Ron Miles: Jazz Gentleman

Florence Wetzel By

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

[Editor's note: Last month, All About Jazz contributor Florence Wetzel conducted a two-hour interview with Ron Miles. The result is the most extensive interview piece ever written about the Colorado-based trumpeter. Part 1 covers his early years and education; Parts 2 and 3, bringing Miles up to the present, will be published on consecutive days.]

Now at the midpoint of his career, trumpeter Ron Miles has created a musical output of astonishing versatility and depth. He has nine releases as a leader, including the upcoming Quiver (Enja, 2012) with guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Brian Blade, and he has also appeared as a sideman on dozens of other projects. Miles accomplished all this from his home base of Denver, Colorado, far from the New York City jazz scene. But talent sets its own geography, and over the years Miles has been the trumpeter of choice for artists as diverse as Frisell, bandleader Mercer Ellington, drummer Ginger Baker, clarinetist Don Byron, and pianist Jason Moran. Musicians and listeners alike are drawn to Miles' unique trumpet style, which is a powerful blend of unpretentious clarity and deep heart. As his frequent collaborator Bill Frisell says, "Ron Miles is an inspiration to me. Nobody sounds like him."

Other factors set Miles off as a singular force in the jazz world. First, he is a prolific composer and arranger; his nine releases all feature his distinctive compositions, and he is a skilful interpreter of other writers' material, whether it's bandleader Duke Ellington's "Doin' the Voom Voom" or bassist Charles Mingus' "Pithecanthropus Erectus." He's also a devoted jazz educator; Miles has taught at Metropolitan State College in Denver for almost 25 years, and he is now running the school's innovative jazz education program. In addition, Miles is beloved throughout the jazz community for his humility and good heart; as pianist Art Lande says about Miles, "You can hear kindness in his playing; it comes through in his sound."

Miles is also full of surprises: he cites U2 and Janet Jackson as musical influences, one of his albums features a cover of the Partridge Family's "I Woke Up in Love This Morning," and he has been known to carry his mutes onstage using a Scooby-Doo lunch box. This playfulness and open-mindedness is just another facet of Miles' talent, which is firmly rooted in his strong work ethic and solid moral compass. The combination of all these elements makes Miles both an outstanding musician and an admirable human being.

Chapter Index
  1. Early Years and Education
  2. Manhattan School of Music
  3. Lessons with Ornette Coleman and Lee Konitz
  4. The Conservative Movement in the '80s

Early Years and Education

All About Jazz: You were born May 9, 1963, in Indianapolis, Indiana. What was your relationship to music in your earliest years, before you got your first instrument?

Ron Miles: Well, my folks listened to music a lot. We moved around a lot, but they always had records. I remember certain records being around; I remember Drums Unlimited (Atlantic, 1966) by drummer Max Roach, seeing that cover around. So there was music always playing. But as far as listening to music, the first record I bought was by this band Redbone; they did that song "Come and Get Your Love." And then I bought Jackson 5 records and stuff like that. I also watched the Archies cartoon every Saturday. So I really didn't have much trumpet music that I was listening to; it was more just pop music of the day.

Max Roach—Drums UnlimitedAAJ: So when did you start playing an instrument?

RM: When I was 11. It was actually the summer before we moved here to Denver. My mom taught summer school, and she wanted me and one of my sisters to do something during the summer, and so she signed us up for band. We both went into this band room and they said, "Pick an instrument." The trumpet looked shiny, so I picked that. My sister picked the clarinet, and then we were playing. Then when we moved here to Denver, we just kept in band from that point on. That was the start of it.

AAJ: Can you go into detail about your formal education in middle school and high school, in terms of your classes and learning the trumpet?

RM: When I got to Denver in 1974, I started sixth grade at Phillips Elementary School and played in beginning band. Then I went to middle school—I went to Smiley Junior High School, which is now called Smiley Middle School. I was in beginning band, and I had braces at that point, so the trumpet was really, really rugged. And I remember that having this name "Ron Miles" was just a horrible burden because I was so bad. People would say, "Oh yeah, Ron Miles! Wow, let's hear you play!" Then I would go [makes horrific, garbled noise]. They'd say, "Oh, wow. Really?" So it was really, really, really rough.

But the second year of junior high school, the teacher Dale Hamilton showed up, and he excited us about music. At that time the trumpeters Maynard Ferguson and Chuck Mangione were really big, so he'd bring their records in, and we'd also hear those guys on the radio. Dale was also like, "Yeah, Maynard Ferguson's great, but there's also trumpeter Clark Terry, and there's also these other cats." Dale would give me records to listen to, particularly Clark Terry; I really liked Clark Terry a lot. So my ears kind of expanded, but I was still Maynard-ed out, just because that music was so exciting for me. Dale also got me lessons with this great player in town, Gordon Dooley, who's still around—a beautiful player with a beautiful sound. So that's when I first got private lessons.

Then when I got to high school, Jerry Noonan was our band director, and like Dale Hamilton he was really good, because they both would always stress the music above everything else, more than flashy technique or whatever. And they would always try and get us to listen to real musical tunes and play real musically, with dynamics, with subtlety and nuance, and they kept enforcing that. So that was great for me.

