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TSJR’s Featured Smooth Jazz Artist

A profile of our selected smooth jazz artist of the month

Because we appreciate the talents and hard work of all of the many artists in our beloved smooth jazz genre, TSJR has made it a standard practice to highlight and honor one artist each month who has established himself or herself as an integral part of the smooth/contemporary jazz “engine.” This month, we honor:

Marcus Miller – Caution: Bass Virtuoso At Work

The world of Smooth Jazz is full of musicians whose careers seem to embrace spending time playing with, well, just about everybody! None more so than Marcus Miller! Miller is a phenomenon whose career began in New York City where he played with the great Bobbi Humphrey and keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith. Both giants of a brand of jazz fusion that laid the groundwork for today’s smooth jazz.

Miller was born in Brooklyn, New York City in 1959. He was raised in a musical family that included his father, William Miller, who was a church organist and choir director, and William’s cousin — the jazz pianist Wynton Kelly. Kelly was a key member of Miles Davis’s group in the 1950s. Miller remembers sitting on Wynton’s knee, “adding wrong notes to whatever he was playing on the piano.” Years later, when the younger Miller himself joined the Miles Davis group, he says that nobody in his family was that impressed. “ ‘Oh yeah,’ they said, ‘like cousin Wynton,’” he recalls, laughing.

Miller was initiated at a young age into black consciousness. His grandfather was a close associate of Marcus Garvey, one of the founding fathers of Pan-Africanism. When it came to naming his son, Miller’s father chose to name him after the great Jamaican leader.

“I remember the day Martin Luther King was shot,” says Miller. “That was the first time my dad really sat me down and explained to me the whole deal. Fortunately for me, very soon after that, James Brown came out with a song called ‘Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,’ and it was incredible. I was seven years old, and it was the coolest thing I had ever heard. All of a sudden, Afro hairstyle came into fashion, and kids in the streets of Brooklyn were singing ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud.’ So, I came of age in this black power movement, and it shaped me. There was no sense of inferiority that I walked around with, though I think people from my father’s generation had to deal with that.”

He came to the electric bass at the age of 13. Although he had been studying the clarinet since he was a child, everything changed when he heard the Jackson Five. “I saw guys my age, and they were already professionals creating excitement,” says Miller. “And I said, ‘OK now, wait. I’d better get serious about this.’

“I didn’t know that the electric bass guitar was brand new,” he continues, “that it had only been around for maybe 10 years or so before I heard it. I just wanted to play an instrument to be in a band. So, I picked up the bass guitar. And it ended up being a golden age to be a bass guitar player (Stanley Clarke and Sting). And they were all leading their own bands. Bootsy Collins, Tower of Power had a great bass player, Louis Johnson from the Brothers Johnson. Jaco (Pastorius) came and did his thing. It was a golden age, a pretty exciting time to learn the electric bass.”

Miller learned it so well, and so quickly, that he was busy playing professional gigs by the time he was going to college (majoring in music and business administration). His family was supportive; his father even gave Miller some Miles Davis albums. Well aware of all the negative clichés about the jazz world, his father’s only insistence was that he go to college.

When drummer Lenny White asked Miller to go on the road with his fusion band, Miller’s father said, “Why don’t you do it? Take a semester off. That way you can go and experience it. But you have to promise that you’ll go back to school.”

Miller found the road tempting, with its new places, new faces and total immersion in the music. Miller kept his word, returning to school for two more years. But balancing school obligations at Queens College with a full schedule of gigs in Manhattan wasn’t easy. “Sometimes I’d leave a studio at midnight,” he says, “drive to the campus to get a good parking space, and then get in the back seat and sleep with my portable alarm clock so I wouldn’t miss my 8 o’clock class.”

“[Drummer] Ralph MacDonald caught me one afternoon,” he continues, “and said, ‘Man, we had a Coca-Cola commercial that’s going national. Where were you?’ I told him, ‘Man, my English teacher said that if I didn’t take this final test, she was going to fail me for the semester.’ And he said, ‘English?! Go back and ask her how much she makes a year. You coulda made that this morning.’”

At that point, Miller finally began to accept the fact that he wasn’t “a flash in the pan,” which had been his father’s biggest worry. The young bassist saw that this career he was stumbling into could actually have a future, creatively and financially.

Miller went to his father and said, “Dad, I can’t do this anymore. I have to take advantage of these opportunities.” His father understood and approved Miller’s decision to drop out of school and dive full-time into the life of a musician. And it didn’t hurt that, a week later, he was playing at Radio City Music Hall with Roberta Flack. “Roberta used to be a school teacher herself,” says Miller. “She pulled my dad aside, put on her teacher vibe and said, ‘Mr. Miller, I assure you that you have nothing to worry about. I value education, too. But your son is a supremely talented musician, and he’s going to be doing this for a long time.’”

