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Ron Miles: Rainbow Sign Of The Times

Photo credit: Thomas J. Krebs

Ian Patterson By

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My Mum and Dad learned, without having very much, to make the most of it, and to do the best work you can every day, no matter what it is. That’s a lesson that I try to carry into music.
—Ron Miles, cornestist, composer, educator
The title of Ron Miles' Rainbow Sign (Blue Note Records, 2020) carries great personal meaning for the Denver cornetist/composer and educator. The initial influence was The Carter Family song "God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign," with its line 'No more water but the fire next time," which in turn gave James Baldwin the title for his famous book on racial injustice, The Fire Next Time (Dial Press, 1963). "That's where James Baldwin got that," says Miles. "This kind of sense of just not waiting, we're going to have to take this bull by the horn, especially with our political times."

And these are turbulent political times indeed. In the four years between recording I Am A Man (Yellowbird, 2017) and releasing Rainbow Sign America has seen the political hurricane of Donald Trump come and go, leaving substantial havoc in his wake. I Am A Man was fired by racial injustice and social inequality and seemed to echo Baldwin's warning that America will never truly be a nation until there is justice and equality.

Rainbow Sign, which once again unites Miles with Bill Frisell, Brian Blade, Jason Moran and Thomas Morgan, is a quietly poetic call for tolerance, the rainbow serving as a metaphor for a pact or covenant between the races. But more than that, Rainbow Sign is a reflection on mortality and love, for the music came to Miles in the summer of 2018, which were his father's final days on Earth. For Miles, the rainbow is a symbol too, of the passage from mortal to eternal life.

The final days spent with his father were ones of mixed emotions for Miles: "When it became clear that my father was transitioning it was a real journey from this sadness when I couldn't even get up the next day, contemplating losing this person so close to you, seeing them in such discomfort, getting him up to exercise, giving him a bath, going to get lunch and all these conversations," Miles explains.

"For my Dad, who was an introverted person, he got to really see how much we all loved him and how we would do anything for him, the way he had done for us. It was a way to say thank you to him and help him along this journey." . One song on Rainbow Sign that pays direct homage to Miles' father is "This Old Man," an elegant, slower composition with something of the noirish air of Miles Davis' film soundtrack Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Fontana, 1958).

"I love that album so much," says Miles. "Obviously, he's [Davis] such a huge influence on all of us, but the album that I probably listened to the most getting ready for this album was [Thelonious Monk's] Monk's Dream with Charlie Rouse, because so much of this album deals with the way we play together. On Monk's Dream they're playing familiar songs but the way they play together is always so unique and so in-the-moment. This idea of not really playing solos per se has been really influential on us."

Like Frisell, Miles is a Monk devotee. "Bill and I talk about him at least once every conversation we have," says Miles. "Bill says he thinks about Thelonious Monk every day, at some point during the day."

Interestingly, Miles relates how both he and Frisell, independently of each other, play along to Monk's records, just to imagine what it would have been like to perform with the legendary pianist. "There is so much space in Monk's playing that you can find a way to kind of work your way around," says Miles. "We've heard these records so many times and we still discover things."

The deep chemistry between Miles and Frisell is the fruit of many years playing together. Miles first recorded with Frisell in 1996 on the guitarist's Quartet (Elektra Nonesuch) and he is unequivocal in his praise for his Denver-born collaborator.

"He's the greatest musician I've ever played with," says Miles of Frisell. "To be on the bandstand with somebody who has such a voice on an instrument that we thought you couldn't have a voice on anymore because it had all been done before, but then this person shows up and you hear one note and you know who it is. Like Thelonious Monk, Bill's got that thing, God bless him."

Miles recalls hearing Frisell for the first time on Strange Meeting (Antilles, 1987), the only album by the short-lived trio Power Tools, with Ronald Shannon Jackson and Melvin Gibbs. "I got it 'cause I was a huge fan of The Decoding Society, and Bill was from Denver and everyone was talking about it. And here was this guy playing with my two heroes. I just flipped and I had to find everything that he played on," Miles laughs. "Yes indeed."

Over the years, Miles and Frisell have recorded frequently on each other's albums, developing a close musical bond that can be heard, literally and metaphorically, in their frequent unison lines on Rainbow Sign. "We don't even have to discuss phrasing," explains Miles. We'll do short one time, long the next time, and we just do them at the same time. We've just played so much together. His sound is so great, it's almost like he's even more saxophone-like than he was even before. We just fit like hand in glove."

