Lee Mergner Remembers Jim Miller

JazzTimes contributing editor pays tribute to Philadelphia-based jazz drummer and record label owner (6/13/53 – 2/25/19)

Drummer Jim Miller
Drummer Jim Miller

Have you ever known someone for so long that you can’t remember when or where or how or even why you first met? Sometimes we have those electric first encounters, but just as often we meet casually, accidentally, circumstantially, and over time we become close from shared values and experiences. That’s how it was for me and the Philadelphia-based drummer, record label owner, and community activist Jim Miller.

I’ve dug through my addled memory and what I came up with is me coming out to see his band Reverie, a jazz fusion band, sometime in 1978. They were playing in a little bar at 24th and Lombard. That must be the when and where. But the why and how? It should matter but it doesn’t. Somehow Jim, from the drum seat, seemed to be the leader and he convinced me that I could help the band. Or maybe I convinced him. See how foggy this all is?

We connected right away, the way you sometimes do with people you were destined to be lifelong friends with. I agreed to manage the band or at least try to get them gigs, something that I was certain I could do but was woefully unqualified to do. I was young. We were all young—in our early twenties, with no interest in any sort of normal professional life. We seemed to think that a jazz fusion band could be like the Beatles or all the bands in their wake that got signed by big labels and made it to the national stage. We were definitely inspired by the commercial and creative success of bands like Weather Report and Return to Forever, huge musical influences on the guys in Reverie. Hey, it was the ’70s, remember?

Jim and his friends in the original band—keyboardist Mark Knox, saxophonist Ed Yellen, and guitarist Jeff McMullen—had come from Indianapolis, or as they and only they called it, “India-no-place,” and inexplicably decided to put down roots in Philadelphia, or as we called it (and still do), Philly. Jim always told the story that when they were touring as a lounge cover band, they heard a Coltrane marathon on WRTI, the local jazz radio station, and decided that “this is the place for us.” I’m sure that’s mostly true. But it’s also obvious that they needed to get out of “India-no-place” and were looking for a place to land.

Land they did in Philadelphia, and they dove into the local jazz scene like men possessed. Or, more accurately, like creative artists without any steady income who nonetheless wanted to build something. McMullen was soon replaced by a young (still in high school) guitarist from Germantown named Jef Lee Johnson, who also played bass. Jef was in turn replaced on bass by a slightly older guy from West Philly named Gerald Veasley, who was 21 and only played bass. Pretty well, as it turned out. The band with and without Jef clicked and, during the time we worked together, we did build something: a band, a sound, an audience. Perhaps most importantly, a friendship.

For the next four years or so, I hustled on the band’s behalf as best I could and got them low-paying gigs at local clubs like the Khyber Pass, the Main Point, Grendel’s Lair, Stars, and so many other venues lost to time and real estate development. I pushed for a record deal with the little leverage and contacts I had. We thought we had struck gold with a bottom-feeding offer from Irv Kratka and Inner City Records, a jazz label that had done well with the Jeff Lorber Fusion, including a curly-haired saxophonist named Kenny Gorelnick. But unlike Kenny G, we struck tin. After we had delivered the band’s debut recording, featuring a cameo from guitarist Larry Coryell, the label reneged on the deal and we were left with an album without a home. I’m not sure who decided this, but in hindsight it had to be Jim: We created our own record label, Encounter, and put it out ourselves.

Philadelphia jazz fusion band Reverie (l to r: Gerald Veasley, Jim Miller, Mark Knox, Ed Yellen) at the Main Point in 1978
Philadelphia jazz fusion band Reverie (L to R: Gerald Veasley, Jim Miller, Mark Knox, Ed Yellen) at the Main Point in 1978

It did lead to more gigs, some out of town, and more ink, but it wasn’t enough. At least for me. I just couldn’t get traction for the band on a national level; I considered it a personal failure and blamed myself.  I moved on from the band, the label, and the city in the ’80s. Jim’s approach was very different. He took what he’d learned in putting out three Reverie albums and, without any resources or support beyond credit cards, he decided to make Encounter not a vanity label for Reverie but rather a vehicle for all the local artists who he felt deserved wider recognition—including many with whom he’d worked as a sideman, such as singers Evelyn Simms and Suzanne Cloud, pianists Eddie Green, Mark Kramer and Jim Ridl, and so many others. What sideman does that?

