Ron Miles: Jazz Gentleman, Part 2

Florence Wetzel By

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

[Editor's Note: The second part of Florence Wetzel's extensive interview with Ron Miles covers the Colorado-based trumpeter's early performance years, and begins a chronological look at all of his solo releases, beginning with Distance for Safety (Prolific Records, 1987) and concluding with Heaven (Sterling Circle, 2002), his soft duet with guitarist Bill Frisell, with whom Miles has played, off and on, since the early 1990s. Part 3 concludes the interview tomorrow].

Chapter Index
  1. Distance for Safety
  2. Master's Degree and Teaching
  3. Witness
  4. Mercer Ellington
  5. Bill Frisell
  6. My Cruel Heart
  7. Woman's Day
  8. Ron Miles Trio
  9. Heaven

Distance for Safety

AAJ: So you came back to Denver in 1986, and not long afterward in 1987, you put together your first release, Distance for Safety. The album came out on Prolific Records, which was a Colorado label that was around from the late '80s through the mid-'90s. The record is eight songs that are all your original compositions, and it's mostly a trio with drummer Mark Fuller and bassist Mark Simon, plus one song with the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble.

This record doesn't always show up on your discographies on the Web and other places, but you recently rereleased it as a fundraising endeavor for the Denver nonprofit Mission Supports, which is run by Arnie Swenson, who was one of the people behind Prolific Records. So after all these years, Distance for Safety is back in circulation, and it's having a nice second life. Can you talk about this record and how it came into being?

RM: I was playing a lot with Mark Fuller in a band led by the composer Bruce Odland. Bruce had this big band in town with Fred Hess and all the horns in the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble, and the rhythm section players in Bruce's band were part of a new music scene, with Thinking Plague and some of these bands around town, kind of an art music scene. That scene also got me into pop music; that's the first time I'd ever heard of Ginger Baker, actually, because the drummers would tell me about Ginger Baker, and so I bought Horses and Trees (Celluloid, 1986), the record he did with bassist Bill Laswell.

So Mark Fuller and I were doing that music with Bruce Odland, and Mark Simon and I were in a band called the Worms, with Andy Weyl on piano, Keith Oxman on saxophone, and Paul Romaine on piano. That was more of a mainstreamy band that was playing around a lot. But Mark and I also would talk about all sorts of other music, so we put this trio together to do some different kinds of music.

Most of the music on the record, I think, was written while I was in New York, and then the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble shows up on some of that record, too. A lot of the music is grooves with these long melodies and not really too many chords or anything, but mostly more free playing. But it was really exciting and fun to play with those cats; I really miss that.

AAJ: So it's a big moment to do your first release. Did it feel monumental to you?

Ron Miles—Distance for SafetyRM: Oh, yeah! I mean, I remember getting the record and looking at the cover and just the whole thing. It only came out on CD recently, so at that time it was just on vinyl. So yeah, it was a really big deal to get a chance to do a record. Also, people wrote about it, and people were playing it on KGNU, so it seemed like it had a little bit of critical buzz. So that was pretty neat.

It was also great to have a band and to see if we could maybe develop something. Because, again, I think the thing about this music is that it's always communities or groups of musicians that make the music move forward. I mean, history books always cite the leader as the most important person, but it's always groups that move the music. I was learning all this stuff from these guys, and it was really, really helpful. It was also just helpful to write, to get going as a composer and have a group to write for, because that turned out to be a big part of my later records, too.

AAJ: This record is pretty free and avant-garde. The song "Whoring with My Pants On" seems reminiscent of Albert Ayler, and then there's the bonus track for the CD, called "Distance," which is a free solo trumpet that seems to echo trumpeter Bill Dixon in some ways.

RM: Oh, gosh, yes. At that point, I'm not even sure I'd heard much Albert Ayler yet; I became a huge, huge fan of Albert Ayler later, but I had only heard a little bit by then. But I'd certainly heard a lot of Braxton and the post-Ayler people. And Bill Dixon I'd heard at that point, certainly. So yeah, that was my powerhouse! I was just so into the avant-garde music of that time, Air and all those bands, so I'm sure you can hear them all over that music!

Master's Degree and Teaching

AAJ: You worked on a master's in music from 1986 to 1989 at University of Colorado at Boulder (CU). What impelled you to further your education at that point?

RM: When I was finishing up my first year at Manhattan, I got a teaching assistantship at CU, so I just came back here and finished up my degree at CU. I was playing in the faculty brass quintet, and I think I took composition classes, but I also took all sorts of other music classes. I thought maybe a degree would be good if I was going to audition for orchestras, and also I thought that being a teacher might be something that would happen in the future, so that was a little bit of it, too. All this stuff was still kind of floating around at that point; I hadn't really made any firm decisions yet.

AAJ: So, in 1988, you started teaching at Metropolitan State College in Denver, and you still work there to this day, so it was the beginning of a long relationship. Was teaching something you always imagined you'd do, or was this kind of a surprise?

RM: It was a surprise. I mean, honestly, I read about the job in the newspaper, because at that point Metro had to advertise all non-tenured gigs every year, whether there was an opening or not. So I went down there and I turned in my resume. It was a very small department at that point, and I kept talking to the receptionists, Virginia Downing and Patrice Balke. Eventually I said, "Is there actually a job here or not?" And they said, "Well, there really isn't, but we've got your resume."

So when I left, I found out later that they were like, "We like this guy! We should find something for him to do." It turns out one teacher didn't call back, actually, so they asked me to teach. I was still at CU at that point, so I was still riding the bus; I'd ride the bus up to Boulder, and then ride down to teach a class at Metro, then ride back to Boulder and do a concert—it was pretty wild at that point.

So yes, teaching was a bit of a surprise, but the department was so small, and I felt such a connection to the students. And I was learning so much, especially when I started to teach jazz history. I really got to get my early music together, and I got to see the continuum, particularly improvisers and composers; I really got into pianist Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington, obviously, and Louis Armstrong. I got to see that all this music was avant-garde, and that to me, being part of this tradition means that you have to find a way to make some music that really speaks to your time. Even some of the music that I was writing then, which was overly evocative of the avant-garde of the 1970s, I felt like that had to change because we weren't there anymore. Those were my immediate predecessors, and I just had to figure out how to encapsulate that music and make it work into my own vision. That coincided with the reawakening of my love for pop music, and then it all started to flow together.


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