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Steve Miller Joins the Ranks

The line between pop music and jazz is growing thinner. Recent examples are Barry Manilow’s use of Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz and Diane Schuur in his “Swing Street” LP, and the superb Getz solo on the title cut of Huey Lewis’ current album “Small World.”

Most remarkable of all is the addition of Steve Miller to what might be called the Jazz Aid ranks. His just-released “Born 2 B Blue” (Capitol C 1 48303) brings Milt Jackson’s vibraphone front and center on the title tune, uses Phil Woods’ alto sax on two other cuts, and includes such songs as Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” Horace Silver’s “Filthy McNasty,” Ray Charles’ “Mary Ann” and an old blues, “Red Top,” credited to Lionel Hampton.

On close inspection of Miller’s background, his new direction seems less surprising. Billed as co-producer and pianist is Ben Sidran, the composer/singer whose jazz credentials are impeccable, and who has known Miller since both were at the University of Wisconsin.

“My roots were really in jazz and blues,” Miller said in a phone call last week from Hamburg. “First in Milwaukee, where I was born, and then in Dallas, where I lived from the age of about 6, I was exposed to people like Red Norvo, Charles Mingus, Tal Farlow, Les Paul. My father had one of the early tape recorders, in 1949, and he was a good friend of so many musicians--in fact, Les Paul would drop by and tape some things, then show me the principles of guitar playing. He really got me started on the guitar.”

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After the move to Texas, Miller was subjected to a heavy blues influence in the form of T-Bone Walker. “T-Bone was sort of a hypochondriac, and since my dad was a doctor, he came around a lot. In fact, I just found a tape that Dad recorded of T-Bone playing at our house in 1951. I learned a lot from him; that really set me on my way for playing lead guitar, and I was only about 7.”

At 12, Miller formed his first band and maintained it through five high school eyars; Boz Scaggs was a member. At that time black music was a pervasive influence: “If you couldn’t do Bobby Blue Bland in your high school band, they didn’t want you to play.”

During those years he played one of his first night club gigs, at 14, with Jimmy Reed, whom Miller calls “One of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll.” The rock, blues and jazz influences continued to interact; at the University of Wisconsin, Ben Sidran introduced him to Horace Silver, a jazz pianist/composer with a strong blues feeling “Filthy McNasty” is based on the 12-bar blues pattern).

“Then there was a sort of lull, as I spent my junior year at the University of Copenhagen, majoring in comparative literature. Well, for the first time since I was 12, I wasn’t working in a band, and that really brought one thing home to me: I needed to play music more than I needed to study comparative literature. So I came home and spent my senior year back at Wisconsin.”

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After graduation came three years in the vortex of the Chicago blues scene, jamming with Muddy Waters, Howlng Wolf, Paul Butterfield. “Then I heard things were really happening in San Francisco, so I moved out there in ’66 and found there was a frenzy of recording companies signing up everybody. I signed with Capitol to record my band, with a stipulation that gave me complete artistic control over everything I did.”

But for that stipulation, he says, the current jazz-oriented album might never have been made. “Everyone at the company was very worried about it, but it’s already moving up in the AOR charts; I’m convinced it’s going to be one of my biggest and best.”

That would be quite an achievement, since Miller has to his credit five platinum albums and three No. 1 songs (“The Joker,” “Rock ‘N Me,” “Abracadabra”). He has enjoyed a rare one-company recording career--21 years with Capitol.

His choice of material for the “Born 2 B Blue” album involved a great deal of retrospection. The title song had particular significance for him. “That’s one of Mel Torme’s great songs. I’ve only seen him on television, and he’s always fascinated me as a singer; I’d love to meet him when I get to Los Angeles on this tour.”

Speaking of “When Sunny Gets Blue,” he observes: “That’s simply a beautiful song, one I remember hearing my mother sing to me. That and ‘Willow Weep For Me’ are both what you might call melancholy lullabies.”

The inclusion of “God Bless the Child” was not due to his recollection of Billie Holiday’s own version. “As a matter of fact, I’d never heard her sing it, and after I’d done it, I listened to her record just out of curiosity.”

The collaboration with Ben Sidran was almost accidental. “I’ve known Ben all these years and we worked together on a few of his projects; in fact, a year or so ago I was working with him when he heard me singing ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’ between takes. It seemed like a fun thing to do, and to try it out I appeared as a sort of mystery guest on some of Ben’s shows. Then Ben’s band was due in Seattle, where I live, and I said ‘As long as the band’s in town, why don’t you drop by the studio every day and we’ll work on some arrangements.’ We had the whole thing planned within five days.”

The Sidran sidemen, all heard on the album, were Bobby Malach (ex-Stevie Wonder) on tenor sax, Ricky Peterson on synthesizer, his brother Bill Peterson on bass, and Gordy Knudtson on drums. As Miller commented, “These guys have a sort of club-band mentality that comes across on the whole album: loose and improvisational.

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“There really isn’t all that much difference between jazz standards and pop songs. Ella Fitzgerald was the Madonna of her day, doing pop tunes of the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s with jazz-oriented arrangements of some really great songs.”

The most surprising reaction to the record, from Miller’s viewpoint, was that of a young newspaper reporter who, having heard “Born to Be Blue,” “God Bless the Child,” “Red Top” and the rest, asked him: “Did you write these? Boy, these are great tunes!”

If it does nothing else (but present indications are that it will do a great deal more), this unique venture will bring these timeless songs, along with soloists like Phil Woods and Milt Jackson whom they might not otherwise have heard, to a generation that now seems ready and eager to accept them. To Miller, as to Manilow and Huey Lewis and others who are picking up on this trend, the blending of jazz with today’s pop elements is a natural progression, one that can only benefit the cause of quality in contemporary music.


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