My friend Mulgrew Miller died today (May 29, 2013)



I have revised this post by adding many more links to recordings, performances and teaching moments found on YouTube, photographs, Wikipedia entries, and links to if one is interested in purchasing Mulgrew Miller’s WORK or Tony Williams’ Angel Street.

I saw this photo on Friday and thought about Mulgrew Miller.  My friend and colleague, Mulgrew Miller, had just suffered a massive stroke.

This photo made me smile.  It is pleasant, it is kind.  It is simple and understandable until you delve deeper, and then it is amazingly complex and the intricacy gets more fascinating.  But one comes back to the photo and the weaving that took place – all of the great work that must have gone into creating something so beautiful and accessible but artistic and layered.  The more I looked at this, the more I thought it was particularly suitable to use in writing about my friend.  It makes me think of Mulgrew.

I started to write this on Friday, hoping, praying and expecting that Mulgrew would recover.  I looked forward to seeing Mulgrew and talking with him soon.


I first heard of Mulgrew Miller from reading an article in the New York Times, probably in 1986 or 1987.  The article was about the present state of jazz in the United States.

The article went on to state that the two (2) finest composers of their generation were MULGREW MILLER and GERI ALLEN.  I jumped for joy when I read the name, Geri Allen, as Geri and I had been good friends and classmates in grad school at the University of Pittsburgh a few years earlier.  Geri always carried around a cassette recorder and was recording her compositions at every moment in between every class.  I did too and the two of us would often play our new compositions for each other and discuss the nuts and bolts of music and the music we were writing.  Geri was an ethnomusicology major – I was a music composition major.  She was “ethno,” along with other friends of mine in the ethnomusicology program, so that they could learn a lot about the arts and cultures, and be in a great grad school doing jazz with Prof. Nathan Davis and other distinguished graduate faculty.

I had seen the name, “Mulgrew Miller,” before but hadn’t heard his music.  The NY Times’ praise meant I would leave my house immediately and go get some of his music.  If he and Geri were the best in jazz, I needed to know his music too.  Simple.

I found his 1986 album, WORK.  If all you got to hear was the first song on the album, “Sublimity,” you’d understand why Mulgrew was a musical force.  He begins with a few spacious chords that have time to breathe, added a brief melody, then more chords.  It is not a “look what I can do statement,” although you hear great technique throughout, but an interesting invitation to lean in and anticipate great stuff to follow.  And then at 0.30, the chords and music become more punctuated and serious, you feel the context is changing, that the band is about to enter, they enter and the music changes shape and evolves – what had been sounding in the solo piano begins to get dispersed between the newcomers –  bass and drums – in a carefully developed manner.

The entire album really hooked me.  I agreed with the NY Times – these were the two best composers of their generation.

I then got to know as much of his music as possible.  I bought all of his solo albums as well as many albums which featured Mulgrew as pianist in a band.  Mulgrew was the pianist with many jazz greats including my favorite drummer, Tony Williams.  (I first learned Tony Williams from the Miles Davis quintet (specifically, Miles’ second great quintet – 1964-68) recordings of the 1960’s and then especially for his music in his fusion group, Lifetime.  I got to see Tony Williams’ Lifetime one century ago at the Jazz Workshop in Boston, a place where I had seen Weather Report and other legends.).

All of Mulgrew’s work with Tony Williams is great.  If you don’t know the music Mulgrew created as a band member, I’d start with Obsession, the last song on Tony Williams’ album, Angel Street.  Obsession is very short especially considering the novel that is jammed into this four-minute work!  Listen to Mulgrew’s chords and comping from the beginning.  One wonders how a piano will fit after the frantic solos one has just heard, and how Mulgrew will spin a solo after all of his great chords played from the beginning.  Well, Mulgrew’s solo is exactly one minute in length and is a book-within-a-book here.  Listen from 2.41 to 3.41.  And then pause and keep studying this four-minute work.  At some point, come up for air and listen to the album from the beginning.


How I got to know Mulgrew was completely by accident.  I lived in New York City at the corner of West 51st and 7th Ave. [the 20th floor of The Executive Plaza] from August – December of 2005 while I taught two courses and was the faculty administrator for a music business program of students from Nashville who would spend their Fall semester in Manhattan.  This was the program’s second year.  My friend, Prof. Steve Marcone, created and ran the music and entertainment industry program at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ.  Steve had wanted me to teach a course one evening per week while I was in residence in Manhattan – I took the 197 bus from Gate 233 of the NYC Port Authority every Tuesday afternoon to Wayne, NJ.  Steve picked me up from the bus, brought me to campus, we talked, then I taught for 3 hours, then Steve & I hung out, then I took the bus back to the Port Authority and eventually I would find my back to 150 W. 51st usually after my favorite distractions of Hell’s Kitchen.  The entire two-bus two-hang one-Hell’s Kitchen trip was always wonderful.  As my people say, “wicked cool.”

