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Ron Miles: Jazz Gentleman, Part 3

Florence Wetzel By

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Thoughts on Performing

AAJ: So in terms of the second aspect of being a musician, what's been the evolution of your experience as a performer? Did performing feel natural to you, or is it something you had to work on?

RM: Oh, I think it's something I'm still working on a lot. And I must say that jazz and improvising performances have always felt more natural; whenever I have to play a concerto, I'm incredibly nervous. The walk from the dressing room to the stage is like the walk to the gallows, quite honestly! Every time I walk out there to do a concerto, I keep thinking, "I'll never do this again!" Then you start playing and it's fine, but it's never really felt as comfortable as being in an improvising situation.

And to that point, a couple weeks ago I was in Germany. I played Juan Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez"; it was Gil Evans' arrangement for Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960), which was in a more classical context. But I wasn't nervous at all; it felt totally natural to me. But the Haydn Trumpet Concerto still kind of freaks me out a little bit even though I've probably played it a dozen times.

I play with my eyes closed much of the time, and I remember not even that long ago I looked up and realized, "Wow, everybody's looking at me!" Then I realized, "Well, what do you do when you're in the audience? I'm looking at people, too; I guess that's what we do!" It just kind of clicked in my mind: "Wow, everybody's just looking right at me!"

But I think after a while you come to grips that you are who you are in the performance. Some people are really comfortable and extroverted, and some people are introverted. And when we think of the people that we love as performers, we embrace all those different types of performers. So you just figure out that people are there because they like the music, and as long as you're honest, it should be good.

Self-Promotion and Careers

AAJ: Thinking about the issue of promotion and the idea of a career, nowadays it seems for the most part that the gatekeepers at the big labels are gone, and self-promotion is necessary. How do you negotiate that, and what advice do you give to your students about this issue?

RM: You know, I'm probably not the best person to answer this, because I'm not very good at that. I feel like, for the most part, I've been very fortunate in that people have been very helpful to me over the course of time. I read about people who do stuff by themselves, and I'm always so impressed because that hasn't been my story at all; people have always given me guidance or a helping hand, so I've been very fortunate in that regard.

As much as anything, I think it starts with just developing an interest in your art, or whatever it is, in your own community, and going out and trying to meet like-minded people, and just being a part of the community. It's not only having people be interested in your stuff, but being interested in other people's stuff, too. That's part of the idea. And then from there, things have a chance to grow.

That's where I think the rock 'n' roll or punk aesthetic comes through; that's what alternative music bands have done forever. I think that sometimes art music bands believe there's a system in place that says, "Well, you're great," then this system is set up for people to acknowledge your greatness, and that's how it works. They don't think it's just getting down and drawing up a poster, and then playing at the coffee shop and generating a buzz from your friends and having things go from there.

But I think that's something I see happening more and more, and I think it's a healthy thing. I think that's one of the things the big labels kind of squashed, because everybody was going for that big contract and skipping over all these other things—like we were talking about apprenticeship being one of those things that people skipped over. And so I think that's the thing I notice.

For the most part, I just tell my students to do it for the right reasons—because you love music and you respect your audience and you respect the people that play the music, who came before you. And again, like we talked about with the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble, if no one comes, you still play, and it'll work out. Because in the end, those gatekeepers never had the music, anyway; you always had the music. That won't ever change. But you have to have the music first! You can't just expect to have the trappings of being a musician or an artist; you have to make the sacrifices and have the commitment, and if you do that, something will happen.

The Colorado Sound

AAJ: There's something that you've mentioned in a few interviews as the "Colorado sound" in jazz. You attribute that special sound to growing up here, and to the different kinds of music that are available. Could you speak a bit about that?

RM: When I was coming up, and even still today, I think that if you were in a more cosmopolitan place than Denver, you could be into a specific type of music and only do that kind of music. In New York and the bigger cities, there's enough of an audience that you could say, "I want to play post-Ayler acoustic jazz music," and there's enough people so that you can generate a bit of a buzz. But here, there's not quite that kind of scene.

