Marcus Miller performs as part of S.M.V. with Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten this Saturday at Times Square’s Nokia Theater. Tickets available here.
Five days before the release of Thunder, the debut album by a unique gathering of three accomplished bassists, Marcus Miller (the “M” of S.M.V.) answers his cell phone from the front porch of his Los Angeles home.
The Brooklyn-born and Queens-raised Miller is something of a studio rat. His producing, engineering, arranging and performing skills are in evidence on well over 400 albums by such artists as Miles Davis, David Sanborn, Luther Vandross, Grover Washington Jr, Elton John, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Billy Idol, Kenny Garrett, Stanley Jordan, Dr. John, Mariah Carey, Al Jarreau and R.E.M. Now a dozen albums into his solo career (he won a Best Contemporary Jazz Grammy for 2001’s M2), Miller’s current project places him onstage alongside Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten. The group will appear at Times Square’s Nokia Theater on Saturday night.
Ever the professional, Miller performs an unrequested mic check–“check one, two; check one, two”–when he returns the call, just to make sure the speaker phone is at the proper volume for the recorder. But then he moves again, further inside his house, and the call is dropped. Just like in the cell phone ads.
Take three of our conversation follows.
Surely a man as accomplished as yourself, a Grammy winner and all, has a cell phone that maintains reception throughout his own house.
My cell phone works in Istanbul, Turkey, in Korea, in South Africa, but it’s really shaky in my house [laughs]. I’m good now.
Okay, good. Let me ask you a couple of short answer questions to get us started. Tell me something you’ve never ever done before in your life.
Never jumped out of a plane. Let’s see. What else have I never done? I’ve never done any cocaine, heroin, any of those crazy drugs that people do.
Tell me something that you’ve done once and one time only.
Let’s see. I drove my car my car 160 miles per hour on the highway in New York.
In New York? Upstate, I hope.
No, just north of the city.
That’s probably a story we don’t need to publish.
[laughs] I did it 15 years ago, so it’s all good.
Tell me the name of a book that you’ve read at least twice.
By Ralph Ellison.
If you’re going to read a book more than once, that’s a good one to choose. Tell me the name of a movie you’ve seen at least three times.
Glory with Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington.
And where do you keep your Grammy?
My Grammy’s in my music room at my house.
Okay. I know we want to get to S.M.V., but I do want to touch on some stuff that hasn’t been covered 57,000 times.
You were born in Brooklyn and grew up in Jamaica, Queens. What’s the nearest subway stop to where you were raised?
The nearest subway is 169th Street. Well, now it’s called Parsons Boulevard. It’s the second to last stop on the F train.
And how does music reach you when you’re a kid? Is it parents? Is it older siblings or is it stuff that you pick up off the street like when you’re learning about women? How does music get into your ears so you can start deciding what you like?
Well, my dad is an organist and a pianist, and he was the church organist for years and years. And he had two jobs. He had one job on Sunday, which was to play at a Congregationalist church in Brooklyn, and then after that service we’d get in the car and we’d go to my grandfather’s church where he was the minister and we’d catch the second half of his service. And after my grandfather’s service was over my whole family would go down into the basement of my grandfather’s church and perform for one another. My dad’s sisters would sing. My dad’s cousin played piano. He actually played piano with Miles Davis in the ’50s. His name was Wynton Kelly. So Wynton would play when he was in town and my Aunt Clarice would sing, so it was just a very natural, very musical family, and I didn’t know it was unusual until I began to experience other people’s families. I thought that’s what you did on Sunday.
And then during the week my dad was always practicing or he’d have singers come over to work on whatever it is they were going to perform that next Sunday. But a lot of it was classically based. My dad was playing a lot of Bach, a lot of Beethoven, because it wasn’t gospel music that he was playing. It was more kind of hymns, you know, and that kind of thing. So a lot of music. And then my mom, whenever my dad wasn’t dominating the music scene at the house, she’d play her Ray Charles records, which she absolutely loved. So I got my soul indoctrination pretty early as well. So it was like that, you know. And then, when I was 10, 11, the Jackson 5 hit and all of us kids were so excited to see kids our age that talented and that serious about music, and we all decided we wanted to be as serious. And then it became learning about music, learning about the other side of music in the streets like you learn about women.
