After concluding a European tour for his new release “Renaissance,” multi-instrumentalist and composer Marcus Miller sat down to talk with The Revivalist to make sense of his experience putting together a new band as well as delving into some history of his own. Between his early years growing up as a fast-rising studio musician to learning from the great Miles Davis, Miller gives us the rundown on his experiences. In Part 2, we see the progression of jazz through Miller’s eyes as well as the non-musical side of things. Read on below:
Lets talk about the Tutu album. You wrote some of the songs beforehand and it was dedicated to Bishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa, right?
I wrote the song “Tutu.” Miles asked me what it was called and I said, “It’s called ‘Tutu’ for Desmond Tutu. Are you familiar with him?” Miles said he was and he thought it was really cool, so we recorded the song. We did a few songs, maybe six or seven. Then I got a call from Tommy LiPuma who was the A&R guy at Warner Brothers and he said, “Miles wants to call the whole album Tutu.” That was amazing to me because I was very connected to the South African struggle and was very concerned about it. I’d been writing some music about that, but of course to be able to write some music and then have it endorsed by Miles made it a whole completely larger thing. And he continued it, because his next album was called Amandla, which is the cry for freedom in South Africa. He really embraced it himself, and I was really proud of that.
You have been around for a lot of incredible jazz history. What do you see as some of the non-musical influences that impacted the development of jazz?
That’s the most important part. During World War II, you weren’t allowed to use vinyl for a period of time because they needed it to make ammunition. So there was a ban on recording, which caused the music business to go dark for a while. That’s when Bebop developed. Bebop developed as a music for musicians who were playing for themselves. They were playing the jam sessions uptown at late hours. As a result, nobody really saw it developing because it developed under wraps and underground. When the recording ban ended, all of a sudden this new music came out of nowhere, and it took a minute for people to understand it. No one heard it develop. Unlike hip-hop, you know, where we heard everything develop. We remember Sylvia [Robinson] and all of them making the first hip-hop records. We heard the whole progression through Run DMC, through LL Cool J, through A Tribe Called Quest, through Public Enemy, so we understand the whole thing. But imagine if you just woke up one day and the first thing you heard was like 50 Cent. You’d be like, “Where did this music come from?” So the times really influence the music. The times influence all art.
In the ‘60s when we had people questioning everything, you know, we had African-Americans fighting for civil rights, we had hippies arguing against all authority, we had rejection of the Vietnam War. When you hear the music, the music reflected that period. It was one of the most creative eras in American history because it was one of the most turbulent times. If you notice the period before that in the ‘50s, particularly in pop music, there wasn’t much going on. It was kind of a bland Leave It to Beaver type of period. In my opinion the music was nowhere near as revolutionary. With the ‘50s we’re talking about Doo-Wop and some other types of music that were a little more pop, because it reflected the state of people’s heads.
In the ‘80s, Ronald Reagan became president. He brought back family values. America had been through the ‘60s, and the ‘70s were like a continuation of the ‘60s. So by the end of the ‘70s, nobody knew what was up because everything had been challenged. You know, the way people dressed, the way people made music, everything was kind of up for grabs. We had fusion music where everything was jazz; jazz had Indian music, jazz had funk, it had rock. It was free. There were all of these different types of jazz and no one was sure of what was what. Reagan came in and said, “Look, we’re going to get back to regular family values.” And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of those young jazz musicians came back wearing suits and saying, “No, jazz is not all of that stuff you’ve been hearing. This is jazz.” They took it back 20 years to start that whole new thing. Wynton Marsalis is one of those guys.
And in the same way, in the ‘80s, R&B music had gotten so lush with orchestras and sitars and stuff. Think about Earth, Wind & Fire or Cameo. People wanted to get back to the basics, so that’s when hip-hop started taking hold. The music got broken down back to the beat and to the voice. It was the exact opposite of what R&B and funk music had become. So I think that the non-musical elements of our society really affect the music. The music is just a reflection really.
What do you see today in Black American Music? There has been some talk of throwing out the word jazz; there is a ton of crossover in genres. What is the scene like now and what is influencing it?
