The jazz world has lost a bevy of great names in recent years, even in recent months. Among them, saxophonists David “Fathead” Newman and Hank Crawford, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Johnny Griffin, guitarist Joe Beck, organist Jimmy McGriff, drummer Louie Bellson, and, in December, 2007, one of the world’s most popular jazz piano players, Oscar Peterson. On Inauguration Day, it was Peterson’s composition, “Hymn To Freedom” that was sung by San Francisco youth choruses at President Obama’s swearing-in ceremony.
Who will fill the immense shoes of someone like composer, bandleader, and piano player Peterson? His name is Mulgrew Miller, and he is appearing on Saturday, March 14, at McCarter Theater.
Miller’s most recent albums include “Live from the Kennedy Center, Vol. II,” “Live From Yoshi’s, Vol. II,” and “The Sequel,” all for the MaxJazz label.
“Growing up, I played blues and mostly classic R&B, and a lot of gospel piano,” Miller recalls of his childhood in Greenwood, Mississippi, the second son of two distinctly unmusical parents. Born in 1955, he prefers to think of himself as a child of the 1960s and early ’70s.
“Little Milton [Campbell] was the king where I was from, and he would come through occasionally and I remember seeing the posters for him when he would play the Elks Hall,” Miller says, adding he was too young to attend the legendary guitarist’s shows. “We listened to the radio a lot and one thing my father did do, was he bought us a piano.”
Miller says he began picking out gospel hymns heard in church on the family piano as a six-year-old. “We were Methodists, so we went to church all the time,” Miller relates, adding, “and when I was eight there was a guy who moved to town who became my teacher. His name was Albert Harrison.”
As a child in the south, Miller couldn’t help but be affected by gospel, classic blues, and classic R&B. But the real turning point came for him when he was 15. His older brother was staying up late to watch TV, because Oscar Peterson was going to perform. The young Miller stayed up with his brother. “I’d never heard anything like it. I’d never heard a piano played like that, growing up in the Delta there, even though there was more jazz on TV then than we have now. At that time, I was trying to play like Ramsey Lewis,” Miller says. “My older brother, also a musician, kept telling me about Oscar Peterson, and so I stayed up and watched the show with him. The next day I was different. All of a sudden, I knew which way I was supposed to go after that.
“I saw a door open that I didn’t know was there. His style was everything I wanted. I had been studying and playing R&B when I first saw Oscar. What he was doing was the best of both worlds; I knew it was something of integrity and sophistication.”
Years later, Miller actually met his musical hero, as often happens in the worlds of blues, folk, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll music. “He couldn’t imagine what kind of an impact he had on me,” Miller says, “but the first time I met him, I was shaking too much to tell him all that stuff. I was with [vocalist] Betty Carter in 1980 and I played at a concert he played. I walked into his dressing room and introduced myself, but he was getting ready for the gig, so I didn’t want to disturb him too much. Some years later, I hung out with him for several hours at the Blue Note in New York. At that time, I tried to let him know what a huge inspiration he had been to me.
Today, you can hear influences of Peterson’s style in Miller’s playing, as well as the blues, gospel, and classic rhythm and blues he grew up with in the Mississippi Delta.
After getting out of high school in Greenwood — also boyhood home to actor/producer Morgan Freeman and Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin — Miller attended Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis, for two years. He was majoring in music education when he caught his first big break, the chance to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the direction of the bandleader’s son, Mercer Ellington. “It was a weird kind of a break,” Miller recalls of the chance to join the Ellington Orchestra as a 21-year-old and the seemingly endless string of one-nighters on a bus with the Ellington band. “It was a big name organization, and there wasn’t much attention given to me as the pianist, understandably, because Mercer Ellington was conducting. But it was a great chance to learn on the road. It was very exhausting, but when you’re 21, you can handle it, riding on a custom Greyhound bus like that all night. It would probably kill me now.”
After moving to New York City in 1977 and short stays in Los Angeles and Boston, Miller got his first record deal with Landmark Records, a label run by producer Orrin Keepnews, in 1985.
These days, when he’s not on the road or teaching jazz studies at William Paterson College in Wayne, Miller makes his home in Easton, PA, just over the bridge from Phillipsburg.
Asked who was particularly influential or important in helping him to get to where he is now, Miller points out you don’t get anyplace without help from someone. “Two would stand out more than others,” Miller says, noting he first met his first mentor, James Williams, as a freshman at Memphis State University. “James was the guy who had it all together: he had the slick jazz records and was composing his own music and he was real, a people person, and a phenomenal pianist and a brilliant musician. He just took me under his wing and he took me on all these gigs.”
In retrospect, Miller says, his career has paralleled that of his former mentor Williams, who died in 2004. Shortly after Williams left Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Miller took over as the piano player with the legendary drummer. “Then he took the position as director of jazz studies at William Paterson College, until his untimely death in 2004. Now I sit in the old office he used to have,” he says. Williams died from liver cancer, despite never having touched a drop of alcohol or having had a cigarette. Says Miller, “it was the most mysterious thing.”
Miller also credits a musician he met on the west coast, Rudolph Johnson, a saxophonist with Ray Charles’s varying bands for years. He says Johnson helped him develop a more professional mindset and demeanor. He also introduced the young Miller to meditation and the Self Realization Fellowship.
Had he not been a musician, Miller says he would have taught school, so his current position at William Paterson is the perfect marriage of both occupations. He was named director of jazz studies at the university in 2005.
At his March 14 concert at McCarter, Miller will be accompanied by bassist Ivan Taylor and drummer Rodney Green. As a trio, the three have been working together for the last three years, he says. “I’ll play some things that are bluesy and some things from the Great American Songbook, a couple of bop tunes and a few of my original compositions. We’ll do a wide variety of things from within the jazz idiom.”
Mulgrew Miller Trio, McCarter Theater at Berlind, 91 University Place. Saturday, March 14, 7:30 p.m. Mulgrew Miller on piano, Ivan Taylor on bass, and Rodney Green on drums. $45. For more information on Miller visit www.mulgrewmiller.com. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.