It was, of course, a startlingly prophetic evaluation. As a multi-instrumentalist, Marcus is highly proficient as a keyboardist, clarinettist/bass clarinettist and, primarily, as a world-renowned electric bassist, topping critics’ and readers’ polls for three decades. He won the “Most Valuable Player” award (given by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, to recognize studio musicians) three years in a row and was subsequently awarded “player emeritus” status and retired from eligibility!

His résumé as an A-list player brims with over 500 recording credits as a sideman on albums across the spectrum of musical styles: rock (Donald Fagen and Eric Clapton), Jazz (George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Sample, Wayne Shorter and Grover Washington, Jr.), pop (Roberta Flack, Paul Simon and Mariah Carey), R&B (Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan), hip hop (Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg), blues (Z.Z. Hill), new wave (Billy Idol), smooth jazz (Al Jarreau and Dave Koz) and opera (collaborations with tenor Kenn Hicks and soprano Kathleen Battle).

Even the most devoted follower may be astonished to realize that 2015’s Afrodeezia was only his ninth studio project since his 1983 debut, Suddenly, considering the abundance of occasions Miller’s name has appeared within album credits. After two R&B-leaning solo albums for Warner Bros. in the `80s, followed by co-leading The Jamaica Boys (with drummer Lenny White and singer Mark Stevens), Miller took a hiatus then returned rejuvenated with the galvanizing The Sun Don’t Lie (1993) and Tales (1995), both of which found him brilliantly connecting the dots of Black music’s evolution. Following the fan-demanded Live and More in 1997, Miller released M2 (“M-Squared”) on his own 3 Deuces Records label and won his second Grammy, 2001’s Best Contemporary Jazz Album. A second double live CD, The Ozell Tapes: The Official Bootleg (2003) came next, followed by Silver Rain (2005) and Marcus (2008) (released as Free in Europe and Asia) featuring his Grammy-nominated crowd-rouser of Middle Eastern Funk, “Blast.” Then, 2012 saw the release of Renaissance, which contained the track, “Gorée,” a track that led, in part to Miller’s work with Unesco. When Irina Bokova, the director-general of Unesco, heard Miller perform “Gorée” in Paris in 2012, she invited the bassist to become a spokesman for the organisation’s Slave Route Project.

Gorée, a tiny island off the coast of Senegal, was one of the final African staging posts for the Atlantic slave trade, and its infamous “Door of No Return” was the last sight many Africans had of their homeland before being packed on to ships for transportation to the New World.

“I had heard about Gorée for many years,” Miller recalls “So I thought I was ready for it emotionally. But there is nothing like standing there in the place that it happened. I was very much affected.

“There was rage, there was anger, there was resentment, there was all of that. But there was gratitude too,” he says, brightening. “I was just really thankful to my ancestors, who had somehow survived that terrible journey and managed to maintain their dignity through 400 years of bondage.

“And I was also thankful for music, because I really think that music helped sustain my ancestors through those incredibly difficult times.”

From that day on, Gorée had a new meaning for Miller, as the name of a tune. This soaring, optimistic rhapsody is now a staple of his live performances. It has taken him on a journey of his own, one that would surely make his ancestors proud.

As a film music pro, Miller rose from writing the go-go party classic “Da Butt” for Spike Lee’s “School Daze” to becoming the go-to composer for 20+ films (from the documentary “1 Love” to the animated children’s fable “The Trumpet and The Swan” to the Eddie Murphy/Halle Berry classic “Boomerang”).

As a producer, writer and player, he was the last primary collaborator of jazz legend Miles Davis, contributing the composition and album Tutu to the canon of contemporary jazz music.

The breadth of his collaborative talents were best showcased in his work with the late, great soul man Luther Vandross, contributing to well over half of his albums as a producer, composer and/or player on a string of hits capped by “Power of Love/Love Power” for which Marcus won his first Grammy, 1991’s R&B Song of the Year.

And starting with David Sanborn’s 1980 album Hideaway and its follow-up Voyeur (for which the alto sax giant won a Grammy performing Marcus’ composition “All I Need is You”), Marcus not only left an indelible mark on Sanborn’s distinctive sound, he laid the often-copied blueprint for the coolest of contemporary jazz sounds.

While not as prolific as one would like where solo projects are concerned, this mega-talented true bass virtuoso is and will undoubtedly remain one of music’s true visionaries. Just ask both peers and fans. – Steve Giarchardi

To view Marcus Miller’s complete discography, click here.