Mulgrew Miller was born on August 13, 1955 in Greenwood, Mississippi He began his career as member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.
Miller was picking out melodies on the piano by ear at 6, taking lessons at 8 and going on gigs with his older brother by 10. As a teen, he soaked up every kind of music available in his small Southern hometown - blues, country & western, gospel, R & B, classical - but not until he heard his first jazz record by Oscar Peterson did he find a focus for his passion. “I was blown away,” he recalls. “It was a life changing event. I knew right then that I would be a jazz pianist.”
So in a world where some of the brightest talents burn out early, and some of the most gifted musicians get lost in the jazz life, Miller chose the “easy does it” approach at age 15, focusing 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. He found mentors like James Williams and Donald Brown at Memphis State University who taught him to listen to the greats, saxophonist Bill Easley who got him his first professional gig, and Ray Charles sideman Rudolph Johnson who introduced him to Eastern spirituality. These influences, combined with the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and the lessons of the civil rights movement integral to his Greenwood, Mississippi, childhood, shaped him as both a person and an artist.
In a childhood filled with early musical experiences, he was mostly playing gospel music in his church and R&B and blues at dances. Mulgrew was constantly meddling in jazz piano, and established a trio in high school that would play cocktail parties. Miller admits that they didn't really know what they were doing and were merely "approaching jazz". Miller is said to have set his mind definitely to becoming a jazz pianist after seeing Oscar Peterson (a first for Mulgrew) on television. Much of Mulgrew's playing has the same technical prowess so often connected with Peterson. Currently, Mulgrew maintains a working trio with Ivan Taylor on bass, and Rodney Green on drums. He has released four albums to date with Derrick Hodge (bass) and Karriem Riggins (drums) (both on the label Max Jazz Records): Live At Yoshi's Vol. 1 (2004), Live At Yoshi's Vol. 2 (2005), Live At The Kennedy Center Vol. 1 (2006), and Live At The Kennedy Center Vol. 2 (2007).
On May 20, 2006, Miller was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Performing Arts at Lafayette College's 171st Commencement Exercises.
Miller lived in Easton, Pennsylvania with his wife Tanya and daughter Lelani. In 2006 he was appointed the Director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University. He was the Artist in Residence at Lafayette College for 2008-2009.
And so he has worked steadily as a musician, including three years with Woody Shaw’s Quintet, three with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra and over six years with the Tony Williams Quintet. He’s featured on over 500 recordings total and has composed nonstop. In 1985 Miller made his first recording as a leader for producer Orrin Keepnews’ former label, Landmark, and later recorded on the RCA Novus label. He tours throughout the world and in 1997, was invited to tour Japan with an assembly of some of the most prestigious names in jazz piano – a group of ten pianists called “100 Gold Fingers” including Tommy Flanagan, Ray Bryant and Kenny Barron.
Miller was also a member of the Contemporary Piano Ensemble, a unique group consisting of four pianists performing simultaneously on four grand pianos with a rhythm section. Other innovative projects include his duos with Danish jazz bassist, Neils Henning Orsted Pederson, his commission to compose a special work for the Dayton Dance Company and his student workshops.
At age 15, it seemed Miller knew that he needed to pace himself for the long, illustrious career ahead of him.
Mulgrew Miller crossed over on May 29, 2013
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