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Ron Miles: Jazz Gentleman, Part 2

Florence Wetzel By

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Ron Miles—WitnessWitness

AAJ: So your next release is Witness, which was recorded in 1989 and released in 1990 on the Colorado-based label Capri. It's an amazing group on this record: Art Lande on piano, Fred Hess on tenor and flute, Ken Walker on bass and Bruno Carr on drums. Bruno Carr was a heavy hitter! He played with so many great people—the singers Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, flautist Herbie Mann—so many amazing musicians.

RM: Oh gosh, he sure was. He was amazing.

AAJ: So how did this project come about with that personnel in particular?

RM: Well, Tom Burns, the record producer who runs Capri Records, we talked about doing something together, and I just loved all these guys' playing. I mean, it was pretty scary to call them all up, actually, and ask them to play with me. But they all agreed. Art and Bruno and Ken were so supportive, and Fred and I obviously already had a long relationship.

In some ways, this record was different from a lot of the other releases I did, because it actually features more songs I didn't write. I think I only wrote a couple of the songs: "Witness," "Just Like You (I Don't Want to Be)" and "Our Time."

AAJ: Right, you have those three tunes, and then you also have pianist Thelonious Monk's "Ugly Beauty" and composer Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing." You also have bassist Charles Mingus's "Pithecanthropus Erectus"; Howard Mandel, who wrote the liner notes, said that was a bold choice because it's not often recorded.

RM: I was really getting into Mingus at that point. I think maybe even Art and I talked about that song. Art also wrote some other parts on "Witness," too; he wrote some chords that he wanted to play over on his solo.

And so, yeah, we went in and we played live. It was really fun to do. We only did a handful of gigs with that band, but just to play with those musicians that great, it was really something for me. Also, being in a swing like Bruno Carr's was just pretty amazing. You know, when he got sick near the end, he told me, "I want to make you a star!" He was just trying to convey to me that I was doing something different, and he really wanted to see if he could help. It really meant a lot to me that Bruno would say that, because I never knew if he even liked my playing! I kind of wondered sometimes; I did all these crazy shrieks and everything, and he was like, "What the heck?" But we would talk sometimes, and you know he played with guitarist Sonny Sharrock and a lot of folks through the years, so he heard a lot of shriekin'! But he was a really strong, powerful man, and just a beautiful, beautiful player. And Art, of course, he's a legend around here, and Kenny, too. So that was really something.

AAJ: Another thing that's really striking about your musical life is the many long-term relationships you've maintained. This record was done with these musicians so long ago, and you still play with them here in town.

RM: I think that's been the blessing about being around Denver, for sure. Because I feel sometimes that my trajectory has been pretty unusual in that I've been able to stay here and still branch out. I think that sometimes when you're here, you assume you're just going to be here and you're just going to work in a network of musicians around here. And that's great because there's lot of great musicians here!

So these long-term relationships that I've set up here have been really some of the most important ones ever. The other stuff that I travel to do is gravy and great, too, but the relationships here and the connections with the scene here in Colorado is really primary to me. To me, that's what you're supposed to do with whatever you do when you get out to be an adult—to see if you can make a positive contribution to the community that you're in, whatever that is. We play music, so that's what we do.

Mercer Ellington

AAJ: Your next release as a leader isn't until 1996, but some important things happened to you in the early '90s. One of these is your time with Mercer Ellington and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. You met him in 1992 when you were in Italy playing with the show Sophisticated Ladies?

RM: Yes, that was the year after my wife, Kari, and I got married. I got a call to go play the jazz trumpet chair in Sophisticated Ladies in this Italian tour. And you know, I was avant-garded out at this point, so doing a show was like, "I don't know if I can really do that kind of thing!" But they said Mercer Ellington was conducting it, and at this point, too, we'd started playing a lot of transcriptions of early music in the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble, because Fred had been going to Sandpoint Jazz Institute during the summer, with composer Gunther Schuller and Wynton [Marsalis]. Fred had been bringing back Jelly Roll Morton music, and I'd gotten deep in it; I remember playing "Dead Man Blues," the cornetist George Mitchell's solo. One time, Fred played a tape of the group doing this tune to the journalist Martin Williams, and Martin Williams said, "It sounds good, but the trumpet player sounds too Armstrong." I was like, "OK," and so I really got into George Mitchell's rhythm, kind of checking that out.

So when I got the offer for the tour in Italy, I was like, "Oh man, a chance to play with Mercer Ellington and play some of these songs," some of which I had played before with Fred. I said, "Well, can my wife come?" and they said she could. So it was about three weeks, and Mercer conducted the first couple weeks. And it was great. The first day we got there, we had a rehearsal that day; we just checked into the hotel, and they said, "Rehearsal in an hour!" I was like, "Man, these guys are hard-core!"

So I played with the band at that first rehearsal, and afterward Mercer came up to me and said, "Man, where'd you get that growl from?" I said, "I've been listening to trumpeters Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams." And at the shows, Mercer was great; he just let me blow. There'd be all these written parts, but he'd say, "Just go for a while, just play." So I was like, "This is fun! This is a great show! I get to improvise all night long!" But when he left, I found it wasn't so much fun because a new conductor came in, and when I started playing, he was like, "Stop!"

But before Mercer left, he said, "I'm going to call you to play when I get home." I said, "OK." So the next day I got a call in the hotel on the payphone, saying, "We represent Mercer Ellington. Can you do these gigs when you get back home?" And actually I couldn't do them, so I thought it was all over, but they called back again when I got home. The first gig I did with them, I think, was in Atlanta with the Atlanta Symphony, and they had left all the music in New York! But I knew what to do; I was ready, and so I played. I went up there and I played on "Rockin' in Rhythm" and all these tunes. The next gig was with singer Tony Bennett, in some place, and that time they had the music! Then they asked me to do a tour of Japan for about three weeks, and for a year I did a handful of dates with them. Again, I'm not based in New York, and so the fact that they would ask me to go was really quite nice.

And I learned a lot. I remember pulling out a piece of music, "Mood Indigo," and it was handwritten by Duke, and it said "Cootie" in the left-hand corner. I was just like, man—I just looked at that, just looked at it. Wow! I can't believe it. It didn't have the melody; it just said, "Play the melody" in words, and then it had some chord tones to play, and that was the part. That was really something to just be a part of that experience. And Mercer was great; he would tell me stories, and it was a really, really, really good time.

AAJ: That used to be the way that musicians came up, apprenticing in a big band. It's a rare experience now, and it's cool that you got to have that experience, and in that band!

RM: Oh, it is. And there were still a handful of people that played with Duke that were still in the band, maybe four or five people. The bass trombone player Chuck Connors was still there, and I sat right behind him.

You know, this whole apprenticeship idea, I think that was one of the things that got a little confused in the '80s when all these young guys were getting signed, and I was almost getting signed, too. It was like you didn't have to do that apprenticeship anymore; you just came out like in pop music, and you were a star. But it's so important to play in groups like that; you learn so much just by being around the older musicians. I learned sometimes what not to do, too, so that's also an important part of it! It was a great experience.


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