By Mike Zielinski
Marcus Miller, who is bringing his band to Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest, epitomizes the musical multi-tasker. At 61, he is known as one of the best bass players in the business, but he also plays guitar, keyboards, sax, clarinet and recorder, and he sings. Besides that, he is a respected jazz and film composer and arranger in multiple genres, and a record producer.
His concert, “Marcus Miller and Friends,” scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 21 at 6 p.m. in the Scottish Rite Cathedral, will feature guest soloists David Sanborn and Jonathan Butler.
Born into a musical family in Brooklyn, N.Y., Miller heard plenty of music from his father, William Miller, a church organist and choir director. His cousin is jazz pianist Wynton Kelly. He was classically trained on clarinet and began performing and writing music early, adding more instruments on the way.
“As a Gemini, I’m always working on two, three or four or five paths at the same time,” Miller commented in a recent interview.
“I discovered the bass during the glory years of bass players,” he said. “When I was a teenager, we had Larry Graham, James Jamerson, Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, Bootsy Collins, Anthony Jackson, Alphonso Johnson. They all were doing their thing. I had some pretty high standards to live up to. I was practicing all the time. I was pushing myself to be like those guys. The bass really was in the center of music back then.”
Miller began performing as a sideman, so it took him a while to find his own style of playing.
“A big problem for sidemen, studio musicians, is finding their own voice because we make a living being chameleons,” he said. “And that is exactly the opposite of what you do as an artist. As an artist you have to have a really specific point of view. It took me a minute to make the transition.
“When I first started as a sideman, I would play for Whitney Houston or Paul Simon or whoever it was; you wouldn’t even know it was me on the bass. Because I was just playing exactly what I thought was necessary to just support the music. As I began to grow, my own style emerged. When I started collaborating later on, I would actually bring my style to the mix.”
In 1981, Miller started playing with trumpeter Miles Davis, who was already a legend.
“That was an incredible time with Miles,” Miller said. “It literally was like playing with a god. I was surprised he was only five feet six inches tall. . .
“I happened to catch him at an incredible time in his life. I played in his band for a couple years. Then I left. Then I came back, like 1985 or 1986, to write music and produce music for him. In that second period he was in a real reflective mood.
“So we would be working on music, just he and I in the studio. He would just stop and start talking about Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. All these stories. Just out of nowhere. An incredible time to be sitting there next to him. Really a beautiful experience, man.
“I started focusing on my solo career when Miles passed in September of 1991. I had done some solo stuff in the 80s but didn’t really feel like I had found my voice as a solo artist yet. So I stopped, and restarted it when Miles passed.
“That’s when people started to say that I know it’s you on every record I hear that you play on. But it wasn’t like that. There are a whole bunch of records I played on where you don’t know it’s me. As I evolved, I became more like a sideman-slash-artist. I found a way to make my style enhance whoever I was working with.”
Miller said his life was complicated in those days, when he was playing for commercials—“a New York studio musician’s bread and butter”—in the mornings, then recording with an artist like Roberta Flack or Bob James at noon, and then playing at clubs that night.
Miller, a two-time Grammy winner and the composer/producer of numerous critically acclaimed and genre-defying albums, most recently released Laid Black in 2018 on Blue Note.
He wrote the renowned track “Maputo” on the Sanborn/James collaboration Double Vision, which sold over a million copies and won a Grammy Award.
As a bassist, Miller has pioneered the continuing development of a technique known as “slapping,” but his fretless electric bass technique also has served as an inspiration to many and has taken the fretless bass into new musical situations and genres.
He has more than 500 recording credits as a sideman on albums across the spectrum of musical styles.
He has written 27 movie scores, and hosts his own show, Miller Time with Marcus Miller, on Sirius Satellite Radio.
Besides Sanborn, James, Davis, Houston, Simon and Flack, Miller has played, and in many cases written and produced for, such luminaries as Luther Vandross, Joe Sample, The Crusaders, Lalah Hathaway, Herbie Hancock, Bill Withers, Chaka Khan, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Elton John, Al Jarreau, Wayne Shorter and Mariah Carey.
He found that it’s a magical experience to listen to a legend play, but it’s a transcendent experience to sit down and play with a legend.
“The first time I played with George Benson or Joe Sample or The Crusaders or Miles, those are pretty heavy moments,” Miller said. “You can’t believe the music you’re hearing is a sound that you’ve been listening to your whole life, but you’re hearing it come out of the person who’s sitting right across from you. That’s a trip. But eventually you become contemporaries and good friends. Then you’re just enjoying making music.
