Jon Liebman, bass

Marcus MillerMarcus Miller
Part I

Exclusive Interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
As part of “Marcus Miller Month,” FBPO published this interview in four installments throughout January 2011

Born and raised in New York City, Marcus Miller grew up in a musical family, that included his father, a church organist and choir director, and jazz piano great Wynton Kelly.  Marcus started on the clarinet and saxophone before discovering (and falling in love with!) the electric bass.  From the beginning, the young Miller showed great promise as a player and songwriter. While still a teenager, he began playing bass for live gigs, as well as sessions for commercials and records.  To date, Marcus has recorded well over 500 albums for artists in multiple musical styles, including: rock (Donald Fagen and Eric Clapton), jazz (George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Sample, Wayne Shorter and Grover Washington, Jr.), pop (Roberta Flack, Paul Simon and Mariah Carey), R&B (Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan), hip hop (Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg), blues (Z.Z. Hill), new wave (Billy Idol), smooth jazz (Al Jarreau and Michael Franks) and opera (collaborations with tenor Kenn Hicks and Kathleen Battle).

Marcus is well known for his long associations with Luther Vandross, David Sanborn and Miles Davis, having performed, recorded and produced for all three of them.  Among his successes are Vandross’ hit single “Never Too Much,” Sanborn’s Voyeur album and Davis’ classic, Tutu.  An accomplished composer, Marcus has written music for over twenty films, including Spike Lee’s School Daze and the Hudlin Brothers’ comedy classic, Boomerang. He also wrote the music for Chris Rock’s hit TV series, Everybody Hates Chris.

Marcus is the recipient of multiple GRAMMY awards, including Best R&B Song, for “Power of Love/Love Power,” and Best Contemporary Jazz Album, for M2: Power and Grace.  In December 2010, Marcus received two more GRAMMY nominations, one for Best R&B Performance By a Duo or Group with Vocals for his work with Chuck Brown and Jill Scott and another for Best Surround Sound Album for his work on George Benson’s Songs And Stories album.  Marcus’ latest effort, A Night in Monte-Carlo, is scheduled for release by Concord Music Group on February 1. 2011.


FBPO: Tell me a little bit about your musical upbringing.

MM: Let’s see... I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and lived in Brooklyn till the age of 10, when I moved to Queens, New York.  My father is a piano player and organist in the Episcopal church and he comes from a very musical family.  His cousins were musicians.  As a matter of fact, one of his cousins played with Miles Davis in the late ’50s and the early ’60s.  His name was Wynton Kelly.  He was really an incredible jazz pianist.  My father was like the classical cat in the family and his cousin Wynton was the jazz.  So that was my early upbringing.

FBPO: Did you ever get to meet Wynton Kelly?

MM: Yeah, I got to meet him.  I was pretty young.  He died in ’71 and I was probably 10 or 11 at the time.  He was 39 years old, so he died pretty young.  My grandfather, my dad’s dad, was the bishop of a small church in Brooklyn, called the African Orthodox Episcopal Church, so after the church services, the whole family would go downstairs into the basement of the church and perform for each other.  So there was a lot of music.  When Wynton was in town, he’d play and my aunts would sing and my dad would play, so it was a pretty musical situation.

FBPO: Were you old enough at the time to appreciate what a heavyweight jazz icon Wynton Kelly was?

MM: No, not at all.  He was good, but I didn’t even know what jazz was.  I moved to Queens and when I was about 10 years old, I started singing because I was really influenced by the Michael Jackson/Jackson 5 phenomenon that had just kicked off.  I started playing the clarinet in school at the age of 12, but the clarinet just wasn’t getting me into the R&B bands, even though I had branched out from the clarinet and was playing saxophone as well.  To play R&B, I felt I needed to play something that was more of a rhythm section instrument.  I picked up the bass one day when I was around 12 or 13 years old and just fell in love with it!

I played R&B for the first couple years.  I enrolled in the High School of Music & Art in New York, which is kind of the magnet school for musicians.  I met Kenny Washington there, who was a drummer in my grade.  He was a jazz drummer and he said, “Man, listen, you’re a talented musician.  You need to start learning jazz because that’s the ultimate music for musicians to play.”  He invited me to his house in Staten Island, which is a long way from Queens, you know.  You had to take a bus, a train, a ferry and then another bus, so it was like a three hour, three and-a-half hour trip.

FBPO: And you were how old at the time?

MM: At this time, I was 14.

FBPO: You went over there by yourself?

MM: Oh yeah, yeah.  By that time, just to get to high school, I was taking the bus and trains, just to go to school on a daily basis, so it wasn’t that big a deal any more, you know.  Every Sunday, I’d go to Kenny’s house and he started playing me all the jazz.  I told him that my cousin was Wynton Kelly and asked if he was he familiar with Wynton Kelly.  He said, “Am I familiar with Wynton Kelly?!”  That’s when I really got my education on who Wynton was and how incredible he was.  From that point on, man, I was as equally in love with jazz as I was with R&B and the funk.  And by the time I was about 15 or 16, I started doing gigs.

FBPO: How did you just happen to pick up a bass one day?

MM: My best friend got one for his birthday.  He was fooling around on it and I ended up fooling around on it more than him!  He was playing it, but I was at his house all the time.  So, not to wear out my welcome, I convinced my mom to get me a bass.  My first bass was a Univox and it looked like B.B. King’s guitar, you know, with the red kind of 335 look?

FBPO: Yeah!

MM: And I played that for a couple years, then got a jazz bass in ’75. 

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FBPO: Was you mother musical at all?

