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Love of jazz has led to many things

May 3, 2012
Mark Miller , The Herald-Star

This week I thought how I'd write about how I came to be such a music and jazz cat.

There were a lot of things that excited me as a kid growing up in the valley, and my love of learning inevitably led me to music.

I grew up poor, so as a teenager I taught myself how to play guitar. Like a lot of self-taught guitarists, I eventually realized I had a lot of bad habits and I wasn't really very good. So I decided I wanted to take some lessons and eventually made my way to Curt Lehman, local guitar legend and my first inspiration for jazz.

Curt taught me a lot of great stuff, but what he mainly taught me was this - I didn't know what the hell I was doing on the instrument. I decided as a late teenager I was going to immerse myself in jazz until I could actually play it. Or die trying.

The first thing was to start listening to this strange music that was the antithesis of rock music in so many ways. I couldn't in the world figure out all those strange notes, and the concept of swing was so alien to a guy who loved and revered rock and loud music.

But I kept listening, and really learned to love the music. Like anyone new to jazz I listened to the giants first because I could buy their re-issued albums cheap.

The first jazz album I ever purchased was Miles Davis' classic modal album "Kind of Blue." It was a really fortunate choice because it really didn't get much better when it comes to personnel and material.

I bought it strictly because of its reputation and the cover - a smoky photo of Miles surrounded by a dark blue haze. It was the kind of cover that let you know what was inside was something kind of dark and mysterious and "arty." Jazz albums from that period always had great and alluring covers, something I was really to discover when I got into Blue Note records.

Almost every song from the album has become a classic, and I could relate to it because it was based on the blues but from an accessible jazz perspective. The players on that album included a who's who of jazz, including Miles on trumpet, John Coltrane and Julian "Cannonball" Adderly on saxophone, Paul Chambers on bass, Billy Cobham on drums and Bill Evans on piano.

From then on, every spare penny I made in college went to buying records by Miles and the other hip dudes on that record, which probably had something to do with myself never graduating. I didn't care because I was hooked, and my life would never be the same again.

So, I kept practicing and practicing and practicing, and when I moved out West I practiced even more. But for some reason, it wasn't sinking in, so I took more lessons from this great jazz guitarist who had a really great way of teaching how to play the music.

So I started learning tons of jazz tunes and began arranging standards with my new knowledge. It took until my late 20s before I could really play solo and put a tune together, and it would take me another 10 years before I could really play by myself for an entire set.

There were so many different facets to jazz guitar and so many great players I was always really intimidated, and I would get frustrated all the time. I would have to leave the whole jazz thing for months, just listening, but not playing. It just all seemed so hard.

By this time I was playing in some pretty good and highly-thought-of rock bands in Portland, Ore., but I also was discovering I could use a lot of the jazz knowledge to bring to the bands. Musicians in Portland were always open to new things, especially in the early 1990s, so I was able to use some of the jazz stuff and mix it with rock.

But I still wasn't a "real" jazz musician, no matter how hard I tried. I would see many jazz legends live when I lived there, including pianists Benny Green and McCoy Tyner - pianist for John Coltrane - and it was really cool because these guys were accessible to the fans. I also saw guitarists Herb Ellis, Joe Pass and Jim Hall in this really dark, small nightclub called the Hobbit. It was a neighborhood jazz club, and they always had great local and national jazz acts in this intimate, smoky place.

I remember watching a very young Harry Connick Jr. perform there when this other famous trumpet guy who was performing in town walked in and played a set with Connick in front of maybe 100 awed fans.

And that's how I was able to listen to jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie play 10 feet from me. Those were the kind of moments I was glad to be alive.

To be honest, it wasn't until I had returned here and kept studying did I really consider myself able to play jazz. I would honestly say it wasn't until I was about 43 that I could hold my own and play an entire evening of jazz by myself or with other musicians. I still make mistakes, but I can now hear mistakes on the records I grew up listening to, including on Miles and Coltrane records. Jazz is always a learning process, and mistakes are tolerated in the attempt to play something above your head or try a new idea. If it was good enough for John Coltrane and Miles Davis, who am I to argue?

I guess I'm a slow learner, but I'm telling you - jazz may sound relaxed, but damn, it's really hard to play.

(Miller can be contacted at

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