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.
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.