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Farewell to 'Grew: Remembering and Celebrating Mulgrew Miller (1955-2013)

by Dan Lehner

Mulgrew Miller, Feast of Music

Pianist Mulgrew Miller, a constant fixture in the contemporary post-bop scene, died Wednesday at the age of 57. Largely known for his powerful performances, Miller was also an influential educator. Former student and FoM contributor Dan Lehner reflects on Miller's serene, yet inspiring tutelage.   

Mulgrew Miller's pearls of wisdom were rarely longer than ten words or so. While other mentors excel at multi-tiered metaphors and thorough deconstruction, Miller's advise was concise, elegant, and a little mysterious, almost like a koan or riddle. Students at William Paterson University, like myself and countless others, were given direction with phrases as straight-forward as, "Play a ballad like you're in love," or the somewhat more oblique, "The music has to dance." Like planted seeds, many of us, day by day, are realizing the full extent of these gems. 

What made these declarations all the more attractive to us young, aspiring jazz musicians was the context in which they were given: coated in a warm, congenial demeanor that Miller kept at all times. Professor Miller spoke in terms of endearment and respect both to and about his students, referring to us as his "children," but also addressing us by our formal "Mr." or "Mrs." salutation in introductions. His strong desire to impart his tutelage on theory, music, professionalism, and life was evident in his actions more than simply his words, and he never bad-mouthed a student—even if he disapproved of their playing. 

Perhaps the obvious draw of listening to or studying with Mulgrew Miller was his immense presence and stature in the jazz world. Miller played in some of the most titanic groups in jazz history, including Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and the ever-unsung Woody Shaw small groups. His rounded touch, clever and educated harmonic sense, and playful, energetic virtuosity contributed to countless performances with artists like Tony Williams, Wallace Roney, Betty Carter, Kenny Garrett, and Benny Golson. Beyond "straight-ahead" operations, Miller also tackled more left-of-center gigs with artists like John Scofield and Dave Holland (the only pianist Holland has used on any of his records as a leader). 

Joyfully, it wasn't just on record or at club dates that students were blessed with his playing. Miller made a point of performing in front of us as often as possible, both formally and informally. In class, we were often treated to impromptu solo piano performances of his favorite standards, like "Old Folks" or "I Love You," and he rallied fans into frenzied excitement when performing at the WPUNJ Jazz Room Series, and brought them back down for moments of the sublime.

It would seem that no matter what he did or which hat he wore (program director, private teacher, ensemble director, pianist, mentor, advocate, or even casual observer), he did so with grace and unpretentious mastery. In the hearts of many students, his absence is resonating due to his immeasurable impact. We will take his lessons and his warmth with us in the future, and all who knew him are using our memories to conjure our private goodbyes.

Rest easy, 'Grew.