Then in high school, too, I also played in this career-education center, a kind of all-city combo. And some of the players around town now, like the drummer Jill Frederickson—she's great, she played in that group when I was in there. Pianist Neil Bridge was the director, and he's around town still. And same thing, Jerry would try to get us to listen to tunes and really try to be better musicians, with music always being really, really important, more than flash or anything else. So that was great. Mr. Dooley also got me into classical music, Maurice Andre and all that kind of stuff, so that expanded my horizons a bit, too.

So by the time I got to college, I was actually playing pretty good. It was definitely a slow climb. Once the braces came off, it was a big jump at that point, but it was kind of a steady incline.

AAJ: So all these classes and all these courses were actually jazz trumpet, as opposed to classical trumpet?

RM: Well, my lessons were both classical and jazz, and the ensembles were both, too. I played in everything: I played in orchestra, I played in wind ensemble, I played in jazz band. They were all part of the curriculum back then; of course, it was different in school than it is now. So orchestra was first period, and concert band was fourth period, and jazz band was sixth period, so you were in that zone for most of the day.

AAJ: One distinctive aspect of your career is your songwriting, which has been present since your first release as a leader, Distance for Safety (Prolific Records, 1987). During these early years of junior high and high school, did you study composition as well?

RM: No, I never did. I didn't really write any music until I got to college. I really didn't have a good sense of harmony until that point, because I played just a single-line instrument, the trumpet. I would hear stuff and work things out, but it wasn't until I got to college that I really composed. And then I'd do the typical thing: I'd write a song over rhythm changes or over a blues.

It took a long time to understand how important it was to get a grasp of the piano. I didn't even have the piano on my first records, not really; those were still pretty much single-line recordings. And a lot of the music I listened to was that way, too; by the time I was in college, I listened to a lot of the post-Ornette Coleman bands like drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society and those kind of groups, and Art Ensemble Of Chicago, which didn't have piano. And even in classical music, I mostly listened to atonal music, Webern and post-Schoenberg music. I feel like it wasn't till my record My Cruel Heart (Gramavision, 1996) where I was really, really working with harmony in a mature way. Before then, my writing was mostly counterpoint, single lines working together.

AAJ: So you definitely had the influences of pop music and rock 'n' roll, and you ...

RM: Yeah, but I must say that when I started to play the trumpet, that all went away. Like, totally; I didn't listen to any pop music. I only listened to KADX, the jazz station, and KVOD, the classical station. My younger sisters would have Michael Jackson and Prince posters on their wall, but a group like the Police—I didn't buy a Police album until the Police broke up, actually. But when Sting started his band, I bought his album The Dream of the Blue Turtles (A&M, 1985) because saxophonist Branford Marsalis and all those guys were in the band, and I was like, "Oh, that music's interesting." Then I started to go back and reinvestigate my love for popular music, because it had really gone totally away. I mean, I didn't listen to any pop music at all. Then I fell in love with Prince's music, and then all that music came flooding in at that point.

AAJ: So that was more in the mid-'80s, maybe?

RM: Yes, it was. I think I was in graduate school at Manhattan School of Music when I started buying those records. So I made my way all the way through undergraduate school without really having any connection to pop music at all.

AAJ: So then from 1981 to 1985, you went to University of Denver (DU), studying both music and electrical engineering.

RM: Yes, I studied both the first couple years. In high school, I had gotten an internship to work at a laboratory, so electrical engineering seemed like a real logical thing. Those first couple years at college were really rugged because I was doing this double major and I was playing in every group, like both jazz bands, both wind ensembles, orchestra, brass quintet—I was in school all day. Every morning, I'd get on the number 24 bus, ride it out to DU and then come home at night. Sometimes I'd have to walk home from DU because it would be too late to get the bus. I lived in Park Hill, so I lived exactly where I live now, pretty much, and it was a long walk from DU back to Park Hill! But my folks usually would give me a ride; they were very supportive.

After a couple years at college, I had a conversation with pianist Ron Jolly, who also teaches here in Denver and who was my improvisation teacher at DU. I remember one day him telling me that I could actually play. And I was like, "Really?" He said, "No, you could really do this." So I asked my folks if I could just concentrate on music after my second year, and they said I could. So my last two years at college were just concentrating on music, and I dropped electrical engineering.

AAJ: Is college also when you first met bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Fred Hess?

RM: Yes, it was about that time. I think maybe I had met Fred a little bit before, when I was 19. He ran the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble, and I remember sitting in at a gig; I think the trombone player Wade Sander had told Fred about me. Fred and Wade were really impressed by my playing, so they invited me to play, and the group rehearsed every Sunday for years. At that time, I didn't know how to drive; I didn't learn how to drive until I was 30 years old, so somebody would come by and pick me up, or I'd ride the bus, so it would be a whole-day affair for me to get to Boulder and get back home to my folks.

It was just wild playing with those folks. Fred was writing this graphic-notated music and structured improvisations, and then I was hearing about multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell—I'd heard about Roscoe from the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but I really got deeply into that music then. Also, this was the first real professional-level group that I had played in. It wasn't just students; it was people who were really tried and true.

I remember we'd play concerts where no one would come. Like, literally zero people would be there, and we would play as if it was a full house—it was the same. That was a really great thing for me to learn: that you always put it out there. When there's an audience, it lifts the music up to a level that you can't get when there's no audience, but that doesn't mean you don't try your best when there's nobody there. It was pretty great to play with those folks. I still love all their playing; it was a great influence.
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