So again, like we talked about, it's not only having people be interested in your music, but it's you being interested in other people's music. And that gets you checking out these other bands, like, "What bands are you into?" "Well, I'm into this." "OK, let me check that out." And that can turn into: "Hey, I need somebody to play on this session; could you do that?" "Yeah, I can play here." "Great." So there's that kind of back and forth between different types of musicians.

Like when I played with Bruce Odland, I didn't know who the Talking Heads or those kinds of bands were, because I wasn't really into pop music that much. Or, like I said, I didn't know who Ginger Baker was, or Cream or Hendrix or any of those guys. But because I was playing with these different musicians, I began to see, "Oh, that's really great music; I really like that." And so the Colorado sound comes from that kind of eclecticism.

But also the thing that I think makes the eclecticism here so powerful is that it's an eclecticism that seems to pick the good stuff—at least the good stuff for people out here, the things that we seem to like. It's the kind of commonalities between Public Enemy and Hank Williams and Scott Joplin, then all this other music, like Bjork. That can all be in there, like, "OK, that's where we get there." So that seems to be what's unique about this kind of place. When I think about the musicians that come out of here that have gone on to great things—like Rudy Royston, the pianist and keyboardist Erik Deutsch, and even the non-jazz bands from here—that's something that we all share.

There's also this sense about melody being really, really important; the music is essentially melodic music. And new melodies are always what makes the music move forward—that and bands. I mean, Charlie Parker's melodies sound like Charlie Parker blowing; Jelly Roll Morton's melodies sound like Jelly Roll Morton blowing, or same with Duke Ellington. So it's like you come up with a melodic world and habit, and that allows people to get on to that musical world.

AAJ: As you mentioned, there's this amazing crop of Colorado-raised or Colorado-trained musicians who are out in the world now. You mentioned Erik Deutsch and Rudy Royston, and there's also trumpeters Nate Wooley and Jose Oreta, drummer Colin Stranahan, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and guitarist Kaveh Rastegar from Kneebody. In addition to those players, there's also the current Colorado scene, where there's wonderful people who have been around for decades, many whom you've mentioned in this interview, and then there's all these great new people coming up, like guitarist Dave Devine, bassist Matt Smiley, saxophonist Josh Quinlan, trumpeter John Lake, pianist Steve Denny, vibraphonist Greg Harris, singer Kim Dawson, the group Three Squared—there's so many! Could you speak a bit about the scene here in Colorado for young musicians?

RM: Yeah, I think that, particularly for these young musicians, it's been really great. Dave Devine is a perfect example. He's from Indiana, too; he's a Hoosier, so we share that. He teaches at Metro as well, and to me he's as good a young teacher as I've ever seen. One of the reasons is that he can really meet students where they live, because he really does love all the music. I remember somebody showing up at school and all they knew was one song by guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Dave's like, "Oh yeah, which one? OK, great!" Or like recently, he picked up his guitar and was playing some Hall & Oates music. But he can also play Wes Montgomery's music or Grant Green or Bill Frisell. He loves the guitar, and he really respects all that music.

When I was coming up, I think that sometimes the generation that came before mine would pooh-pooh that other music. A lot of jazz musicians were resentful of rock 'n' roll music and pop music because they were taking all the jobs and everything. Even the Beatles; some people didn't like them. I mean, how can you not like the Beatles? It's like not liking chocolate or something! I feel like that openness is one of the special things about this crop of musicians. And they're not only open to American popular music; there's also a great understanding of Indian music and other traditions. When bassist Matt Skellenger showed up at Metro, he wrote this crazy music with all these crazy meters that nobody had ever heard before. But I remember talking to him, and I just said, "Man, you've got something! Just keep working on that." Now he's got a band that plays his music seamlessly, and he also plays it so beautifully.