And I was learning in school, as well, you know, taking clarinet lessons at the time, so it was really three places. It was home, where music was kind of the natural first language, then there was school where we were learning kind of the details of music, and then there was the street where you learn about the emotional side of music and how it relates to your community. So it was really, I got hit from three sides with it.
You mentioned listening to the Jackson 5 when you were 10 or 11. Do you remember the first record that you ever bought with your own money?
Well, it was a 45, and the 45 I bought was James Brown “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” That was the first one that I went out and bought, and it was just exciting. At that time I was still in Brooklyn. We were in Sheepshead Bay, and I was 8 years old. Italian, Jewish neighborhood. And to have a song like James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud” was right on time for me at that point in my life, you know. I mean, I know how important it is because that song just kind of changed my whole perspective on life, you know, at 8 years old. It was really cool. I remember it like it was yesterday.
You played the recorder and the clarinet before you moved over to bass, so you had to have some of that natural affinity for music, but when do you know that you’ve got a little more of a gift than maybe some other of your friends who, after the Jackson 5, decided that you all were going to take this seriously, that it was something you wanted to do? When do you start figuring out that maybe you’ve got something special?
You know, when you’re young you try to figure out how to play what you’re hearing on records. And I didn’t think that I was gifted. I thought my friends were really slow [laughs]. In terms of figuring out how to play something that they would hear, you know. For me it was always, pretty much in the same way that I could repeat what you said to me, for me it was almost the same way with music. I could play back what you played for me because it was that natural, you know. And so I was always surprised that other people had difficulty with that. So I never really thought I was gifted. I just thought that I needed to help my friends who were a little slow.
But you had success early on. And there are a lot of people around your age who still don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing with their life.
After you had that early success, did you ever, maybe later in your career, have a doubt that you’re were supposed to be a musician?
No, man. From age 12 I think I pretty much had it figured out. By then I realized that I did have a gift, and at age 13 I went to the High School of Music and Art, so if there was any doubt, you know, once I got among the most talented kids in the city of New York and realized that I was still good, I could still hold my own, that erased any doubt, and I knew that was my path.
That gift is almost as valuable as the talent for music, being one of those people who not only knows what they’re supposed to be doing but is good at what they want to be doing.
Oh yeah. That’s the whole difference. It answers so many of those difficult questions when you’re a teenager, you know what I mean? Should I do this? Should I do that? Should I get into this? Should I get into that? And since I knew what my path was, or had a pretty clear idea about what my path was, it really answered a lot of questions for me. It made life a lot easier.
So you’re obviously talented, and I know that’s not all of it. I’m sure you’re a very hard worker. But I’m guessing that growing up, even with a family that’s supportive of your musical pursuits, that living in New York has to be an advantage. As opposed to, say, being a young man with a similar talent and a similarly supportive family but growing up in a small town in Nebraska.
Oh yeah. Absolutely. First of all, when you get to be about 17, 18 years old, trying to figure out what you’re going to do because you’re a musician and you feel like you have a shot of making a career out of it, well, if you live somewhere else, you got to either decide to move to LA or move to New York. And then you’ve got to basically start all over. You’ve got to find an apartment. You’ve got to get a job to support yourself while you try to break into the music scene. Being in New York already, I went to high school in Manhattan, and by the time I graduated high school and I went to college at Queens College there, by the time I hit Queens College I already had a nice little reputation building, and I already had made a lot of connections in terms of people knowing who I was. I didn’t have to move anywhere. I was still living at home, still eating mom’s cooking, so it’s a completely different existence for me. And by the time I got to be 18, 19, I was way ahead of the game, you know, where other kids are just moving into New York and trying to figure things out.