One day while sitting in Steve’s squished cinderblock office, I noticed the name, “M U L G R E W       M I L L E R” on the door across from (or very close to) his office.  I was shocked and said, “MULGREW MILLER is on your faculty?!?! The famous MULGREW MILLER?”  Steve told me that it was indeed the famous Mulgrew Miller.  At that moment, I took the school even more seriously but I also realized that the school was luckier than it deserved.

Move ahead a couple of years.  I wanted to move north to be closer to my Mom as she was aging and I wanted to be able to help and spend more precious time with her.  A job opening came about at William Paterson, I got hired and moved to New Jersey.  (I was now only 3 hours and 15 minutes from her residence.)

Because I was the newbie on the faculty, the procedure was to review the teaching of every new professor somewhat frequently.  I was fortunate to receive very good reviews and have Mulgrew as my reviewer on a few occasions.  This also meant that Mulgrew would come to my music theory classes as well as my intellectual property (IP) classes. At one point, I had Mulgrew come to an IP class (not as a reviewer) in order to give students his feedback on their presentations.  And to also talk with me more about IP, music and creativity.  I always loved the exchanges with him.

I also would see Mulgrew often in the hallways or practice rooms.  When he was on campus, his presence was large – physically, yes, but his presence as in The Master is here.  Time spent with Mulgrew was valued by students, faculty and staff.  He was always in demand because of how he thought, how he played, how much he knew, how incredibly musical he was, how he listened to people, their music, their questions, their comments but mostly I feel because of his kindness and soul.  When I, or everyone I knew or even noticed was around him, we felt the presence of a special being.  As big as his talent and creativity were, his personal qualities and gentleness prevailed.  I always felt lucky to see and interact with him.  As quickly as possible, I realized that this musical hero to me, who was now a colleague, was just such a great and modest guy.  His charm was disarming as can be.  I was comfortable with Mulgrew immediately.

As I got to know Mulgrew better, I had to ask him – no, tell him – to stop calling me “Doctor” or “Professor.”  I told him that you are Mulgrew Miller and I call you Mulgrew.  I should call you SIR.  He laughed.  He told me I deserved the titles and the respect.

He was that kind of guy but I’ll always remember when he first called me Michael.  He’d later some times call me the D word or the P word but I just felt good and knew that I was so lucky to have, in addition to his friendship, his respect.  Yikes.


I woke up thinking about Mulgrew today.  Like all of his family, colleagues and friends, I worried about my friend.  But for some reason, his song, The Sage, from WORK, was in my head.  It is his most blues-like, simplest, and catchiest on the album.  It begins deceptively in a kind of Eb Dorian with a very simple but rhythmically slippery rhythm to its right hand melody.  I kept singing it, along with my variations and improvisation on it, in the woods, and at home have been playing AT it on my piano.  No, I can’t play it yet but I will work at it.

Mulgrew made sure I was on guest lists whenever he played in New York.  I didn’t expect that or ask for that favor, but deeply appreciated his kindness.  I almost always went to these concerts alone.  I liked this best because I could really concentrate on the music, and maybe more importantly, talk to Mulgrew at breaks or afterwards.

Mulgrew always had such a kind, sincere and humble way about him.  When you were in his presence, you just felt comfortable and happy.  If you didn’t know he was a gigantic creator and performer, you still wouldn’t have known after spending time with him.  Unless the subject turned to music.  Mulgrew wouldn’t necessarily talk shop all the time.  He really liked people and I valued time with him just spent talking about whatever would come up.

MAY 29 has always been a great day for me to celebrate as it is the birthday of two (2) of my heroes – composer Iannis Xenakis and President John F. Kennedy.

Today, May 29, 2013, is also the 100th anniversary of the enormous scandal at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, aka The Rite Of Spring.

Sadly, today will now also mark the death of my friend, Mulgrew Miller.  But in the ways that I am grateful for wonderful people, places and art I have known, I am extremely grateful that Mulgrew’s music and then friendship came into my life.  I know Mulgrew will continue to be one of those shining beacons that stand out and serve to inspire us to know and love music and each other more.


I want to end this with a couple of videos of my friend.  We are so fortunate that he left behind so many recordings, people deeply influenced by him, and some marvelous videos.

In this interview, Mulgrew discusses how most jazz pianists were trained (often initially via a classical music foundation), came to jazz and developed, as well as how improvisation can be taught, what a teacher can do, and what a student must do.  These five and half minutes are profound.

