Jazz artist Marcus Miller

The two-time Grammy-winning musician, composer and producer shares the inspiration for his new CD, “Renaissance,” and performs a track from the disc.

Grammy winner Marcus Miller has been at the top of his game for three decades. Since his 1983 debut, he's composed/produced 10 critically acclaimed albums and amassed over 500 credits as a sideman on CDs that cross musical styles, from rock and jazz to hip-hop and opera. He's also composed for more than 20 films. Raised in a musical family, Miller was proficient on several instruments, writing songs and a fixture on the jazz club scene in his native NY all by his mid-teens. The in-demand musician went on to work with a bevy of iconic artists, including his hero, Miles Davis. He returns to new music of his own on the new disc, "Renaissance."


Tavis: How about that? That track, once again, is called “Detroit.” Marcus Miller is a Grammy-winning jazz artist and noted producer who made a name for himself early in his career, thanks to his association with the late, great Miles Davis. Much more on that in a moment.

He’s out now with a terrific new project called “Renaissance,” a record that is in homage to the style of music during the Harlem renaissance. In just a bit we’ll have another special performance from Marcus from this new project, but first, Marcus Miller, I am delighted to see you, and you know what I mean when I say that.

Marcus Miller: Oh, man, thank you, man. I know exactly what you mean.

Tavis: So the last time we talked was on my radio program.

My public radio program. Then you took off to go to Europe.

Miller: Yeah, the European tour.

Tavis: The European tour. I’m at my house one day, online, and a headline pops up that says, “Marcus Miller in Fatal Switzerland Bus Crash.” “Marcus Miller in Fatal Switzerland Bus Crash.”

Miller: Oh, man.

Tavis: I’m at my house, I kid you not, I scream, “No.”

Miller: Oh, man.

Tavis: I had just talked to you, had just seen you days prior. I could not believe you had died –

Miller: Ugh.

Tavis: – in a bus crash. Turns out, thank God, you didn’t die in the bus crash. The driver of the bus with your band on board did die.

Miller: Yeah.

Tavis: Tell me what was going on in Switzerland, where you were, and what happened? Because again, I’m just delighted to see you.

Miller: Oh, yeah, thank you.

Tavis: Yeah.

Miller: Well, we were on tour in Europe and we’d just finished a gig in Monte Carlo, the Monte Carlo Jazz Festival. After the show we had a long trip to Holland, so we all got on the tour bus and we left about 3:00, 4:00 in the morning. That’s how it goes. You finish a gig and you get on the bus.

We had a 13-hour drive, so everybody went to sleep, and about 10:30 I’m starting to come in and out of sleep, and all of a sudden, man, I feel like this vertigo, and then a huge crash. The impact caused the bus to fall on its side, so all the people sleeping here crashed into the people, so people were trapped. It was pretty crazy.

After a while, the Swiss rescue workers came and got us out of there, and luckily, man, I have an incredible band, man. The guys are, like, 23 years old, 25, young guys who are amazingly talented and ready to take over the world, so I was just terrified that something had happened to one of them that would prevent them from playing or whatever.

So I was just going from guy to guy, are you okay? Move your fingers, let me see. Let me see you move your lips for the horn players. Let me see, move your legs.

After a little bit of time, I said, “Wait, where’s the other driver?” and somebody said, “Man, he didn’t make it.” It’s just horrible. It’s really difficult because it’s my situation. It’s my group; it’s my tour, so it’s really difficult. I was glad that the other guys were okay.

Sore ribs, one guy had a couple of cracked ribs, but everybody is now home and recuperating, and everybody’s okay. So when I think of how bad it could be, I’m very grateful.

Tavis: Yeah. I should say, for those of us who are Marcus Miller fans, that track from his new project, “Detroit,” you just heard him play, is his first performance in public since he survived this bus crash, so I’m delighted in more ways than one that he’s alive, that he’s on this program, and obviously, you can see the boy’s still got it. (Laughter) My man Marcus still has it, and wait till you hear this track, his own interpretation of “I’ll Be There,” which he’s going to play for us in just a few minutes.

This project, “Renaissance,” really does bring together these young cats you talked about. Why has it been so important for you – and I think I get it, given what Miles did for you – but you’ve really reached back and found these guys who are in their early twenties who you have taken on the road with you and given them an opportunity to be exposed and to see the world.

But tell me why that’s been so important for you.

Miller: Well, the project before this I had done a tour where I revisited some music that I had written for Miles. I used to work with Miles in the ’80s. We did an album that you mentioned, “Tutu,” that was really successful for Miles, and a couple of years ago we did “Tutu Revisited,” and this is where we played the music from “Tutu.”

But I knew Miles would absolutely hate it if we just got on the stage and played the music the same way we did it in the ’80s. So I was going to myself, “How can I find a new twist on this music?” and I said, “Maybe I’ll find some young guys, like Miles used to do, and have them put their own flavor on this old music,” so that’s what we did.

We had a really successful tour, and while I was doing that tour I said to myself, “You know what? My next project, I want to do it with these young cats. I want to make an album where I write music specifically for them, and then we can do a tour and show everybody what they’re capable of doing.”

