Ron Miles, a cornetist, composer, and educator who became a revered and innovative figure in jazz while maintaining a career in the far-flung state of Colorado, died March 8 at his home in Denver. He was 58.
His death was first reported by Ryan Warner of Colorado Public Radio and confirmed by his record label, Blue Note Records. Cause of death was complications from polycythemia vera, a rare blood disorder.
Miles was jazz’s foremost modern practitioner of the cornet—a close relative of the trumpet that is vanishingly rare in postwar jazz. Between that instrument and his self-chosen distance from the music’s mecca in New York, he was an unlikely artist to acquire a substantial profile. However, the exceptionally warm tone, no-frills conception, and emotional resonance of his playing drew the New York jazz elite to him.
He worked for many years with drummer Rudy Royston and guitarist Bill Frisell (both fellow Denverites), forming a trio with Frisell and drummer Brian Blade in the 2010s. He later expanded the trio into a quintet with pianist Jason Moran and bassist Thomas Morgan—still his working band when he passed away. Other collaborators included Myra Melford, Joshua Redman, Matt Wilson, Jenny Scheinman, Ben Goldberg, and Mary Halvorson.
In the last two years of his life, Miles achieved two long-desired career goals. He released an album on Blue Note Records (2020’s Rainbow Sign, recorded with his quintet) and headlined (with that same quintet) Manhattan’s Village Vanguard, the first artist to do so upon the storied club’s September 2021 reopening.
Always a progressive figure looking to push the musical envelope, Miles was also in a position of high influence as a longtime jazz educator and the coordinator of the jazz studies program at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Students frequently noted his kindness, support, and generosity.
“I cold-called him on the phone once to ask for trumpet advice,” Canadian musician and professor Patrick Boyle wrote. “He treated me like he was phoning me.”
Many of Miles’ friends and colleagues paid tribute to him on social media. “Ron Miles forever,” Moran wrote on Twitter. “I’ve always cried while playing Ron’s music with him, but now even more.”
“Beautiful soul, huge loss,” added trumpeter Jaimie Branch.
Ronald Glen Miles was born May 9, 1963 in Indianapolis, Indiana to Fay Downey Miles and Jane Miles, both federal government employees. When he was 11, the family moved to Denver, where—apart from a brief stint in New York for school—he spent the remainder of his life.
He was still in elementary school when his parents enrolled him in a summer music program. Miles chose the trumpet, mostly, he told journalist Peter Hum, “because it was shiny.” However, he eventually grew to love the instrument, overcoming both asthma and braces to master it. In high school he delved deeper into jazz, encouraged by a teacher who introduced him to Clifford Brown and Clark Terry.
Miles studied music at the University of Denver, where he graduated in 1985, then spent a year at New York’s Manhattan School of Music before returning to Denver. It was in the Mile High City that he made his career, building a stable of collaborators that included saxophonist Fred Hess and Mark Harris, bassist Mark Simon, pianist Art Lande, and drummer Royston. (The titles of his 1986 debut album Distance Is Safety and its track “New York Is Not America” make his feelings about the Big Apple clear.)
He began working with Frisell in the mid-1990s; the guitarist arranged for Miles to appear on The Sweetest Punch, Frisell’s 1999 collaboration with Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. (Miles had also worked with Cream-turned-jazz drummer Ginger Baker on 1996’s Coward of the County.) In the mid-2000s, he switched to cornet as his main instrument.
It was really in his final decade that Miles’ profile rose. He debuted his trio with Frisell and Blade in 2011, also working with Frisell’s acclaimed Floratone project, with Melford’s Snowy Egret, and in a highly regarded trio setting with Moran and Halvorson (documented on 2016’s Bangs). He was a member of Redman’s Still Dreaming quartet along with Blade and bassist Scott Colley. His two albums with his expanded quintet, 2017’s I Am a Man and 2020’s Rainbow Sign, both appeared on multiple critics’ year-end lists.
Miles had been scheduled to appear at the 2022 Big Ears festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his quintet. His medical issues had previously forced him to withdraw; however, Moran, Frisell, Morgan, and Blade will perform together on a March 25 program of Miles’ compositions.
He is survived by his wife, the former Kari Mickelson, a concert flutist; a daughter, Justice Miles; a son, Honor Miles; his mother Jane, brother Johnathan, sisters Shari Miles-Cohen and Kelly West, and half-sister Vicki M. Brown.