By curious coincidence Miles and Frisell both attended Denver's East High Schools. And just as Frisell made a late-career debut as leader on Blue Note with Harmony (2019), so too, Rainbow Sign marks Miles' first outing as leader on the historic label. "I remember as a kid looking at my Dad's record collection and seeing these Art Blakey albums and hearing about Clifford Brown and Wayne Shorter, so Blue Note has always been around," says Miles.

"One of the things I feel most happy about is that we didn't make it for Blue Note. We just made an album and Don Was heard the album and thought 'I need to put this out' and he contacted me."

Rainbow Sign may well be the only album in Blue Note's eighty-odd years that begins with a sixteen-minute song—the sprawling epic "Like Those Who Dream."

"It made no sense to send Blue Note a recording with a sixteen-minute song to start it off," says Miles laughing. "We did it twice. We did a shorter version and Bill's like, 'I don't know, the first version had everything in it.' I thought, 'Yeah, you're right.' "

As Frisell noted, "Like Those Who Dream" has many elements to it, though one constant that runs throughout the song, and the album as a whole, is the blues. When Miles talks about the blues it is clear that for him the music has both a cathartic and a political character.

"I Am A Man was very much a sense about the blues being a way to kind of deal with adversity and try to find some kind of way to get past it," relates Miles. "After the election where Trump won [2016] there was a lot of reckoning to be dealt with. I thought, 'OK, we say we're about this, so this is our chance to prove it, or is it just something that makes us feel good to say?' It was like Robert Johnson or Bessie Smith or Jelly Roll [Morton] or whoever, saying 'Let's address this right now -the ugliness of it all."

The Trump years have underlined that America remains a highly polarized country, with institutionalized racism—as the Black Lives Matter movement powerfully illustrated—at the heart of the divide.

"The things that are in the news now have been part of the black experience the entire time that I and my parents have been alive," explains Miles. "I think one of the most striking things has been seeing white America just going, 'Wow! They just killed this guy on the news. I just watched them kill George Floyd on the evening news tonight! Yeah, there have been like George Floyds for years!," Miles exclaims.

"These things about telling your children from an early age how to deal with the police. You might be out with your white friends and they might talk back to the police but don't get this twisted—you're not them. You just need to get your ass home tonight. Your first job is to make sure you get home tonight, even if that means you have to eat some shit along the way. A white suburban woman can curse out the police—they're not going to shoot her. They're not going to do that but they will shoot a black person."

For Miles, however, the person with his or her hands on the car hood is not the only one being oppressed.

"It's nuanced, it's complicated. I was stopped by the police not that long ago and I've got my hands on the car and this young white dude is like 'OK, we're going to do this dance.' He's probably a totally cool guy but he knows, and I know that this is the way this works, and he's got to watch this older man lower himself and that can't be good for him either. He's a person with a conscience and feelings, and I hope this is something that everyone realizes, it doesn't help any of us to do this to other people."

Miles acknowledges that previous generations of Afro Americans had an even tougher time, reflected in the blues and jazz of the day. "My Mum and my Dad would tell us these stories that were even wilder a generation ago. We're like, 'Wow! You dealt with that?!' I think about Bessie Smith or someone like that, pushing this down just a little bit further so then Billie [Holiday] can show up. Push it a little but further so Nina [Simone] can show up... That's what we do."

As Miles knows only too well, however, it will take a lot more than protest songs to bring about societal change. "Trump gave us a chance to acknowledge that this country has a huge problem with racism. There's a large contingent, forty percent it looks like, who are very invested in keeping things exactly as they've been. So, then what do the sixty percent of us do? Well, we've gotta get off our asses and do something because sitting back and assuming that it's going to take care of itself is not going to work."

Returning to the music, Rainbow Sign brings together what Miles calls his Mount Rushmore of musicians. As a trio with Frisell and Blade, Miles had recorded two albums, Quiver (Yellowbird, 2012) and Circuit Rider (Yellowbird, 2014), but the addition of Jason Moran since I Am A Man has significantly expanded the group's possibilities.

"The thing about Jason is that he brings the whole history of the music to everything he plays, and not just the history of jazz music but our relation to hip hop music and so many other types of music," says Miles.

At one point it looked as if Moran wouldn't be available for the Rainbow Sign recording session due to prior commitments, but Miles was prepared to wait. "There was never a question of getting of getting another pianist in. He's the one."

The chemistry in this quartet is pronounced. It had helped, of course, that Miles and Moran already knew each other well from the pianist's trio with Mary Halvorson. "Rainbow Sign," the boppish title track, was written while on tour with Moran and Halvorson. "I was backstage before we were playing and came up with that. Certainly, Monk is a figure that factors into that song as well."

