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Interview with Jon Miller

July 26, 2016

Miller-100-108Drummer, drum instructor and band leader Jon Miller lived in Montreal, Philadelphia and Amsterdam before locating to the west coast in 1999. He holds a B. Mus in Jazz Performance from McGill University and has studied drums with Alan Dawson, Martin Bradfield, Peter Magadini, Louis Williamson, Marvin “Smitty” Smith and Barry Elmes. He’s shared the stage with (among others) Jeff Healey, Charlie Hunter, Skip Bey, Vic Vogel and Hugh Fraser. Jon currently divides his time between teaching drums at Groove Studios and the Jon Miller Drum Studio as well freelance playing and leading his own groups including the Jon Miller Quartet. He released a new album this year Three Days in Winter which has enjoyed a lengthy stay on the college jazz charts.  Island Jazz interviewed him recently by email.

How did you get into jazz and what are your main influences?

My parents were into jazz, though not in a major way, still my dad talked about getting a huge kick out of hearing the entire Basie orchestra in a tiny club in New York, and there were Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey and Charlie Bird records in the family record collection. This was the backdrop I guess but jazz really happened for me because of a drum teacher I had in Sudbury, Ontario named Philip May. Phil had been to Berklee School of Music and was headed to York University in Toronto at the time he was my drum teacher. His drumming was really flamboyant and had a lot of personality, and he is also a really friendly, funny and intelligent person. He kind of opened my eyes to the idea of jazz as a living art form and he got me listening to drummers like Tony Williams and Al Foster with Miles Davis, Max Roach with Charlie Parker, Peter Erskine with Weather Report and Jack DeJohnette with Pat Metheny and others, and I also started to appreciate the my parent’s Brubeck and Blakey records. I wasn’t anywhere near understanding most of what was going on in the music yet but I was starting to appreciate it and to hear beyond what I had been listening to and playing up to then (punk, rock, prog rock and country, touring with a country band as a teenager). This led to studies at York University and eventually McGill. Along the way I got to study with Peter Magadini, Barry Elmes, Lou Williamson and Alan Dawson who were definitely influences along with the musicians I’ve already mentioned.

Do you have a particular musical philosophy?

This might seem like a roundabout answer but here goes: my dream radio station would play an eclectic mix of just good music regardless of genre or whether it is considered to be art music or commercial. Of course this is highly subjective but to my ears most music stations whether commercial or not tend to play one good track and then a lot of relative duds because they are locked into a format where they have to keep that style or particular vibe going…My dream station would cherry pick stuff played by all of the types of stations from all genres, along with things you never normally hear on the radio so as to just keep the good stuff coming.

In playing music I resist the idea that anything is off limits for the sake of fitting into a particular format. For example I think its great that one a reviewer described a track from 3 Days in Winter as channelling Captain Beefheart while picking up on a Miles Davis reference in another.

I love playing things that people know and are familiar with but its also very rewarding to play new music for the very first time. Playing a wedding or something is not a big a deal for me, I’ll shoot for the best bossa-nova I’ve ever played in moments like that, even if the audience is not in a position to pick up on this intent. In a different setting I’ll want to dig a little deeper to try to express through music something I think really needs to be said.

You’re originally from Montreal and have spent time in Philadelphia and Amsterdam. What inspired your move to the west coast in 2003?

Saying I’m from Montreal is a shorthand since where I’m from and grew up is more complicated. I was born in Pullman, Washington, and lived in Alberta and Ontario as a kid but spent a lot of time in Montreal later and I feel very at home there despite (or in part because of) the language thing. (I learned French in my 20s, nearly verging on fluency on a good day.) Also my wife April is from Montreal and we go back fairly frequently. Moving to the west coast was supposed to be temporary so my wife could do a one year teaching position at Uvic. Now 16 years later she’s tenured in the Department of Anthroplogy and we’re still here! I love the West Coast but I have no illusions about Victoria being any match for the dynamism of a larger center, but by the same token the larger cities I’ve lived in don’t have a lot of the things we take for granted here.