Tavis: What’s your impression – obviously, your band is tight, but what’s your impression when you go looking for these young guys? Was it hard to find them? Do they come in myriad scores? How difficult was it to find them?

Miller: There’s not a whole lot of them, but there’s a good number, and what I look for, there’s a lot of guys who have great technique, people practicing a lot and you hear them, but there’s not that many people who when you hear them – like I’ll give you an example.

If you heard some musicians who are so technically gifted, you go, “Man, that guy must practice a lot,” right? Then you hear Miles Davis play, and you go, “Man, I had a girlfriend like that,” you know what I mean? (Laughter) That’s a whole nother level of musicianship, you know what I mean?

Tavis: Yeah, of course.

Miller: Where he can make you feel things, you know what I mean? That’s what I’m looking for from these young guys. I’m looking for somebody who not just has a command of the instrument, but can actually say something to make you feel something, make you think about something.

Tavis: Tell me how it is that you came to be a band leader as a bass player. I ask that because as you know, I’m a lover of music, and typically – and I don’t mean to slight bass players – but typically, when you think of bass, you think of accompaniment. You think of the bass or the bass player being the band leader and being out front and writing music around that instrument.

Miller: Right.

Tavis: So where did that idea come from and how did you actually make this happen?

Miller: Well, I came up in the ’70s. I started playing the bass around 1972, 1973.

Tavis: Although brilliant and classically trained on the clarinet.

Miller: I was already playing the clarinet and the piano.

Tavis: Right.

Miller: My father’s a piano player. But I wanted to play in a funk band, and the clarinet wasn’t (laughter) –

Tavis: Yeah, that doesn’t quite fit in, does it?

Miller: I’m like, “Hey, man, can I sit in?” They’re like, “No, man.” (Laughter) So I started fooling around with the bass, and it happened to be, from ’73 to ’78, the five years that, our most glorious years for bass players. We had Larry Graham, with his own band, Stanley Clarke with his own band. We have Bootsy doing his thing. We had Jaco Pastorius. They were all leading their own bands.

I’m 13 to 17, 18 years old; I thought that’s what the world was like. It never occurred to me that this was a very unusual period in music history. So I went on assuming that one day I’m going to have my band like my heroes had their own band.

So people ask me this question all the time – they go, “Bass is basically a background instrument.” The other thing is that in urban music, Black music, the bass has a much higher profile –

Tavis: Oh, yes.

Miller: – than it does maybe like in rock and roll music, where the guy who plays guitar the worst, they give him the bass.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Miller: In rock music.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Miller: But in funk music –

Tavis: Oh, yeah, it’s different, yeah.

Miller: – bass is a superstar, you know what I mean? It’s this whole – bass has its own world. So it’s like that for me.

Tavis: Yeah. As much as we’ve talked about Miles – I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this question, but I’ve always been curious about it, which is how it is that you were not intimidated by Miles Davis to the point of writing an album with and for – that’s like – I can’t even get it out of my mouth that you write and album with and for Miles Davis without being intimidated.

Miller: Well, I’ll tell you, I didn’t start writing for him. I started – he called me out of the blue. He had been in retirement for five or six years and he was coming out of retirement and he was looking for young guys.

Somebody gave him my name and he called me and said, “Can you show up at Columbia Studios in two hours?” I’m like, “Whoa, is this the real Miles Davis?” He’s like, “Yeah.” So I showed up and yeah, it was intimidating, but music is so important to me that the intimidation was all before the notes started.

Soon as the downbeat hit, I was so – it’s so important to me to make the music right that I didn’t have time to be intimidated. It’s just between the music, when we’re talking, when we’re hanging out, that was intimidating.

He was making a, after one rehearsal at his house, the whole band left. For some reason I was still there. He said, “Wait a minute, I’m going to cook.” He was making this gumbo, and he had this yellow Jamaican hot sauce. And he’s pouring it in the pot, the gumbo pot, and he’s talking to me, “When you play the B flat, hold the B flat longer.” (Laughter)

And I’m going, “Dude, ain’t nobody else here. I’m going to have to drink this; I’m going to have to eat this gumbo.” (Laughter) I’m too intimidated to say “No, thank you,” you know what I mean? So I ate the gumbo and flames were coming out of my ears. (Laughter)

So I was with Miles for a couple of years as his bass player, and it was a beautiful experience. After two years I said to him, “Listen, man, I want to leave your band.” He goes, “Why?” I said, “Because I want to develop not just as a bass player, but I want to get more into composition, into producing, and I’m working with Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross and all these guys, and I want to really see how much I can grow and develop.”

He actually gave me his blessing. He said, “Man, you’re a very talented man. If you need me, let me know.” Couple of years later I called him up. I said, “Hey, man, I got some music for you. You want to check it out?”