And then on the other side, you know, just being exposed . . . You know, if you come from other places in the country you really get exposed to one kind of musical sound. If you come from New Orleans, you got that sound. If you come from, you know, Nebraska, you got that sound. If you come from Texas you’ve got a certain sound. But if you come from New York, all those sounds were there at the same time. So by the time I was 20 years old, I’d already spent time in African bands, Caribbean bands, funk bands, jazz bands, straight ahead jazz bands, fusion bands, Latino bands. I spent good time in all those different genres so it allowed me to end up speaking those languages a little bit more naturally than people who get exposed to music later on in life, you know.
And you are, pretty much, speaking damn near every musical language. I mean, I’m looking at some of the folks you’ve worked with and we go from Billy Idol to Roberta Flack, for example, and there are probably not a lot of homes that have both of those catalogues in the CD stacks.
You’ve also got Miles and R.E.M., David Sanborn, Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey, all the way back to ‘Til Tuesday which is the dictionary definition of New Wave. This may be a dumb question, but given how broadly you’ve played as a supporting musician, is the solo career an accurate representation of what you really want to play?
Yeah, I think it is. The solo career, in order to be an artist you have to narrow it down a little bit. The whole definition of an artist is that you have a specific point of view. And the reason that I started my artist career so late is because having first come up with that kind of command – I can play any style and do any kind of music thing – it took me a minute to then narrow it down to where I had a specific view as an artist that I could present to people as where I wanted to be coming from. A lot of guys who do what I do, you know, a lot of studio musicians, they couldn’t make their own albums because they couldn’t figure out which one of those faces that they put on daily, which one was the real them.
Was there any frustration, given that you can do so many things? I mean, even in your solo career you’ve covered both Roberta Flack and Jimi Hendrix, and that’s a pretty wide range. Was there any kind of process to finding your own voice as a solo artist?
Oh yeah. I made two albums in the early ’80s which, you know, have a lot of singing. I hear them back and I go, ‘Of course. I was working with Luther (Vandross) and Aretha (Franklin), and, you know, I just made an album based on my environment at the time.’ But I stopped after the two albums because I said, ‘I really don’t think I have a real good sense of myself yet.’ And I took some time off from the solo thing. I worked with Miles (Davis) a lot in that period. And then I started again in the ’90s and really felt like, ‘Okay, I have a really solid voice on my bass.’ And so I started in the ’90s with that voice, and it was very narrow at the time. It was all bass and just some simple compositions, and every album I open it back up, you know what I mean? So now I feel like I’m in a place where I can now do whatever I want to do, but I do it from the standpoint of having a real distinct artist’s voice.
Are you a baseball fan in any way, shape or form?
Yeah, I am. I was a crazy baseball fan when I was a kid. Willie Mays, baby.
Then I’m going to guess that with Queens, Brooklyn and Willie Mays you’re a Mets fan if you have to choose between the two.
There you go.
Okay. And you haven’t sold out to the Dodgers yet?
No, man. I sold out to the Lakers [laughs].
Well, it’s tough to be a Knicks fan nowadays so I’m not going to judge you there.
It’s hard to be a Knicks fan.
The reason I was asking about baseball is I don’t know if there’s a more definitive line in any profession than being called up to the major leagues. If you get called up to the majors, then you know you’re good. And while it might be great to play at Carnegie Hall or get a gold record, there’s several ways that you can measure musical success.
When you get that phone call to come and record with Miles Davis, is that like being called into the major leagues? Even if you know you’re good and even if you know you’re talented and you’re making a good living as a musician, it seems from the outside looking in that an invitation to play with Miles Davis has to represent a whole other level.
Oh yeah, absolutely, because there’s not that many institutions like him. When he called me, he was jazz. There was Art Blakey. There were maybe a couple of other people. Dizz [Gillespie] was still around, but Miles, you know, because so many people who played with Miles went on to become leaders of their respective fields, you really feel like, ‘Okay, this is my opportunity to make some noise, you know. To do something special.’ And I definitely felt that when I was with him, and didn’t want to waste the opportunity. I don’t even know if my sound had solidified before Miles called me, but I know that that day that he called me, that first session, I was digging deep to try to find something that sounded like me because I didn’t want to waste the opportunity of having recorded with him and then regretting that I didn’t sound like myself, I didn’t have something unique to say, you know.
