Born on June 14, 1959, in Brooklyn, NY. Attended Queens College. Addresses: Record company--PRA Records, 29171 Grayfox St., Malibu, CA 90265, website: http://www.prarecords.com. Office--c/o Takamasa Honda, P.O. Box 49365, Los Angeles, CA 90049. Website--Marcus Miller Official Website: http://www.marcusmiller.com.
With a professional career as a bassist that dates back to his teenage years, Marcus Miller has played on almost 400 albums by almost 200 different performers. His work as a session musician in the 1980s included numerous television and radio advertisements, contributions to hit songs such as Aretha Franklin's "Jump to It" and Luther Vandross's "Never Too Much," and writing, production, and performance credits on Miles Davis's Tutu album, to name but a few of his accomplishments. Miller made his debut as a solo artist with Suddenly in 1983 and followed it with a self-titled release the next year. From there, it would be almost a decade before he released his third solo album, The Sun Don't Lie, in 1993. Miller released two more solo albums in the 1990s before wowing critics with M2: Power and Grace in 2001. The album, a mixture of jazz, R&B, and modern rock, was his most successful to date and earned the musician a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2002.
Born on June 14, 1959, in Brooklyn, New York, Miller grew up in the Jamaica section of neighboring Queens. His earliest musical influence came from his father, who played piano and organ in church. After seeing the Jackson 5, the budding musician was inspired to put together singing groups with other children in his neighborhood. Miller, who started studying the recorder at age eight and the clarinet at age ten, learned composition and music theory in the classroom but picked up some valuable lessons at home as well. "When I was thirteen, fourteen, I would buy the sheet music to all the popular songs and want to play them," he recounted on his website. "My pops would show me shortcuts to playing the songs. He taught me how to just read guitar chord symbols and make up my own accompaniment instead of laboring to decipher the written accompaniment.... I didn't learn to read piano music that well, but I learned a lot about chord changes, voicings, and harmony."
Miller entered the prestigious Laguardia School of Performing Arts--later the subject of the movie and television series Fame--where he studied the clarinet while learning to play the bass guitar on his own. He started spending more time on the bass after he formed different funk and dance bands with friends at school and in his neighborhood. After completed high school at age 16, Miller intended to continue studying the clarinet at the Mannes School of Music. In the end, however, he decided to take a more practical route and study the instrument at local Queens College while playing gigs as a bassist with local groups such as Harlem River Drive. "A couple of years into college, I was working heavy," Miller wrote on his website. "I was doing records, commercials, and I was in the house band at Saturday Night Live (where I met [David] Sanborn). I stuck it out in college for two more years. I would go to my classes (composition, wind ensemble, business law, psych) then I would haul a** to Manhattan to do my sessions and stuff." Finally, Miller realized, "I was burning out, so I left school and the clarinet behind to play bass full time."
By the time he left Queens College, Miller had already made his recording debut as a bassist on drummer Lenny White's 1976 release Big City. For the next several years, the young bassist was one of the most in-demand session players for jazz combos, R&B singers, and commercial jingles. He worked with Roberta Flack, David Sanborn, and Bobbi Humphrey, and in 1980 became a regular player in legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis's lineup. Eventually, Miller became a significant collaborator in what turned out to be the final phase in Davis's long career, producing and writing some of the compositions on Davis's 1986 album Tutu. A transitional work that incorporates traditional and electronic jazz elements, the album was hailed by many as one of the most important jazz works of the 1980s. As Miller described it in a Jazzwise interview posted on his website, "That's the eighties. The good part of the eighties. We were just starting to learn how to interface with these machines. There was a struggle in the States and in Africa. Things were changing. When I hear Tutu now of course there are things that I would change, but it is very clearly a product of that time."
Miller also made his mark on the contemporary R&B scene by playing on hits such as Aretha Franklin's "Jump to It" and "Get It Right" and Luther Vandross's "Never Too Much." Another song he co-wrote for Vandross, "Power of Love/Love Power," became a major R&B and crossover pop hit and won Miller the 1991 Grammy Award for Best R&B Song. While some critics carped at Miller's ability to transcend genres, the artist himself was unconcerned. "When I write or play for an artist I put myself in their environment," he told Paul Tingen of Sound on Sound. "I always play what is appropriate for the situation. I am supporting whoever the artist is, and whatever the artist wants. When I produced Luther Vandross in 1991 there were times when he told me, 'I want a commercial record. Marcus, write me a hit song.' So I took half an hour and put together 'Power of Love,' and it went to number three in the charts. I had fun, and it wasn't like I was selling my soul. I don't define myself by that song, and anybody who is paying enough attention won't define me by it either."