“The same with David Sanborn. The first time I heard that sound live was when we were putting the Saturday Night Live Band together, 1979,1980, something like that. Sanborn was in the band, too. That was incredible. That’s when David and my relationship began. His sound was so distinctive. It blows your mind. After a while, it’s not so much awe. It’s respect.”
Miller has a rich and deep history of outstanding collaborations, including a 15-year songwriting and production partnership with Vandross, resulting in an astonishing 13 consecutive platinum-selling albums.
“Luther and I were in Roberta Flack’s band together,” Miller said. “Luther at the time was a really popular background and studio singer in New York. He also was singing for TV commercials in the morning. We would pass each other in the studio. We got to be buddies on the road with Roberta.
“He was as hardcore about singing as I was about jazz. I really learned a lot about singers from him. He had this dream to make his own music. He got a lot of us guys from the Roberta Flack band together and we did a little demo. He took the demo around for about a year, trying to get his own record deal.
“It wasn’t as easy as you would think. At the time the big groups in R&B were like Earth, Wind and Fire—R&B bands with 13 people in the band and bright colors. And Luther was just, like, a standstill singer. It took him a minute to get a record deal. When he finally did, the record was Never Too Much. It instantly was a smash.
“All of a sudden in front of my eyes I see my buddy become a huge star. Negotiating that and trying to figure out how to live your life when everybody knows who you were, I got to see the whole thing, the positives and the negatives. But there were so many more positives.”
“When you’re playing on Luther’s fourth record and you know that every note you play millions of people are going to hear it because now he’s a star and people are waiting for his next recording, that’s an incredible thing,” Miller says. “So you’re in the studio and he’s singing live with the band, I know it’s another classic as we’re playing it.
“We didn’t know ‘Maputo’ was going to become what it became. It just sounded pretty nice. But with Luther when we got a few albums in, you could tell that you were performing music that you would be listening to for the rest of your life on the radio. I can’t even describe it with words, the beauty of being in that situation.”
Miller said he enjoys exercise, and tries to work out every day when at home, and at least three times a week while traveling. To keep from getting too “comfortable” with his routine, he switches it up, including weight training, playing basketball, and “all the crazy insanity stuff they have.”
Miller’s Jazz Fest appearance is subtitled “ECP/Berks Jazz Fest at Sea Night.” To help celebrate the 30th anniversary of the festival, Entertainment Cruise Productions is offering everyone who purchases tickets for the fest a chance to win a cabin for the Smooth Jazz Cruise, set for January 24-31, 2022 that features – you guessed it – Marcus Miller.
The raffle will be held just prior to his concert that evening.
Miller’s long involvement with Entertainment Cruise Productions began when his very close late friend Wayman Tisdale, the NBA star and jazz bassist, hooked him up with ECP executive director Michael Lazaroff.
“At first I didn’t know if I wanted to be a musician on The Love Boat,” Miller said, laughing. “But I went on a cruise and it was so cool. Then I hosted them. Michael asked me to pick it up after Wayman passed 11 years ago, and I became musical director. It’s become a really incredible thing—a lot of musicians hanging out together. We’ve copied the Berks Jazz Fest model. We’re Berks Jazz Fest on water.”
Apparently having successfully navigated every conceivable path on land, Marcus Miller taking to the sea was as inevitable as the sunrise.
Update, May 19, 2021
By Susan L. Peña
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the entertainment industry, Marcus Miller managed to keep busy, he said, spending most of the lockdown composing a score for the 2020 Disney+ movie “Safety,” based on the true story of Ray McElrathbey, an athlete whose Clemson University experience was complicated by his mother’s addiction and rehab.
“I discovered places I could walk to in my neighborhood,” he said, chuckling. “I saw the seasons change; I got to know all the rooms in my house. It was the longest time I spent not on planes since I was 16.
“It was a frightening time. It highlighted how humble we need to be. . . None of us had all the answers.”
In October, Miller started a weekly series of virtual 90-minute concerts, featuring various guest musicians, beginning with George Benson, and they included a Christmas concert. The series, produced by ECP, was filmed in an empty studio, with Covid tests and masks, and Miller co-hosted with comedian Alonzo Bodden.
One of the bright spots for him and his wife Brenda was the fact that all four of their adult children, who live and work in New York, came to California during the pandemic to live with them for a while.
He said he looks forward to being able to return to Berks Jazz Fest in August, with his band and two of the three originally scheduled guest soloists.
“We’ll have a great opportunity to bring some positivity, with some great music, at Berks Jazz Fest and on the cruises in 2022,” he said.