How do you find the jazz scene here compared to other centres you’ve lived?

Of all the places I’ve lived Philadelphia has the richest heritage of jazz. While there I studied with a drummer who had studied with Philly Joe Jones and another who worked regularly with Pat Martino. At a jam session I met an older drummer who had just gotten a call from Sonny Rollins who wanted to do some playing. Also the Eubanks family are from there and Orrin Evans was an up-and-coming pianist at that time. Drummer Ralph Peterson and pianist Uri Caine were around and playing a lot, and drummer Mickey Roker had a house gig at a club called Ortlieb’s JazzHaus. Sun Ra had passed away by then but the remaining members of the Sun Ra Arkestra were all living in a house in the Germantown neighbourhood and Rashied Ali who had played with John Coltrane hosted a concert at a Jazz and Cultural centre where I was doing some teaching. So the scene was very active and had a proud history but it was an eye opener for me to see how many of these great players were really struggling to get by. But there was also a dynamism to the scene there that I haven’t seen in other places, for example a neighbourhood bar featuring live music by a senior-citizen organ trio called Nate Wiley and the Crowd Pleasers which was “discovered” by a young art-student crowd and transformed pretty much overnight into a hip and bustling hangout where the live music was actually the real deal. (https://vimeo.com/36992448 for 4 minute documentary on this impossible-not-to-like band and bar in Philly)

I would say Victoria like many of the other scenes I have witnessed has many fine players and groups who are just as good and sometimes better than people you could hear in larger scenes on a regular basis. It’s not hard to find good players to play with -there’s no shortage of talent here- but many musicians I know echo the sentiment that it if feels like you have to create your own scene. A jazz warehouse collective is an idea  people talk about, although it would be a lot of work to get off the ground.

3 Days in Winter CoverTell us about the music on your most recent album Three Days in Winter. How is this album different from Orchidology which you recorded in 2009?

As a group we functioned more as a collective going into this latest project, with everyone contributing music equally and each member essentially leading the band when we rehearsed their compositions. I really love the diversity of writing voices; I think it creates something that is more than the sum of its parts. Also we knew we were making an album going in! Orchidology was a fun and rewarding project for sure but it really started out as a demo which got expanded along the way.

You recorded it with Brent Jarvis in his studio. Tell us about the recording process. Mostly live off the floor?

Brent has a great ear for what we wanted to do and knew implicitly the type of sound we wanted to get, so recording at his studio was the easiest thing. So yeah, mostly live off the floor, a little editing for the better ending here, a better solo there. There were a couple of tunes we wanted to get into the right mood for, studio day time vs club at night has some differences. We made the CD in three sessions, hence the album’s title. I’ve lost track now but it would be interesting to note which takes come from which days….I have a distinct memory of the blustery yet sunny weather out the studio windows when we recorded the opening track Vitamin D on the last day.

What motivates you to make an album, particularly in this age of Spotify?

Something I haven’t figured out yet is how can you attract attention or create excitement for an online-only release? People who enjoy our live show and want to hear more can download or stream my albums or individual tracks at Bandcamp (sounds like a plug because it is!) which is a wonderful option but many of them still want to take home a physical product. It would feel weird not to have this option to offer off the bandstand. That said on a strict dollars-and-cents point of view I might need my head examined for making a CD (but it depends on how you look at it).
If (or when) the CD disappears I think musicians will still continue to format their output in albums as opposed to singles. Personally I don’t understand the appeal of buying music in singles-only form but I’m old school, having grown up with vinyl. In the 1970’s a great album was one you could play from beginning to end and would take you along with it. Of course many one-hit-wonder artists ruined it by having one good song and the rest duds but jazz artists and musicians like Stevie Wonder, the Stones, Zeppelin and on and on where in the habit of making albums as a set of songs you could enjoy from beginning to end (and want to flip the album over for!)

  1. July 27, 2016 at 6:40 pm

    thanks rick and jon… i really enjoyed reading this and learning more about jon! hopefully jon and i get to connect for coffee at some point as we have talked about it, but live in different towns!

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