I was living in Seattle and my manager received a cassette from someone named Ron Miles. I had no idea who he was. He had this idea for a recording project, and he sent it through Hans. I listened to this little cassette and I really liked it, but I wasn’t available to do the project. So I never talked to him; I just had this cassette and I put it up on my shelf.
Maybe a year later—I think this was 1993—I was driving up a hill in Seattle, and on the radio they’re playing this saxophonist. I’m listening to the song and then this sound comes in, and I thought, “Man, that sounds like that guy that I heard on the cassette,” and then I waited and they announce the saxophonist is Fred Hess, and “that was Ron Miles on trumpet.”
So then I go home and the cassette’s still sitting there and it has his phone number written on it. So I called him up and…wow. I knew he was from Denver but then it turned out that we had gone to the same high school, and we had these mutual friends, and he was close with my guitar teacher, Dale Bruning, so we ended up talking for quite a while. He invited me to come to Denver to do a concert. I hadn’t even seen Ron or met him or anything, but I went out to Denver, and we did this concert at the Ogden Theater in I think October of ’93. Musically it was just instantaneous brotherhood. If you look at all the stuff we’ve done since then, he’s one of the most important relationships I’ve ever had as a human.
I got really spoiled with having him around. Trumpet isn’t what you think of as an accompanying instrument—it’s usually the one that’s out front—but he was maybe the greatest accompanist I’ve ever played with. Whatever situation I was in, he would find the harmony or a way of orchestrating things that I had written. He would always step back and find the spot that lifted things up somehow. And by “lifted” I don’t mean higher and louder, but he would find some way from the inside of the music. That’s what was so amazing with Ron.
At the same time. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone as strong or as committed to staying so true to his own vision. As a musician and as a person, he was the most uncompromising, most honest person I’ve ever met. You couldn’t budge him from what was right.
It all becomes one thing: how generous he was with the music and just in general. Like the watch I’m wearing right now. One time I was with my wife in Denver, just for a day, and we met him for coffee at Metropolitan State University of Denver just for 20 minutes or something. He had this watch and I was said, “Wow, Ron, that’s a beautiful watch.” Then two weeks later in the mail, there’s this watch that I still wear every day. He would give you the shirt off his back if you happened to mention that you liked it: “Go on and take it, I don’t need it.”
He lived with the condition that took him from us [polycythemia vera] for the whole time I knew him. he had quite a number of surgeries throughout the years, and he went through unbelievable amounts of pain—I can’t even imagine the kind of pain that he was in sometimes—and he would never let on. As time went on he found ways of managing it better, so he really was able to keep it under the covers.
And he was always looking ahead. We’re even doing a gig in Colorado in February  that was supposed to include him—with Jason Moran, Brian Blade, and Thomas Morgan. He had been looking forward to doing that gig.
I think about him every day; he’s like a moral compass. He was like a teacher for me in that way. If there was some sort of question in my mind I would think, “What would Ron do in a situation like this?” It would help me get my head on straight. It might not be the easy thing to do; he wasn’t about how easy it was, he was about if it was right or wrong.
His sound is in me. It’s part of me now, I carry that with me, and that’s an amazing thing. So he’s still here in that way.
[As told to Mac Randall]