Mulgrew Miller, a prominent pianist of the 21st century whose creativity gave familiar tunes a fresh perspective, died on May 29 in Allentown, Pa. He was 57.
The cause was a stroke, according to his long-time manager Mark Gurley. Miller was an inspirational teacher whether working with younger band members on the bandstand or as the director of jazz studies (since 2006) at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. He settled in Easton, Pa., in 1989 and became an artist in residence at Lafayette College in 2008.
Regardless of the configuration, Miller’s playing sparked a glow, like a shining star. It wasn’t a matter of grandstanding; he was an intuitive pianist who played right in the moment. Whether it was his flurries, crescendos, just one note placed in a specific phrase or the full instrumental conversation, he proved to be the perfect improvisationalist.
The outings with his group Wingspan on the group-titled album (Landmark Records, 1987) prove that point, especially with vibraphonist Steve Nelson, saxophonist Kenny Garrett and the rest of the quintet. This album also displayed his talent as a composer; five of the eight tracks were Miller originals.
His solo album (Space Time Records, 2010) is pure genius. For generations to come, it will be the album that fledgling musicians copy and practice by. His recordings as a leader represent the work of a master pianist whose motive was to keep music moving on unexplored paths.
Miller’s culmination of works, including his recordings with the MaxJazz label, demonstrate why he appeared on more than 500 albums. He became the pianist of choice for many of the great musicians. His most recent recording was with the Golden Striker Trio, led by bassist Ron Carter with guitarist Russell Malone and Miller. Their recent release of the live album “San Sebastian” (In & Out, 2013) is a demonstration of three magical components working together in one unique trio. Miller also played a role in Trio Transition (a cooperative with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Freddie Waits), another strong coalition of musicians that forged new musical inroads.
Born in Greenwood, Miss., Miller was in the midst of the Delta blues and began piano lessons at the age of 8. He played the organ at church, and as a teen, he played in a variety of blues and R&B bands. At age 14, he took to jazz after being mesmerized by a television performance by pianist Oscar Peterson.
Miller studied music at Memphis State University and was influenced by the local pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. After college, he enjoyed successful stints with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, led by Duke’s son Mercer, in the 1970s. He then joined Betty Carter for a year before moving over to Woody Shaw’s band, which was followed by three years (1983-86) with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, which was a great boot camp for promising young musicians. For a long period, he was a member of the dynamic Tony Williams Quintet (1986-1994).
At 6-feet-2-inches, Miller was a gentle giant, and although his hands were large, his fingers would float like butterflies across the keyboard, and on heavy percussive tunes, his touch was firm but never overpowering. In true Miller style, he was always cool with a smooth voice to match.
Easton Boys and Girls Club Director Dean Young stated, “I was fortunate to know Mulgrew as a friend. He was probably the greatest jazz musician I know either personally of through listening to music. He will certainly be missed.”
Miller played the Easton Jazz Festival, which was hosted by Lafayette College and raised money for the Boys and Girls Club, Young said. Miller often played with his band Wingspan, making many area appearances.
Miller is survived by his wife of 30 years, Tanya; his mother, Arlene; a daughter, Leilani J. Miller; a son, Darnell J. Thompson of Cleveland, Ohio; three brothers, William Spivey of Oakland, Calif., Posey Miller and Albert Miller, both of Atlanta; three sisters, Clydie Kelso of Fort Wayne, Ind., Rosetta Miller of Memphis, Tenn., and Arletta Miller of Greenwood, Miss. and a granddaughter, Renee Thompson.
Services for Miller will be held on Friday at the Greater Shiloh Church in Easton, Pa.
Offer online condolences at www.strunkfh.com. Memorials may be made to the William Paterson University Foundation-Mulgrew Miller Memorial Scholarship and mailed to the Office of Institutional Advancement, William Paterson University, 300 Pompton Rd. Wayne, NJ 07470.