I think that the scene today is a newer version of maybe what we saw in the ‘60s. People are starting to question everything. We came through this conservative period and now people are really starting to question stuff. I think I’ve been around to see this as a recurrence rather than a new development. Questioning of even calling it jazz is really interesting, but to me, it’s a really recurring theme in Black American history. We’ve always had these things that were imposed on us based on the fact that we were introduced into this country as slaves. We were introduced to food in a certain way. The slave owners fed us the food that was less desirable than what they ate. We got the messed up part of the pig. We got discarded, old marching band instruments in New Orleans after slavery. What we do as a culture is we take the shit that gets put on us and we turn it into art. We turn that jacked up part of the pig into soul food. We took those old, discarded band instruments and created jazz. We took the word “nigger,” which was the worst thing they could call us, and turned it into something now that has a whole completely different meaning.
That’s what we do. We take lemons and we make lemonade. I was reading something Nicholas Payton wrote, and the word “jazz” was something that was imposed on us. It was called jazz not by black people who created the music, but by white writers who were looking for a word to call it. It wasn’t the most positive term either. Jazz meant that you were messing it up a little bit. So what do we do? Do we abandon the name or do we just redefine the name? The way I see it over the course of history is, we just take it and redefine it. We make it mean what we want it to mean. Not everybody has to feel the way I do, but I try to look at the history in a broad sense, you know.
Lets take it back to Africa. What is the influence of Africa on jazz today, especially in terms of rhythm?
I will do clinics sometimes where I’ll go play a little bit and talk to young musicians. One time this guy asked me, “Marcus, tell me the truth, is there a difference between white musicians and black musicians?” Of course everybody’s ears perked up. That’s the one thing no one wants to talk about. So I said, “It don’t have anything to do with the melanin content. It’s all about culture.” I said, “Ok, we’ve got black people and white people in this room. How many of you guys as teenagers decided not to go to a party because you didn’t know that latest dance that was two-months old?” A bunch of brothers raised their hands. I said, “How many people had dancing as an integral part of their family life? Meaning, Mom danced, Dad danced, they always called you out at three-years old to dance for their friends.” In other words, our culture, the African culture, is a rhythmic culture. It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that they’re black. That’s just a reaction to the sun. The more important thing is that we come from a culture that’s very rhythmic and that was reinforced during slavery because we weren’t allowed to sing songs that had any overt, clear meaning. So we used the drums even more. There are things that you can say rhythmically that you can’t even say with words. But what I was telling this young guy at the clinic was, you put a white guy and raise him the same way, provided he’s musically talented, he will be able to relate rhythmically the way people who were born black do. I think that our rhythmic culture is really prevalent in our music.
The art of improvisation is also very important in our music. It’s just the way we relate. We really respect as well. So if you’re real in Africa and you’re improvising the story of the history of your people in a community group where you’re kind of telling it, improvisation was very important. If you’re a hip-hop guy and you have to get up and freestyle, it’s really important.
You know, I score movies as well. I’ll talk to the directors and they say, “Man, the hardest part about making movies with black actors is that they go off script.” Lots of time when they go off script, it’s so hilarious and so creative that you really want to use it even though it doesn’t have anything to do with the storyline. That’s the dilemma. They always have to find some sort of compromise. I remember scoring a movie a long time ago called Boomerang. Reggie Hudlin was directing it. Reggie said, “Man, we had this scene at the club. Eddie Murphy is down in the dumps because Robin Givens won’t speak to him. Martin [Lawrence] decides to take him to the club to get his mind off of Givens. When Martin got to the club, he started improvising and freestyling.” It was so funny that Reggie recorded everything. Yet, all the scene was supposed to be about is Eddie Murphy is in a bad mood and Martin is supposed to cheer him up. He had to cut some of it out because you’d forget what the story is about. What I’m saying is, that is such an aspect of our culture. Improvising. Making shit up. That’s a really clear through-line in our music. The rhythm and the improvisation. Taking things that already exist and though they might not have anything to do with us, and making it ours.
Take Christianity for instance. Think about it. Think about if you took a 16th century priest from France or England and dropped him into the middle of a modern gospel church. He would think it was all sacrilegious and everyone in there was going to hell. There is so much African influence. There is music that has rhythm. There is music that has tritones. The triton was the devil’s interval. You weren’t allowed to use it in church music during the 16th century. Now there are tritons everywhere. All of this African influence and all of this jazz influence is in the church. When the preacher is preaching, he has a script, but you know he’s going to go off script. People are yelling back at the preacher. There’s call and response, which is an African tradition. You don’t get that in the Catholic Church. If someone yelled back at the preacher they’d remove him. What we did though, was we took this religion that was imposed on us as slaves and we modified it so that it made sense to us. That’s what we do, man. That’s our story. That’s how we survived and that is how we created something that has come to define America.