Jazz traditionalists were also riled by Miller's pioneering use of electronic instruments in jazz recordings during the 1980s. The use of drum machines and synthesizers came to prominence during the decade, especially in the "smooth jazz" genre identified with Miller's collaborator, David Sanborn. While aware of the shortcomings of electronic instruments, Miller explained to Sound on Sound that technological advances were fundamentally transforming how recordings were made. "Basically, technology makes the stuff surrounding the creation of music a little easier. It doesn't make writing a song any easier. It doesn't make coming up with good melodies or good bass lines any easier. But it does help you when you have to edit your seven-minute song into a four-minute single, or when you have to assemble your ten songs for the mastering house." He added, "A lot of people blame the technology, but it's not the technology's fault. There are many ways to make bad music. If someone plays guitar badly, nobody blames the guitar, so why blame technology?"
In 1983 Miller released his own first album, Suddenly, and Marcus Miller followed in 1984. The musician admitted to being somewhat disappointed in the two albums, which attempted to follow along the smooth R&B and jazz lines of his session work. "I kind of short changed myself," he told Jazzwise. "I really didn't have a strong musical identity and maybe needed to wait a little longer. I was heavily influenced by Luther and that R&B thing so my album reflected that. I needed to hold off a little because I wasn't really sure who I was. When I started again I had a much clearer sense of who I was and started to include a lot more jazz elements from my past."
Miller waited almost a decade before releasing another album of his own, 1993's The Sun Don't Lie, which earned him a Grammy Award nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Miller returned to live performing in support of the album, which helped to restore his reputation as a leading jazz musician. Tales arrived in 1995 and continued Miller's trend toward expanding the genre to reflect other African American musical forms. "I tried to combine the old style of soulfulness with the new hip-hop rhythm," he explained on the PRA Records website. "There's no real rapping, but there's that flavor. And in the middle, I try to use the seventies as my connecting sound, the sound of Stevie Wonder's Innervisions or Talking Book, or Earth, Wind & Fire. I've always combined old and new Black music. That's what I have been about, and this is kind of a new way of looking at it."
In 2001 Miller released M2: Power and Grace, which contains original compositions alongside jazz standards by John Coltrane and Charles Mingus and the modern rock classic by the Talking Heads, "Burning down the House." "When I was coming up, you took the best elements of all types of music and combined them," Miller told Billboard. "Today, it seems like a lot of music that used contemporary instrumentation does not represent the best of what the music can be." He added, "Music today often has either power or grace, but rarely both. Martin Luther King could be strong, but he never lost a sense of beauty when he spoke. When Miles played his horn or Michael Jordan plays basketball, it is a combination of heart, soul, and mind. I try to capture that in music." Welcomed by critics as Miller's most exciting project as a musician yet, M2 earned the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2002.
by Timothy Borden
Marcus Miller's Career
Worked as studio musician, 1970s; performed with Miles Davis's band, early 1980s; released first solo album, Suddenly, 1983; released The Sun Don't Lie, 1993; released M2: Power and Grace, 2001.
Marcus Miller's Awards
Grammy Award, Best R&B Song for "Power of Love/Love Power," 1991; Grammy Award, Best Contemporary Jazz Album for M2: Power and Grace, 2002.
- Selected discography
- Suddenly , Warner Bros., 1983.
- Marcus Miller , Warner Bros., 1984.
- The Sun Don't Lie , PRA, 1993.
- Tales , PRA, 1995.
- Live and More , GRP, 1997.
- M2: Power and Grace , Dreyfus, 2001.
April 12, 2005: Miller's album, Silver Rain, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_3/index.jsp, April 15, 2005.
- Billboard, May 12, 2001, p. 111.
- Sound on Sound, July 1999.
- "Marcus Miller's Biography," PRA Records, http://prarecords.com/artists/miller/bio.html (April 17, 2002).
- "Marcus Miller: M2," National Public Radio, http://www.nprjazz.org/reviews/miller.cd.html (April 17, 2002).
- Marcus Miller Official Website, http://www.marcusmiller.com (April 17, 2002).