Marcus Miller: The Multi-Faceted Musician

The prolific bassist/bandleader/producer Marcus Miller talks about recording with Blue Note, working on the film “Marshall” and his impressions of Cuba

Marcus Miller at the pre-concert dinner prior to International Jazz Day events in Osaka, Japan, 4-14 image 1
Jeff Tamarkin

Marcus Miller at the pre-concert dinner prior to International Jazz Day events in Osaka, Japan, 4-14

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Marcus Miller is more than a bassist and bandleader. He’s also a prolific producer, having helmed some of Miles Davis’ most commercially successful albums, including Tutu and Amandla. He has produced many other artists, ranging from Wayne Shorter to David Sanborn. He’s done many film and TV soundtracks and is currently at work on the score for “Marshall,” a film about the Civil Rights lawyer and Supreme Court justice. In addition to his work as a producer and bandleader, Miller has served as musical director and host for the various jazz cruises produced by Michael Lazaroff and Entertainment Cruise Productions and Miller talked about life with the jazz cruises in the first part of his interview with JT publisher Lee Mergner.  In this second part to the interview, Miller talked about working with Blue Note Records and his surprisingly long relationship with Don Was, as well as his most recent work as a composer, producer and recording artist.

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JazzTimes: You’re now recording for Blue Note Records.  What’s your impression of the label and of Don Was, the label’s president?

Marcus Miller: I got a call from a guy named Don Was in the ’80s. I didn’t know who he was. Don Was? I was a studio cat. He was calling me to play on a record.  I finally said, “Yea, man, when do you need me?” He had me come to his studio and I laid down these bass tracks and the name of the song was “Walk the Dinosaur.”  Of course, this thing became a huge hit. I ended up playing bass on Don’s first hits. So I’ve known him fora long time.

When he took over Blue Note, I thought that was a great idea, just because though he’s not a jazz musician per se, he’s got a tremendous respect for it. And that’s what you want. We look on the past and [we imagine that] everything was beautiful back then. The one thing I do know that was cool about the past, the 60s and 70s, is that the record people, at least the jazz record people, weren’t in it for the money.  There wasn’t a lot of money to be made. They were in it for the love of the music. Don is like that. He just loves musicians and he loves giving them an outlet. But he realizes that you have to shoehorn this artistic endeavor into this business construct or environment. He does a great job with that.  I think it was the best thing that could happen for Blue Note. The musicians feel very comfortable. It’s very nice.

He’s a bass player, so it’s funny that he had you do those parts.

I see him in the airport and I say to him, “Aren’t you supposed to be in a board meeting or something?” And he’s got a bass on his back and he’s going to play with a blues guy or something like that. And he’d say, “I’ll get back on Monday to work, but I got a gig.”

He really is a musician’s musician, as well as a musicologist. And he’s a very successful rock and pop producer with Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones, so he’s aware of commercial success, but he’s not burning for it with the jazz artists. It doesn’t rule him.

Exactly. When you listen to his records, it’s great music. Like Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” that doesn’t even need a label. It’s just a beautiful piece of music.  That’s what we’re all shooting for, at least I am.  The stuff that [makes] you stop forgetting about the labels.

Blue Note Records President Don Was (center) accepted the award for Label of the Year, with GROOV Marketing and Promotion’s Josh Ellman (left) and Mark Rini

Like you, I view him as a major figure in music, but in the jazz world he’s a kind of a new entity.  The last few years I’ve seen him walking around the Monterey Jazz Festival and no one stops him because he just looks like your usual Bay area hippie, even though he’s actually from Detroit. 

That’s a producer’s thing. Lots of people don’t know what Phil Ramone looks like.  Or Arif Mardin. All these names. There are only a few like Quincy who became stars in their own. But Don is a true old-school producer, who just helps the artist make the best music he can make and gets out of the way. Like Tommy LiPuma, who was also that kind of guy.

That’s your lane as well.  Your career as a producer is impressive too. What are you doing as a producer recently?

I just finished Alex Han’s record. Alex is the saxophonist in my band and he’s got a really good record that’s coming out.

Photo of Alex Han, Christian Scott and Marcus Miller
Alex Han, Christian Scott and Marcus Miller on Tutu Revisited tour

I just finished a movie score for a film called Marshall which is based on a young Thurgood Marshall. When he first started, he was the only lawyer for the NAACP. He was running from Alabama to Mississippi to Connecticut, defending blacks who had been unfairly accused of crimes. He was the only one.  He was running. This film focuses on a particular case in Connecticut where a black chauffeur was accused of raping the wife of the couple that he was driving for. So it’s a courtroom drama. But very good. It stars Chadwick Boseman, the guy who played James Brown and Jackie Robinson, and he’s playing a young Thurgood.