It was “Tutu” and a couple of other songs, and I brought it out to L.A. I was living in New York, I brought the music out to L.A., and the producer Tommy LaPuma heard it and he said – “Man, I love it. Let’s do it. Let’s record it.” I said, “Okay, where’s the band?” He said, “We don’t have a band. We want it to sound exactly like your demo.” I said, “Well, I played all the instruments on the demo.” You do that when you’re making demos. You got your guitar, you got your sax.

He said, “Well, I want it to sound just like that, so get all your instruments out here.” So I ended up playing all the instruments. (Laughter) I said, “This is a Miles Davis record. You realize this is serious?” He said, “Well, we’ll see what Miles thinks when he comes in.

Miles came in in a couple of days and said, “Oh, man, I love that. Keep going.” So he said, “Let me know when you need trumpet.” That’s what he said. So I said, on Friday, I said, “Miles, I need trumpet,” and he came in, and he was sitting there, and I was very intimidated, because now he’s going to play the trumpet on something that I wrote.”

I’m like, “Man.” He starts to play, and I go, “That’s not right, but I don’t know how to tell him it’s not right.” (Laughter) Finally he goes, “When are you going to tell me what to do?” He said, “This is your music. I know you know how it’s supposed to sound. Stop fooling around. We don’t have time.” So I said, “Okay.”

So I said, “Okay, well, that’s a B-flat right there, and don’t come in here.” After about three minutes, it started sounding so good I got comfortable. I was like (makes motions).

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter)

Miller: He’d look at me like (shakes head). (Laughter)

Tavis: You mentioned Luther. Sheila, our makeup artist, who has to work on this face every day, is walking around the studio today playing “Never Too Much.” I miss Luther to this day.

Miller: Yes.

Tavis: Of course, every time I hear “Never Too Much,” one of his biggest hits, I think of you, because that’s your project, your song. But I know you must miss him more than I do.

Miller: Oh, man. It’s really a big hole that will never be filled. He and I met in Roberta Flack’s band. He was singing background, I was playing bass, and Roberta was beautiful. She’s like the mom to all these young musicians in New York.

At that time that I met Luther, I was a musician snob. For me, the singers were just the people out in the front to keep the audience entertained. (Laughter) While the musicians did the real work, you know what I mean?

Tavis: Yeah.

Miller: And Luther said, “Oh, no, we got to fix that attitude right now.” (Laughter) So he would sit me down and he’d play me Donnie Hathaway, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, and he would break it down.

He’d say, “No vibrato here, okay? Vibrato kicks in here. Air tone, mixed tone, half-head, half-chest voice.” He’s breaking it down like we used to break the music down, like John Coltrane and stuff like that.

Tavis: Right, yeah. (Laughter)

Miller: He’s breaking it down on that level, and I was like, “Whoa, this is not just getting up there and singing.” He was a musician who sang. So after a while he was also the number one background singer in New York, so he would sing for Bette Midler, he sang on “Fame,” he sang for David Bowie, he sang for – whoever needed backgrounds, he would arrange the parts and hook your record up. He also sang on commercials. McDonald’s, Budweiser.

Tavis: KFC.

Miller: KFC.

Tavis: I remember that one, yeah. (Laughs)

Miller: Yeah, KFC, and that’s lucrative if you sing on those commercials. So he was doing fine, but he said, “Man, I want to do my own project.” So he got us all to do a demo, and that demo was “Never Too Much.” It took him a year and a half to get signed, because he didn’t have a gimmick.

The record companies were looking for his gimmick. They said, “What’s your gimmick?” He said, “I sing. That’s my gimmick.” Anyway, he finally got signed and the record was released, and the rest was history.

Tavis: The rest is history. Speaking of history, Marcus Miller has so much history I can’t’ even do justice to all the greats that he’s played with. You heard some of the names just a moment ago, but all the greats he’s played with.

But he has become a great in his own right. He is, to my mind, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, bass player walking around today, and I love a lot of these guys. Love Stanley Clarke and love Bootsy and love all of them, but I love Marcus Miller and I’m again, just – I can’t’ find the right words to express how grateful I am –

Miller: Oh, thank you.

Tavis: – that you are, that you and your band are still alive.

Miller: Hey, can I just take a minute to thank everybody?

Tavis: Sure.

Miller: Because I got so many emails and text messages, my phone blew up because it couldn’t handle everybody. It’s like almost being at your own funeral because of the way the headline read, you know what I mean?

Tavis: Yeah.

Miller: So the love, man, it’s just overwhelming, man. I just want to thank everybody, because you have no idea what that feels like.

Tavis: Yeah, when I’m glad you had – I hate the incident, but I’m glad you got a chance to feel the love that so many of us have for you. I can’t’ imagine you have not heard of Marcus Miller, not heard his music.

If you haven’t, shame on you. But if you just tuned in and you missed that “Detroit” piece at the beginning, stick around for this, because upcoming, Marcus’s interpretation of the Jackson 5 classic, “I’ll Be There.” I can promise you you have never heard anything like this. Marcus, I love you.

Miller: You too, man. Thank you very much, man.

Tavis: As always, thanks for watching, and keep the faith.

[Live musical performance by Marcus Miller.] (Applause)

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: January 6, 2013 at 11:57 pm