972, at only twenty-two years of age, James Williams began teaching in Boston at Berklee College of Music. He left in 1977 to tour with Art Bakey's Jazz Messengers, securing his position on the national jazz scene. Mulgrew Miller followed behind shortly.