He was really great as James Brown and as Jackie Robinson. That’s a tall order to play iconic figures.

He’s a great actor. He really gets into his roles. Reginald Hudlin is the director. Reggie and I did a bunch of movies together, including Eddie Murphy and Sam Jackson stuff.  But this was a low budget movie, and Reggie said, “I’m calling all these people to ask them to do it.” And they all said “Yes, I want to do it, because it needs to be done.”  He had the director of photography from Iron Man who said, “I’ll take a break from Iron Man, because I need to do this.” It’s one of those labor of love projects. It will probably be out in October.

With biopics you never know if they’ll work, because there’s so much baggage that the audience brings when watching something about iconic figures like Brown, Hendrix, Miles or Charles.  But with Thurgood Marshall, maybe it’s a different thing.

Exactly, this didn’t have that baggage.  People have only one picture of Thurgood Marshall for the most part and that’s the distinguished Supreme Court judge. So it’s fun to see him as a young guy who has some swagger and confidence and a real three-dimensional personality, so this wasn’t so tough. It’s actually just revealing for people.

What’s your own next recording project?

I’m working on my next one now and my big job is to narrow it down to one idea, out of all the ideas I have floating around. I’m going to have some fun on this album.

Your most recent album Afrodeezia was all about weaving the international influences and sounds into your music, centered on the tracing of the slave trade routes with African, Caribbean and American connections, as well as looking at the music of Turkey. Are you still working on that theme?

For this album, I might stay a little more local.  And see if I can show people what Americans do also. That’s going to be fun, because I was trying to open up America’s ears to what’s going on in the world. But now, I think “Hey, I need to bring some funk to Istanbul,” so they know what’s going on our side. I gotta keep that balance.

It was sad for us to lose Al Jarreau and also to not get to spend time with him on the Jazz Cruise earlier this year.

Yes, he was really looking forward to it.  The doctors said, “Dude, you gotta lay out.”  But Al was like “No, I’m getting on that boat.” I was just honored that he would even try that hard to be a part of that final cruise. But it wasn’t meant to be and who else left such a beautiful human musical legacy than Al?  Just put on his record.  Just like Luther [Vandross].  Just like Miles. For people who aren’t artists, how do you leave a part of yourself?  But you put on an Al Jarreau record, like “Take Five” and it’s like he’s right there.  Almost like a hologram. Because who he is comes through that music so clearly. We can miss him but we have his music and that’s so great.

Photo from International Jazz Day
Christian McBride, Sadao Watanabe, Al Jarreau and Lee Ritenour (from left) perform in the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016

I did an interview with him a few months before he died and he mostly wanted to talk about race and politics. 

We were in Cuba for International Jazz Day and what we were saying is that “It’s so nice to be here now because there’s another relationship again and this place might not stay like this for very long.”

Well, now we’re back maybe to the old freeze-out.

Right, President Trump is talking about turning it back. It’s a shame. It would be incredible if we were able to take advantage of a small window to go to this place. It’s so close. I took a flight from New Jersey, took a nap and we were landing. In my mind, I was thinking it was one of those 25-hour flights because it was Cuba and so far away politically. But it’s so close to Florida.

Yep, just 90 miles away from the U.S.  JazzTimes promoted many jazz trips to Cuba based on the cultural exchange license with Insight Cuba. And Cubans really love American culture. What we found is that the Cuban musicians wanted to learn the swing feel and American musicians wanted to learn the clave feel.

 I met one percussionist there and I said, “Man, wait, play it again and let me get my phone out and record this…good.”  I told him, “When I come back I’m going to have this thing down.”  I spent a lot of time just disappearing there into the neighborhoods.  And at one point, it was looking pretty rough. And a guy said to me, “What do you want?” I realized that it was the only way he knew how to say, “How can I help you?”  Next thing I know he’s introducing me to his family and we’re taking pictures.  People need to experience this [warmth].

Many there have so little, but they’ll share with you what they have. And conversely, you end up giving them whatever you have, whether it be guitar strings or whatever.

 Exactly. I wished I had my b-Flat clarinet with me because I would have given it to one of the clarinetists there, because he sounded so beautiful, but I looked close at his horn and that thing was being held together with bubble gum. I said, “If I had my clarinet here, it would be yours.”

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Marcus Miller is the musical director for the Blue Note at Sea cruise, which sails January 28 – February 4, 2018.