MM: No, just loved it.  My father would force her to sing in the choir every once in a while, but she was more of just a music lover.  Real supportive.  Once I started doing gigs with Kenny Washington in Staten Island, she would actually drive me out there, which is like a long haul!  It was pretty cool, you know, with the amp in the back of the car.

FBPO: Well, at least you weren’t playing upright!

MM: Exactly! [Laughs]

FBPO: Did you ever play upright?

MM: No. This was the ‘70s, so the upright had kind of fallen out of favor for about four or five years and those were the four or five years I was coming up.  Everybody was playing electric bass.  Ron Carter was messing around with an electric bass, Sonny Rollins had an electric bass in his group.

FBPO: Bob Cranshaw!

MM: Yes.  And there were some monster electric bassists like Jaco and Stanley Clarke, Alphonso Johnson and Anthony Jackson, who was coming up at the same time. So it was really the era of the bass guitar.

Marcus Miller in concert
Marcus with his band and the Monte Carlo Philharmonic at La Salle Garnier Opera House, Monaco

FBPO: How did you get established as a session player in New York, especially at such a young age?

MM: Well, I had the advantage of living in New York.  Most of the cats lived somewhere else, like Detroit or Texas, and they had to travel to New York and figure out how to make a living and then start to try to make a name for themselves. Because I lived in New York, I was doing gigs in clubs when I was 15 years old, starting to make a little name for myself. 

I got a gig with a flute player named Bobbi Humphrey.  She was a pretty popular kind of contemporary jazz flute player.  It was before they had smooth jazz. The guitar player from my neighborhood band got the gig and he got me an audition.  I played with Bobbi for a couple years at the age of maybe 15, 16, and eventually Bobbi got the opportunity to have Ralph MacDonald produce her album.  Ralph was a very popular, very successful percussionist and producer in New York.  He had written “Where is the Love?” for Roberta Flack and Donnie Hathaway.  He wrote “Calypso Breakdown” for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which, before Michael Jackson’s Thriller, was like the biggest selling album of all time. 

So, Ralph was doing his thing and he was a really popular session percussionist and everybody had to have him on their albums in the ‘70s in New York. Ralph was going to produce Bobbi Humphrey’s album and I wrote a song and I played it for Bobbi, and I said, “Listen. Listen to this tune.”  And she said, “I like this tune. I want to do it on my album.  I’m going to play it for Ralph.”  So she played it for Ralph and Ralph said, “Yeah, that sounds nice.  Let’s do it.”  And she said, “Well, can my young bass player come and play on this one song?”  And Ralph said, “Yeah, I guess we could put up with a new guy for one song.”  So I got to go to the session and they were cutting.  It was Steve Gadd and Richard Tee and Anthony Jackson.  And Eric Gale was on guitar.  Ralph said to Anthony, “This kid’s gonna play on this one song.”  So Anthony got up and went in the control room while I played on my little song.  And it went without incident.  It was pretty straight-ahead.

FBPO: And you were how old at that time?

MM: I was probably 17 by now.  The next year, Ralph was contracted to do another Bobbi Humphrey album.  So I wrote another song, and this time put a bass solo in the song, realizing that if I’m going to make an impression on these guys, I had to write a song that features the bass a little better.  So, that’s what I did.  And Bobbi asked Ralph if I could play on that song.  I put the bass solo in the tune and cut it and Ralph, at the end of the song, said, “Hey, man, can you read music?”  And I said, “Yeah, I can read music.”  And he said, “No, don’t bullshit me, man, because I’m about to recommend you for some of these studio jobs, but you got to really be able to read.”  And I said, “Man, I can read fly shit!  I play clarinet.  Orchestral clarinet.  These little bass parts are nothing!”  So he said okay and told me to join Registry.” Registry – this was the era before cell phones and answering machines.

Nathan East, ArtistWorks

FBPO: Radio Registry.  Isn’t that what they called it?

MM: Yeah, yeah! It was Musicans’ Radio Registry.  There were no cell phones and no answering machines, so in order to get a musician, the producers and the contractors would call Registry and say, “Do you handle Will Lee? Do you handle Anthony Jackson?”  And Registry would go, “Yeah.”  And they’d say, “Well, I’d like to book him tomorrow for a session, blah, blah, blah.”  So Ralph said, “Join Registry.” 

I joined Radio Registry and figured Ralph was just, you know, in a good mood that day.  A couple weeks later, it was midnight and I was trying to impress a friend of mine and I said, “You know, I’m going to call my service and see if they have any gigs for me [laughs].  And I called the service and they said, “We’ve been trying to get you all day because we’ve got some work for you tomorrow.”  They said, “We have a nine to ten, possible twenty at A&R 799.”  And I said, “I don’t know what any of that means.  You have to break it down for me.”  She said, “It’s a commercial and you have to be at A&R Studios. There’s two of them. You have to be at the one at 799 Broadway and there’s a possible twenty-minute overtime.”  So I said okay, sure, I’ll be there.  That was my first jingle.  And it was with Ralph and a couple of the other studio musicians.  And I read the music, did the thing and, literally, within three weeks, I was working all day, from nine in the morning till midnight on these commercials and then eventually record dates.  The word of mouth spread really fast and I got kind of thrown into that world.

FBPO: It was a good time to be in New York, wasn’t it?

MM: Well yeah, there were no computers, so anything that needed music needed musicians.  There was a lot to do and everybody was making records.  If you could read music and if you could play the different styles, there was a lot of work.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
The early years
The Miles experience; SMV
The making of A
Night in Monte-Carlo
Career perspectives,
sage advice and more!

Be sure to check out FBPO’s review of Marcus' new CD, A Night in Monte-Carlo!

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