As much as anything, when students show up at Metro, the way I look at it is that they're not even here to be jazz musicians. But for improvisers and musicians, jazz is a great music to learn, because the traditions are so great that they'll enhance whatever music they want to play. I try to go hear the students' bands to hear what they're trying to play, and then we can figure out, "OK, I hear what you're doing. Maybe we can work with this kind of thing here, because the time's a little bit ragged, or the relationship between the bass and drums is not together. So check out this Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell record or this other thing." Or maybe they need to get from the one to the four chord, so we're just going to deal with some of Elliot Smith's songs right now for a little bit. We're enhancing their overall musicianship, and jazz just happens to be the vehicle in academia that works particularly well for that. But the idea is to have them do some indescribable music that we have to make up a new title for! That's the idea.

AAJ: You've been teaching for almost 25 years now. How would you say that your teaching style has evolved?

RM: Well, I can see the evolution when I see a lot of younger teachers show up and make the same mistakes that I made early on! I think one way it's evolved is really having a sense about what you're trying to accomplish and figuring out a direct way to do that. And trying to tie things in as best you can with the students' whole education, which means talking to their private teachers and talking to their other ensemble directors. It's seeing what they're struggling with and what they're good at, and seeing how we can pick some pieces of music or some ensembles that help them in areas where they need something. And it's also putting bands together, getting people who work well together or have similar goals. So that's one of the things.

Also, over the course of time, I can see how repertoire has evolved. I feel so comfortable now asking young improvisers to do "This Land Is Your Land" when they first show up; the same chords are in that as in "Straight No Chaser." Because nowadays, kids are further removed from jazz history than we were. When we were young, Duke Ellington was alive; Louis Armstrong was alive. We might not have heard their music, but you'd see them on the Tonight Show or you'd hear their names being referenced on some sitcom or something. But now it's like we're working with kids who were born in 1994; Miles Davis wasn't even around at that point. So how can these kids talk about that music? But the students do know these American folk songs, so maybe we can start with that music as a basis.

So for their first couple of years at Metro, the students are really dealing with the American folk traditions, and the last couple years they're dealing more with the jazz repertoire. By then, we've already set the groundwork so they're able to improvise, they're able to play in time, they're able to negotiate chord changes, and they're able to play a melody. You can accomplish those things with all sorts of music. So that's changed.

Right now, we're developing a degree at Metro that's actually a folk-and-jazz degree, which will hopefully get off the ground in the next couple of years.

AAJ: That's unique. Is anyone else doing that?

RM: I don't think so much in that sense. But when I played in Germany recently, I talked to these guys who said they were going to a festival in Germany that was a folk-and-jazz festival. And obviously the folk traditions in Germany are really old! The people are wearing costumes, but they're all getting together and improvising.

So I can see that incorporating this other music is a way to give people the knowledge that they need. The titles are less important than ever before, really. It's also about getting people writing freely, too, just making sounds and all that kind of stuff, just improvising games like some of saxophonist John Zorn's pieces. There's also some pieces that Fred Hess wrote; those kinds of structured pieces are good for that, too. So that's one thing that's changed a lot.

There's a different kind of student now, too, in that they don't write anymore. I mean, they really get physically tired writing a lot of times because they're used to typing. So when you're making up tests, if you have them write for an hour and a half, you see that they're really struggling physically. So you make up tests in different ways that ask different things of them, like getting them to go to concerts and talk about the music. You have to use different things to get them listening in unique ways. The students are as brilliant as ever, so you just find new strategies to get them to learn.

But at some point, you can't do that; things have maybe left you behind, and at that point you have to be comfortable enough to say, "I can't relate." And that's a hard thing. Because now I've been at Metro longer than anybody, although there are people working there who are older than me; I've been there a long time, and you don't ever want to be that teacher who's holding on to "Oooh, we did it that way in 1995; that's the way to go!" That's why it's good to have guys like Dave Devine showing up with new ideas. And the pianist Carmen Sandim is at Metro, too. She's another brilliant teacher.

AAJ: So you are turning 50 next year.

RM: Yes, I know! Crazy! I'm going to get my AARP card.