But this might be my favorite video as it is so intimate.  There seems to be a camera only inches from the right side of Mulgrew’s head while he so casually demonstrates such great playing (All The Things You Are) to a student.  Notice how Mulgrew looks so often at the student.  Making sure this student is comprehending chord voicings, voice-leading, harmonic variation, melody and melodic variation are of utmost importance to this great Creator, Professor and Musician.  One can learn a lot about who Mulgrew was in this two minute video.

I am forever honored, humbled and grateful for having known Mulgrew’s music from the 1980’s but more so for having Mulgrew as my friend.  I send my deepest love and sympathy to Mulgrew’s family, friends and students.  We were so lucky to have Mulgrew Miller in our lives.


Three Songs (5/4) & Some Thoughts (7/4) About Dave Brubeck (9/8)


Dave Brubeckone of my musical heroes, was respected by every musician I have ever known.  He was the first American whose jazz excited me.  My first exposure to his music was through one of his big hit songs (yes, a jazz musician who was creative, brilliant, and commercially successful without having “sold out”).  That hit was “Take Five,” written by his sax player, Paul Desmond.  I was too young to play or analyze it  –  I only knew that it made me happy (I think I was five years old when it was released).

I was extremely fortunate to have met Dave Brubeck once.  He seemed to be as great a person as his music.  But before I met him, I met his drummer, Joe Morello who came to Framingham North High School (now known as Framingham High School) and gave a masterclass.  I remember that Morello was brilliant, looked like Roy Orbison (especially with his thick horn-rimmed glasses) and played complex meters and really well.  I liked but didn’t love what I was hearing but had enormous respect for him.  It’s easy to fall for what a passionate and virtuosic person is putting out, regardless of your age, culture, and in my case, as a young kid at a very heady jazz drum master class, maturity.  I knew that someday I’d explore jazz, just not that day or month.  (It took Miles Davis for me to “get it”  –  jazz  –  completely.  And then came the ultimate for me  –  Weather Report)

Brubeck, one of my heroes, studied with French composer and Mills College professor,  Darius Milhaud, another hero of mine.  Milhaud, as well as a few other “serious” composers/art music composers of the first quarter of the 20th century, was profoundly impacted by American jazz and incorporated elements of jazz into his composing.  My favorite Milhaud composition is his hugely influential 1923 work, La creation du monde, here conducted by Leonard Bernstein.  Click that link and for 17 minutes enter a fascinating world.

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One of the important features of a lot of Dave Brubeck’s music is his use of rhythm and especially uncommon time signatures.  Brubeck met with resistance from Columbia Records when he insisted on having songs with unusual meter/time signatures on his brilliant million-selling album, Time Out.  Fortunately for music, the public and Columbia Records, they gave in.

I have selected three (3) Dave Brubeck songs, each in a different and unusual meter.  5 beats per measure, 7 beats per measure and 9 beats per measure are far less common than the most common meter in Western music – 4 beats per measure.  In keeping with the idea of three –  3 different time signatures/meters  –  I have also compiled three (3) sets of three (3) songs each.  In each of these three 3-song sets, I have chosen a Brubeck composition and followed it with two (2) other compositions that share the same number of beats.  In each example, the songs I have selected are not of the same style.

I grouped these songs together in this manner so as to hear Dave Brubeck’s music and his take on an unusual meter followed by other artists’ versions of the same meter.  This is the manner in which I usually approach music  –  find music from disparate, seemingly unrelated  styles and periods and locate what they have in common.  It might be my inner anthropologist at work.  It’s also how my Dad lived – connecting dots that did not reach out to be connected.


5   5   5   5   5

Dave Brubeck  –  Take Five (1959)   This is not the original studio recording but a live faster version recorded in 1961.  This is how most of the world learned to feel and count five (5) beats per measure.  5 = 3 + 2.  To me, it still seems the best way to subdivide 5 beats.  Paul Desmond, not Dave Brubeck, wrote Take Five.  As with the other time signatures below, Brubeck is not the first to have used them.  But the music he wrote that has these particular time signatures is superb and deserves to be widely known.

Lalo Schifrin  –  Mission Impossible Theme (1966)   Lalo Schifrin’s theme music to the television series, Mission Impossible, in addition to being the best theme song in the history of television theme songs, is the second best known example of 5/4.  Like Paul Desmond’s Take Five, Schifrin has also used   5 = 3 + 2.  Lalo Schifrin.

Uakti  –  Ovo Da Serpente (The Serpent’s Egg) (1987) I’ve adored the music and sound of Uakti since I first heard them in the early 1980’s on a Milton Nascimento recording.  This Brazilian ensemble has also recorded with Paul Simon and Philip Glass.  With respect to Simon and Glass, in my opinion, Uakti was the “big deal” in these recordings.  Back in the mid-1990’s I flew from Nashville to Boston just to hear Uakti perform live (at Boston University) in a short American tour.  As I recall, Boston and New York were the only U. S. East coast cities on that tour.  (I would love to write more about Uakti in other blog posts.)