You have a very distinctive physical style between the porkpie hat and what not. Where did that come from?
I was going to jam with the band on the Arsenio Hall Show one day and I stopped by a store somebody had been telling me about on my way. I saw it out of the corner of my eye, so I stopped the car and ran in. The hat was the first thing I saw in there. I put it on and said, “Oh man this looks like the ‘40s, like Lester Young.” I kind of enjoyed it. I wore it and kind of got attached to it; I did an album cover with it. I wore it a little too long as to where people started to connect me with it and then I really started to embrace it. I like the fact that my music is a hybrid. A lot of people wouldn’t even call it jazz, but it has jazz elements. I like the connection to jazz that the hat implies, because I do think I approach music with a jazz mentality, even if the music itself isn’t completely jazz. I do like to search for things that haven’t been done. I’m very committed to improvisation. I think the hat represents that. But it’s also cool because, this one time we were in Paris and when finished a gig, we had to get on the tour bus immediately to drive 14 hours to the next town or else we’d be late. The road manager was concerned because he said there were a whole bunch of fans outside the stage door. He told me I was never going to make it through in time. I said, “no problem,” and took off my hat. I walked right through the audience and nobody even knew it was me. I kind of started enjoying that aspect of it because when I’m with my kids, I wouldn’t have the hat on and everything was pretty normal. When I would put it on, things changed. So it’s kind of a little Clark Kent thing that I enjoy.
Which gig were you talking about with Arsenio Hall, because I caught you with the Jamaica Boys on Arsenio. Was it the same gig?
No, I was just sitting in with Arsenio’s band. This was after the Jamaica Boys gig I believe.
The Jamaica Boys had a really energetic vibe, somewhat similar to hip-hop these days.
Yeah, I loved the Jamaica Boys. It was Lenny White, Bernard Wright, Dinky Bingham, Mark Stevens who’s Chaka Khan’s brother was also in it. It was unique and our way of not allowing other people to impose walls on our music. You know, Miles embraced it all, Herbie embraced it all when it came to different styles.
We’d have people from the outside come tell us it wasn’t appropriate to have a jazz musician or hip-hop musician do these things. I think it was really important to us to determine what we wanted to do and show the connection, particularly as a musician from New York. Where we grew up, it was everything all at the same time. That was our experience. So if you’re going to be an honest musician from New York, it’s going to be really hard for you to just play a pure style of music. Everything you do is going to be a hybrid, because that’s what New York is all about.
What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
I asked Lenny White once, “Hey man, how do I get my own sound? I really want it man.” Lenny and I are from the same neighborhood in Jamaica, Queens. Nobody’s got any respect for technique or for flashy stuff in our neighborhood. The only thing they really respect is if you’re soulful and if you have your own sound. They respected when you parked you’re car two blocks from the club and you could already tell who was in the club just by listening. So I really wanted to get that myself. Lenny told me, “Look, don’t worry about it. Just keep putting yourself in as many different situations as you can, and play as honestly as you can. One day you’re going to hear a recording of something and go ‘Oh wow, that’s me!’” So that’s what I did. I stopped worrying about it. I just tried to play from my heart every time I played.
When I was with Miles during the first recording session I did with him, I remember listening back and thinking, “Oh yeah, that’s me.” I didn’t know if I liked it or not, but it was definitely me. Then I listened to recordings before that and realized that it was already there. So that was good advice.
Do you think people today respect style as much or is it all about technique and sounding like someone else nowadays?
I think that throughout history you have people make a mark, and you have a bunch of people who follow them. Then you have somebody else who makes a mark and a bunch of people who follow him. That’s what makes the people who make marks so special, because it’s so natural for humans to follow each other. It’s so natural for musicians – particularly male musicians – to get caught up in the physicality of music. The technique can sometimes overpower what they are trying to say. Then there’s a kneejerk reaction to that where you have some players who shunt technique completely. They say, “Look, well I’m a feel player man. I’m not going to get into all of that fancy stuff.” To me, that’s a cop out too. The ultimate is when you can combine the two. The ultimate is George Benson, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, Joshua Redman, you know, Nicholas Payton. These are cats who can get all around their horn, all around their instrument, but do it when it’s necessary. Everything is soulful and everything is meaningful.
Interview by Eric Sandler