AAJ: So looking forward, what areas of growth are you interested in focusing on in the coming years?

RM: Certainly this past year has been a health struggle for me, so I've been confronted with my trumpet mortality in a lot of ways. I mean, I was wondering if I was ever going to play the trumpet again. I've been playing bass a little bit more, kind of checking that out, and that's been good. And also just thinking about maybe writing some longer-form pieces, things where I'm working with people who actually write words, and coming up with some stories. I think that there's still a lot to be gained there. The songs are essentially lyrical songs, but I just can't write any lyrics. So I'm comfortable with working with other people in that regard.

In terms of playing, I feel like I'm hearing more, and now that I'm playing again, I feel like I'm playing better than ever, so there's all sorts of things I'd like to work on. I'd like to keep playing with Bill and Brian, and I'd like to get a band going around here; I haven't really had a band since Blossom, so I'd like to see about doing that again. Because, like I said, that's the most important thing, to really be more active here in town. I's been a while for me, since I haven't been playing so much over the past year.

AAJ: There's a quote from you on the liner notes for My Cruel Heart that says: "Be humble. Be honest. Be quiet. Love God." Is this a philosophy you've developed, or is it something you've lived from a young age?

RM: I think it developed more so around that time when I did My Cruel Heart, even though as I look back, I think at various points I've been able to achieve that. But at various points over the course of my lifetime, I haven't been able to achieve that, either!

But I think that those are good words, particularly speaking musically. It's so important, like we talked about, to be humble, to accept that we don't know. And as I mentioned earlier, being honest. And to be quiet—to not just keep talking, to just listen for a little bit. And then as we think about God, particularly being a spiritual person, if you think about music and art, to me that's everything. It's the ultimate expression of all these positive qualities. And just our relationship to each other, and our relationship to love each other as you love yourself.

I mean, that's the thing when you're talking about being in a band and there's an audience and there's the tradition that's come before—it's about paying respect to all those things. When I play a Monk song, I envision, "What if he's listening to this?" I want to make sure that I play in a way that's creative and respectful and just as if he were here. Same with pianist Mary Lou Williams or whoever we're talking about. So that's a part of that quote, too.

AAJ: Last, but not least, it must be asked: the Scooby-Doo lunch box?

RM: Oh my gosh, yes! I love Scooby-Doo, and it's a perfect mute bag; all my mutes fit in there, so yes, the Scooby-Doo Mystery-Machine lunch box. I also have a lunch box from the girls' store called Justice, because my daughter's name is Justice; I took that lunch box to some middle school and it shocked all the girls because it's so pink, and these girls could not get past that—it was just so pink! So the Scooby-Doo one actually seems to attract less attention than the Justice one.

I've had various things like that over the years because I have kids, and for the longest time I would have their stuff. I had a Powerpuff Girls backpack for a long time because Justice got tired of it and she wanted my backpack. So I said, "Well, I'm not going to buy another backpack. I'll just wear this for a while." So it became a thing, and I put it away after a while because I didn't want it to be a thing, I just needed a backpack!

Selected Discography

Ron Miles, Quiver (Enja, 2012)
Ron Miles, Stone/Blossom (Sterling Circle, 2006)
Ron Miles, Laughing Barrel (Sterling Circle, 2003)
Ron Miles, Heaven (Sterling Circle, 2002)
Ron Miles, Ron Miles Trio (Capri, 2000)
Ginger Baker, Coward of the County (Atlantic, 1999)
Ron Miles, Woman's Day (Gramavision, 1997)
Ron Miles, My Cruel Heart (Gramavision, 1996)
Bill Frisell, Quartet (Elektra Nonesuch, 1996)
Ron Miles, Witness (Capri, 1990)

Ron Miles, Distance for Safety (Prolific Records, 1987)

Photo Credits

Page 1, Top: Monica Frisell

Page 2: Courtesy of Ron Miles

Page 3: Courtesy of Exposed

Page 4, Top: Dave Kaufman Page 4, Bottom: Courtesy of

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


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