Thomas Morgan and Frisell have also established a deep musical rapport in recent years, especially on the duo albums Small Town (ECM Records, 2017) and Epistrophy (ECM Records, 2019). Frisell and Moran, too, had already played together quite a bit: "That dialogue between the guitar and the piano can sometimes be a little uneasy because they are both harmonic and melodic instruments," explains Miles, "but those two have a way of playing that seems so natural."

Everything about the interplay throughout Rainbow Sign sounds natural, yet outside one day of rehearsal and two days of recording, the quartet had never played this material before. The sparkling results are testament to the empathy between the musicians.

The main relationship that plays out in the music, however, is that between Miles and his late father. "Custodian of the New," for example, is inspired by time Miles spent helping his father with his duties as custodian of an office building. "I was in between gigs or something, and I thought, 'Yeah, I'll help out at night.' And we'd ride out there together. It was a real joy, just to ride in the car and listen to Clifford Brown or the Delfonics or whatever, it was beautiful," Miles recalls.

"There was just the two of us in this big office building. I just watched him work and it was like he wanted to be the best janitor that ever existed, so then I wanted to be the best janitor that ever existed too. And you would leave with this sense of, 'We accomplished something tonight.' To put in an honest day's work and leave with a job complete is something, you know? Because with music, in a way, you don't ever leave with a job completed."

Miles describes his parents as "prideful folks" who appreciated what little they had growing up. "They talk about the time when they got indoor toilets for the for the first time. My Mum and Dad learned, without having very much, to make the most of it, and to do the best work you can every day, no matter what it is. That's a lesson that I try to carry into music."

It is a lesson that Miles has been applying to music most of life. "In music I just wanted to be a musician that other musicians wanted to play with, and that was it, not to be a star. Just when I played with other musician that the music sounded better. That's the highest compliment. "

Due to COVID-19 Miles, like so many musicians, has been starved of gigs., with just one virtual performance with Joshua Redman's Still Dreaming quartet to show for 2020. Miles, however, has found his own way to keep up his live chops.

"I've been doing imaginary concerts here at the house. I remember Cecil [Taylor] talking about sometimes he would have a year or two without any performances and so he would just have these imaginary concerts. So, I thought, 'Well, I'm going to do that too. Every day I pick out three or four songs and do a set. I just play by myself. It's been keeping me going but I'm certainly anxious to play with some other folks, I get tired of myself," he laughs.

One thing that Miles has been able to keep going is his teaching at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, where, as Director of Jazz Studies, he teaches Jazz History and Jazz Combo. "This past semester the combo met in person—five people in a huge room, which was good, and then the jazz history class was online."

Miles brings his own unique style to his Jazz History classes. "You know, a few years ago I was going to enter the ministry. I was going to become a pastor. I started seminary and I had to give some sermons. I look at lectures very much like preparing a sermon. You have this basic idea and then something happens during the course of the week that feeds into it.

"This past year there was all sorts of stuff. Mamie Smith's first blues album came out in 1920. Women got the vote in the United States in 1920. There's all this intersectionalism that was unique to this past semester that had never been a part of the class before. I find it really quite rewarding."

Rewarding, but not without its complications, as Miles explains: "The hard part of course is figuring out what to do after 1980 basically, because we have a historical perspective on what happened before that—and you have to make some choices as you go through— but when we're dealing with the '90s and 2000s we're dealing with people I know, so it's not like I can really divorce myself from talking about Brian Blade and Bill Frisell like they're just some people—these are my friends!," laughs Miles.

"I try and get some perspective but it's a little difficult, but I have to say Nate Chinen's book that came out a few years ago on jazz in the 21st century [Playing Changes: Jazz for The New Century (Pantheon Books, 2018) -ed] has been a great source for getting perspective."

Though he is probably too modest to acknowledge his own place in contemporary jazz history, that he has his place—as a composer, performer and educator—is undeniable. Being inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame in 2017—along with Bill Frisell—and signing for the iconic Blue Note label are proof of that.

Perhaps the greatest satisfaction for Miles is that he has done things on his own terms. "I live in Denver, I don't live in New York, and we always tell folks 'you just stay true to your vision and it will all take care of itself.' It's a balm to our community, maybe, that here's this guy, close to sixty, who has been chipping away just doing music the whole time and gets this reward by not compromising. Just doing music that I always wanted to do."

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