He transformed Encounter into Dreambox Media, which went on to release dozens of albums by Philadelphia jazz musicians. But putting out albums wasn’t enough. Jim and his friend Suzanne had seen so many of the older Philly jazz musicians suffer without proper health care and support systems. They formed the Jazz Bridge organization to offer benefits to local musicians in need. That organization is still active today. Clearly, this transplanted Hoosier had adopted Philly—its sports teams, its politics, its weather, its jazz scene, and of course its people.

Jim had always given lessons to young drummers, but he took it to another level working as an adjunct professor at Rowan University’s jazz program overseen by his friend, the saxophonist Denis DiBlasio. Teaching there enabled Jim to meet younger musicians, with whom he would work as they made their way in the world. With his support, naturally.

Like a lot of talented musicians, Jim didn’t have much formal education, having dropped out of Butler University to tour with a band, but he was an autodidact and exceedingly well-read. The avid reader turned out to be an excellent writer, and I’m not just talking about the thoughtful and sometimes sarcastic letters to the editor or op-ed pieces he’d do for the local papers. He also freelanced as a contributor to this magazine—doing reviews of box sets from artists about whom he seemed to know EVERYTHING … Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Weather Report, and other greats. He knew how to communicate that knowledge in an articulate but accessible way. His voice came through in his writing. Just like with music, it’s the most important thing.

In telling Jim’s story, I’ve buried the lead because I’ve run down his life like it was a résumé, but between all those so-called jobs and accomplishments was a man with a warm and colorful personality. Jim’s sense of humor was remarkable. He was smart, quick, wry. He loved comedy: Richard Pryor, Monty Python, Firesign Theatre, Airplane! and Police Squad!, and of course his fellow Hoosier David Letterman. Jim incorporated all of them into his own sensibility.

Jim was on the forefront of digital technology. Well, sort of. Before there were such things as smartphones or even camcorders, Jim somehow got hold of a video surveillance camera, and with that and an old-fashioned VCR he made a series of short films—parodies, mostly, of televangelists, infomercials, and even horror movies, such as his classic The Stalk of the Killer Celery. I don’t think they’re on Netflix.

Sci-fi was really his passion, specifically space travel. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a huge inspiration for Jim and Reverie, who had a song on their debut album named “Stop and Be Friendly,” titled their second album Watch the Skies, and named their record label Encounter. It wasn’t a tongue-in-cheek thing for Jim. He truly believed in the importance of space travel and felt that the universe holds unseen wonders. I remember telling Jim that I had seen Sun Ra at my bank in Germantown; Jim paused a moment and said, “Wait, he uses the currency of this planet?”

Here on Earth, Jim had a distinctive voice on his instrument. He was an avid fan of drummers such as Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, and Jack DeJohnette. Every one of those musicians informed Jim, but they didn’t define him. He always sounded like himself. He swung hard, listened carefully, and drove every band forward. He could bash if the gig called for it, or he could play subtly with brushes.

Drummer Jim Miller (photo by Anthony Dean)

I don’t think he got his due on a national level, and I know that must have bothered him. But he was always focused on the next gig or project, his or someone else’s. I think that he may have been overlooked as a drummer because, like one of my mentors, Billy Taylor, Jim became known more for what he did off the bandstand than on it. That’s not a knock on his gifts as a musician, but rather a simple testament to his character and impact.

After all, we should all be remembered not for what we did for ourselves—our résumé or list of personal accomplishments—but what we did for others. Jim measured up quite well there. I surely remember what Jim did for me and, more importantly, for the Philadelphia jazz scene. And I won’t forget it.

When my wife Irene would find out that I was going to see Jim play at a club somewhere, she’d say somewhat exasperatedly, “Are you going to the last set?” She knew that if I stayed until the end, I’d end up coming home shortly before dawn. We’d start talking as he broke down his kit, and we’d walk out together to the car, and then continue talking for another hour or two or three, catching up on things, telling jokes and sharing stories, under a starlight night. He’d eventually say goodbye and as he was getting into his car, he’d point up and say, “Watch the skies!” I will, Jim, I will.