05/29/13

Pianist Mulgrew Miller Dead at 57

Death follows a major stroke last week

Mulgrew Miller, a pianist renowned for his power and precision in straight-ahead settings, died May 29 in Allentown, Pa. His death was confirmed by a representative at Maxjazz, the record label that released his music throughout the 2000s. Miller had suffered a stroke a week earlier and had been hospitalized. He was 57.

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Mulgrew Miller
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Mulgrew Miller
By Jimmy Katz

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Miller was born Aug. 13, 1955, in Greenwood, Miss. He began playing piano at age 6, was performing by 10 and by high school was working in a local jazz trio, playing R&B music at dances and gospel at church. Influenced above all by Oscar Peterson (and later by McCoy Tyner), he vowed to become a skilled pianist. “I was blown away,” Miller was quoted as saying in an online bio for Maxjazz, referring to the first time he heard a Peterson recording. “It was a life-changing event. I knew right then that I would be a jazz pianist.” The bio further states that Miller chose what he called “the easy-does-it approach” at age 15, meaning not that he would settle into a relaxed style but rather that he would “focus on careful attention to craft, impeccable choices in the musicians to surround himself with, and a balanced life that included a stable home and vegetarian lifestyle.”

Miller’s professional career began in the mid-’70s when he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra (then led by Mercer Ellington, son of Duke). Miller also spent time accompanying singer Betty Carter (1980), trumpeter Woody Shaw (1981-83) and as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (1983-86). In 1986, Miller joined drummer Tony Williams’ new group, which initially also consisted of Wallace Roney, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto sax; Bobby Hutcherson, vibes; and Ron Carter, bass. Miller appeared on five of Williams’ recordings. He also appeared on recordings by Kenny Garrett, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Lovano and dozens of other artists. Miller is said to have played on more than 400 recordings in all.

Miller’s debut album as a leader, Keys to the City, was released on the Landmark label in 1985 and produced by Orrin Keepnews. He went on to record more than 15 albums under his own name for Landmark, Novus and Maxjazz. With the latter, he released a series of four consecutive, critically praised live albums, two cut at Yoshi’s in Oakland, Calif., and two at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He worked in configurations of varying sizes, including trios, quintets and sextets. In 1999 he began working with bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, with whom he recorded a series of Duke Ellington and Jimmy Blanton compositions, The Duets. In 2000, they added drummer Alvin Queen and toured Europe. Miller also participated in a trio with Ron Carter and guitarist Russell Malone. Miller’s most recent trio featured Ivan Taylor on bass and Rodney Green on drums.

In 2006, Miller was awarded an honorary degree of doctor of performing arts at Lafayette College, where he was named artist-in-residence in 2008-09. In 2006 he became the director of jazz studies at William Paterson University.

7 Comments

  • May 29, 2013 at 12:23PM TomF

    What a sad loss. Thanks for all the music Mulgrew. RIP.

  • May 29, 2013 at 05:50PM TimPatterson

    Mulgrew was a soul mate for the last twenty plus years. His major label recordings in the 1990's for RCA Novus demonstrated fire and passion. He always told me in an Art Blakey sounding voice, "Tim, I'm out here in the trenches"! It was a privilege and honor to work with him and I will miss him greatly.

  • May 30, 2013 at 01:02AM Leanis

    I met Mulgrew in San Diego at one of his concerts a few years ago. I played in a band with his brother Posey. I am so sad. RIP brother. My heart goes out to Posey and the rest of Mulgrew's family.

  • May 30, 2013 at 08:13AM cherylholder59

    I met the incomparable Mulgrew Miller in the hotel at the St. Lucia Jazz Festival. Wonderful show. Gone much too soon and I will miss him and listening him in the pass on WBGO. RIP my dear brother and join the great jazz masters in the beyond and Jam jam jam. Condolences to his family and many fans.

  • May 30, 2013 at 02:57PM stevezurier

    I attended a Dialogue Day at William Paterson a few years ago when my son Ben was thinking about going there either as a transfer student or maybe grad school in the future. Anyway, part of the program was a segment on piano trios. There must have been seven or eight sets of musicians who played in the piano trio format that day and each one was better than the next. What a legacy of music he has left us and passed on. RIP Dr. Miller!!!

  • May 31, 2013 at 02:54PM TimJulian

    I was introduced to Mulgrew some years back during the one and only time he played here in Santa Fe, N.M. at Evangelos'. He was a gracious man and he exuded that quality along with many others when he played for the people here. The audience was electrified when he first walked through the front doors of that venue and he was appreciative of them too. We will never forget that magical evening that he shared with us and his unique and gracious creative genius. The audience who was present that night will remember his music and Mulgrew forever.

  • Jun 07, 2013 at 09:32AM rgill7344

    I met. Mulgrew a few years ago when he accompanied me in Boston at a memorial concert honoring, his late friend, James Williams, The event happened over two evenings and I was scheduled to sing on the last night. Mulgrew played his first night and included a beautiful rendition of Skylark. I had planned to sing the song on the next evening. I asked Mulgrew if he would do it with me and he politely agreed. What was remarkable was the reason I asked him was that his rendition was identical to mine and I was delighted and appreciative of the experience to do it with him.

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