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Sons of Miles
by Mike Zwerin
20 May 1999

Commenting on increasing multiplicity of choice, John Cage said: "First we had the Mona Lisa, now we also have the Mona Lisa with a mustache."

In the 1970s and 1980s, it looked like the acoustic bass was in the process of being buried behind the electric bass guitar. There was a lot of moaning and dire predictions on the part of shor-haired purists and musicologists.

The electric wizard Jaco Pastorius pushed the trend by proclaiming himself the "best," and he wasn't far off. He had legions of talented followers. Everybody plugged in. Top-notch acoustic bass players like Steve Swallow switched to electric. Bass players were happy not to have to lug around that beautiful but awkward, fragile, expensive and now, thank goodness, "out-of-date" coffin.

The last nail seemed to be driven into it with the invention of the acoustic electric bass, which looks like an electric but vibrates acoustically. At more or less the same time, the Japanese invented an electric piano that sounded acoustic. And there were drum machines programmed to make human mistakes. The mustache was growing a mustache.

Then, in the '90s, bass players like Stanley Clarke (after playing with Chick Corea) and Dave Holland (after Miles Davis) went back to their first love. More and more beginners chose the upright once more. After all, there is nothing like the physical joy of digging resonance out of aged wood. The electric bass became basically for rock only.

Now you can go through a weeklong jazz festival and not hear one electric. The acoustic is even enjoying a come back in rock, witness MTV's successful "Unplugged" series. I suspect that it all has something to do with the general search for ecological virtue - jogging, health foods, safety belts, vitamins, no smoking.

Marcus Miller, however, who is otherwise as ecological as the next guy, remains one of the few unabashed electric bass masters. He was never tempted by the upright, perhaps because majoring on clarinet in New York's High School of Music and Art (he still plays it) satiated his acoustic habit.

By the age of 40, Miller already has an important career behind him. If the final balance sheet had to be drawn up now, he would probably be remembered primarily for having produced, composed, arranged and played on "Tutu," which many people, including me, believe to be one of Miles's 10 best albums.

More than perhaps any other record, "Tutu" reflects the reality of urban life at the end of the 20th century. (Wynton Marsalis once told me that he and I would have to "agree to disagree" about that.) The slums and the parks, police sirens and the peace of a penthouse, the leafy avenues and high-rise projects. Opportunity and oppression. The power and the glory and the detritus of urban environment.

Miller became a studio musician at 16. The piano player Wynton Kelly was his father's cousin. Kelly died at 39 from too much of what Marcus Miller calls the "real jazz life." His parents did not want that for him. They had worked hard to get him an education, but they saw this passion and they knew they couldn't and shouldn't discourage it. They talked him into staying in school as long as possible.

While in Queens Collage, New York, Miller became so in demand that he found himself turning down highly paid recording sessions to go to class. He was afraid he would be a flash-in-the-pan, "one of those kids with a youthful beat that people wanted for awhile and after it became no longer hip they were out." He was afraid he would become "disposable." He wanted to learn as much as possible to avoid that.

Marcus Miller

For Miller, however, it was not a question of being in vogue. He was working because he could read music, he was smart, he was reliable and he could swing. He cut class to work with George Benson, Roberta Flack, McCoy Tyner. There were no musical situations he could not fit into. Finally, he dropped out of school and, as they say, "disappeared" into the studios, which is like disappearing into a bank vault.

He produced Grammy-winning records for David Sanborn, produced albums or wrote material for the Yellowjackets, Al Jarreau, Spyro Gyra, Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross. He explains his multi-faceted career: "When you want to do an album as a bass player, it's essential to have the ability to compose and arrange. Otherwise, it's very hard to create a proper forum."

He was on staff with the "Saturday Night Live" television show band. This job involved a lot of hanging around while the comedians got their act together. His older bandmate Howard Johnson (whose four-tuba group accompanied Taj Mahal in the '60s) told Miller stories about 52nd Street, Birdland and being on the road with big bands. Listening to the stories, considering what he'd missed, Miller's eyes had become misty. And now he looked at the ceiling as at a distant and impossible adventure:

"Yeah. I dream about those days. I envy the guys who came up when you could play with Monk over here, Coltrane over there. I grew up in Brooklyn and was raised in Queens and I was too young but at the same time in New York you used to be able to hear Wes Montgomery and Cannonball Adderley on the same night." The names rolled off his tongue like saints.

He continued: "There are very good musicians today, but I haven't heard anything really overpowering in a long time. I guess it has to do with the age we live in. Despite the drugs, the '60s was one of the most creative periods in American history. People were reacting to the Eisenhower '50s.

Or maybe the drugs had something to do with it. They may have released people's inhibitions to the point where they tried things that otherwise would not have occurred to them. Nowadays, we're not willing to... 'we' meaning the musicians of my generation... we are not willing to sell our souls to get to that creativity point.

"So what I do is work on trying to put myself in that space without the drugs. It can be done but it's much harder that way. For example, I try and write music early in the morning before all those daily details come down on you. Or before I go to sleep.

Quincy Jones was telling me about what he called the 'Alpha state.' It's when your inhibitions haven't solidified yet. Like in the middle of the night you get these ideas which once you're fully awake your mind won't allow you to take seriously. You tell yourself 'That'll never work.' But if you follow those connections through, they might turn out to be connections to your soul.

"Quincy said: 'When that muse comes to you in the middle of the night, get your butt out of bed because if you don't it's going to move on down the street to the next guy's house and he'll get up.' "

If all this seems like too much nostalgia for the days when the bad times rolled, be reassured. In the words of Richie Havens:

In the '50s the world was dumb.
In the '60s we were hip.
In the '70s and '80s we tried to figure out what that meant.
In the '90s we're back to the '50s, so you haven't missed anything."

Photo: Marcus Miller
Credit: Christian Rose

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