Last Wednesday, May 29, the music world lost someone very special. Mulgrew Miller, a warm-hearted jazz pianist with a sweet and bouncy touch on the keys, died at age 57 after suffering a stroke the previous week.
As a bandleader, Miller was most well-known for his group Wingspan, made up of piano, vibraphone, saxophone, and sometimes flute. As a sideman, Miller was equally impressive, playing on over 400 recordings. While his style was rooted in jazz greats that came before him, particularly in be-bop, he was always an innovator. For example, in the 90′s, he played with The Contemporary Piano Ensemble, a group of four to five pianists and a rhythm section.
Yoko remembers, “I first heard him on his album titled “Work” with local drumming legend Terri Lyne Carrington. He’s a pianist that everyone of my generation respected and admired. He was a great educator sharing his knowledge graciously. You could tell he checked out every jazz pianist in the history of this music. I mean not only checked them out but he could play like them down to the articulation, phrasing, rhythmic approach and touch. He brought such a wide stylistic palette to his playing which is something I also try to draw influence from.”
In addition to his talents as a musician, Miller was a passionate music educator and mentor. In jazz style he was most influential in the 80′s and 90′s, but in teaching, he was influential throughout his career. He served as the Director of Jazz Studies at William Patterson University. He worked with a wide variety of acts including many that included musicians just starting their careers, and inspired a following among professional musicians that’s as passionate as his following among audiences.
In 2011, the Yoko Miwa Trio got to share a stage with Miller and hang out backstage with him at the Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC, which was also NPR’s Piano Jazz host and renowned pianist Marian McPartland’s 93rd birthday celebration.
Three pianists -- Larry Willis, Yoko Miwa, and Mulgrew Miller
Reflecting on that night, Yoko says, “I could tell he was he was a very gentle and sensitive guy. One of the pianists who was playing that night at Dizzy’s (a popular up and coming pianist) played a song that not only Mulgrew played on one of his well known records but also played it very much the way Mulgrew played it, arrangement and solo. I was intrigued by this since the pianist knew everyone was sitting in the green room listening, including Mulgrew. I watched Mulgrew checking out the pianist and wondered what was going through his mind. When the pianist came off stage Mulgrew said, ‘man you’re making me nervous.’”
You will be missed, ‘Grew.