7   7   7   7   7   7   7 

Dave Brubeck  –  Unsquare Dance (1961)  Just as Dave had made 5/4 simple, normal and fun, in “Unsquare Dance he makes 7/4 your new favorite meter.  7 = 2 + 2 + 3.  This is the Brubeck studio recording choreographed.

Pat Metheny  –  Finding & Believing  (1992) Pat Metheny wrote and performed most of the instruments on this song in 7/4 and throughout his great and massive 1992 album, Secret Story.

Sting  –  Straight To My Heart  (1987)  One of my favorite aspects of Sting as a composer is his use of – what I respectfully call  –  “music theory tricks.”  If one transcribes and analyzes Sting’s music, it is obvious that Sting has (maybe often) considered structural aspects of music before and during his composing.  (To discuss Sting’s music theory tricks more would mean writing more about music theory and structure, something I do not want to do here.)


9   9   9   9   9   9   9   9   9

Dave Brubeck  –  Blue Rondo A La Turk (1959)  I selected the brilliant night photograph of the Eiffel Tower for the cover of this blog post for several reasons.

1.  The Eiffel Tower is one of the world’s most unique and magnificent  structures immediately recognizable to people from all over our planet.  The same can be said for Dave Brubeck’s music.

2.  The Eiffel Tower is a symbol of not only Paris and France but the entire European Union, and it was in Europe that Brubeck heard many complex and irregular time signatures.  Blue Rondo A La Turk revealed Brubeck’s influence by and capture of Turkish rhythms.  (Beethoven and Mozart had also been enthralled with Turkish music.)

3.  The Eiffel Tower is pointing upward.  Is there a heaven above?  Above has always fascinated many of us and pointing and living upward is inspirational to me.  Dave Brubeck represents upward.

Blue Rondo A La Turk is a masterpiece.  9 = 2 + 2 + 2 + 3.  I started to learn to play Blue Rondo A La Turk in my usual way  – put on the record and play along with it.  I kept putting the needle back to the opening and early sections as it is not easy to learn this work, especially as an untrained high school musician.  But when I knew I’d come to a stop and not be able to ever play this entire thing was when I got to 1.36 – 1.39 of the song  – the FANTASTIC & BIG CHORDS in contrary motion.  Damn it  –  that was going to require a lot of practice.  I did the easy thing  –  quit trying to play it, love what Brubeck was doing and move on!

And then comes this abruptly different, laid back bluesy section at 1.53 – 1.57.  For all of four seconds, the song changes character until the agitated opening 9  = 2 + 2 + 2 + 3  thing returns abruptly.  (There is a musical concept of “multiple time” that would describe this as well.)  If you have it in you, write a Blue Rondo A La Turk and place it is as your album’s opening track.

Milton Nascimento & Wayne Shorter  –  Ponta De Areia (1974)  Ponta De Areia is the opening song on the extremely important album, Native Dancer, an album that featured the first-time collaborative writing and performing of music legends from the United States (Wayne Shorter) and Brazil (Milton Nascimento).  Nascimento’s 9 beats per measure (9/4 rather than 9/8) are really long, temporally speaking.  Brubeck’s 9 fly by, whereas Nascimento’s 9 almost contain story lines as the rhythm section is left to create subplots within.  Listen especially to how much takes place in the drums, bass & keyboard from 0.41 – 1.28, a relatively long span of time with lots of smart activity but one which features only eight (8) measures of 9/4.

Sting  –  I Hung My Head  (1996) – Sting’s I Hung My Head epitomizes what I mean by “music theory tricks” above.  in this song, Sting divides 9 in a unique manner:  5 beats followed by 2 and 2.  9 = 5 + 2 + 2.  You can hear this pattern in the bass.  The drummer is left to also articulate a 9-beat pattern but his is even more peculiar and agitational, in terms of the context.  This drum pattern is in the forefront.  Not that drummers are often hard to notice but in this case, the drum accents predominate and propel the band.  Whereas the bass plays 9 = 5 + 2 + 2, the drum rearranges this palindromically (not a palindrome per se, but palindromically)  :  9 = 2 + 5 + 2.

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This post went in a direction different from writing a eulogy.  (I had not intended to write a eulogy – I only intended to write a few sentences more than my Foursquare entry last night shortly after I heard the sad news about Dave Brubeck.)  To me this post is a conversation (at this point, only a monologue) about great music.  When you’ve “received” a great work, it leads to more thoughts and appreciation of the work and that should lead to…  “Have you heard this?”  Or… “What do you think about this?”

I am deeply grateful for Dave Brubeck  – who he was, what he gave us, where he led us, and how he inspired us.