How long does the excitement last? I know you’d had real success before Miles called, but you’re still a young man. How long do you allow the little internal pogo stick to bounce before the fear of ‘Oh my goodness, I better have something to say here’ sets in?
Well, you know, between when Miles called me and we hit the first note in the recording session was only about an hour and fifteen minutes.
I was on a recording date and I got a message from the studio receptionist saying, ‘Call Miles.’ And I called Miles and he asked me if I could be at Columbia Studios in an hour or something like that. So I didn’t really have time to do the pogo stick. I had to get this session done and pack up and get over to Columbia. And it was probably the best way it could’ve happened because I think I operate best when I’m just kind of reacting, and that was the ultimate in just simply staying open and reacting to a situation. So yeah, I didn’t get a chance to trip. Afterwards I tripped, you know what I mean? But I’m glad it happened the way it did.
Is Siesta another turning point? I mean, you go from supporting Miles to playing with Miles. And it seems like you had as great if not a larger role than he did on that record. Yes, it’s special because, you know, Miles, he hadn’t shared billing with somebody, man, in like 20, 30 years. At least that’s what they told me when he decided to share the billing with me on Siesta, and so it was a pretty big deal. Just him saying, ‘Yeah, that sounds right. Let’s make it Miles and Marcus.’ Just for him to say that was unbelievable.
You also spent a good amount of time both playing with and producing David Sanborn. And I think I see some similarities, not just musically, in the two careers. I mean, there was a time that if you needed an alto sax on a pop record, then you would call David Sanborn. He played the solo on Bowie’s “Young Americans,” for example. And I think, in a very similar way, you’re seen as the go-to guy on the bass.
I understand what you’re saying. Sanborn, that guy, he’s such a distinctive sound. I do remember I’d just got accepted to be in the Saturday Night Live band a day earlier, and then Sanborn showed up the next day. And to watch everybody’s head turn when he played the first three notes . . . I mean, old, crusty musicians that had been on the scene for 20, 30 years, and myself who was just getting there, as soon as he played those first three notes, everybody said, ‘Whoa!’, because his style was so powerful and so distinctive.
I was 19 years old and I said to myself, ‘I want people to react that way when I plug in.’ Like, ‘Oh, okay. That’s that sound.’ And it’s so unbelievable to hear a sound that you’re so familiar with on record. To hear it right in front of you makes you turn your head, and I really, really admired that about him.
I’m sure there were lots of musical lessons to learn, but given that Sanborn was the go-to guy on sax and you’re the go-to guy on bass, did you learn anything from him in terms of how to sustain a career?
Yeah, because I was sitting there watching him. I was very young, you know, and I was watching how he managed things. And I was very impressed when he saw that he was on the cusp of reaching a new level, he didn’t run from it. And then once he’d reached that new level, sometimes he felt like he had to break it down again. You know, I remember selling like 750,000 records of the David Sanborn record, and then I said, ‘When are we going to do it again, man?’ And he said, ‘No, I’m going in a different direction.’ And I was very surprised at that, but ultimately I ended up respecting it because, you know, he realized that if he did it again he’d be on a train that wouldn’t stop and he’d have to ride that thing out for who knows how many years. But instead he broke it down and started again so that people recognized that from this guy we have to stay open. Listeners recognized that from David Sanborn we have to not just expect him to do the same thing over and over again.
Tell me how this project [S.M.V.] with you and Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten comes about. You’ve got three guys, all on the same instrument, and an instrument that isn’t normally seen at the front of the band. And now all three guys are going to take turns playing lead. How does this happen?
Well, Victor Wooten called both of us a couple of years ago to suggest maybe we try something like this. And the thing is, you know, to keep a career going in music you have to have so many things happening that you end up being really busy. And it sounded like a good idea but how we would ever make it work with the schedules seemed kind of daunting, you know. Then a couple of years ago Bass Player magazine called and said, ‘We’d like you and Vic to present Stanley with a lifetime achievement award at our yearly bass convention.’ And so we did and they figured, you know, ‘You guys should jam afterward.’ And so at soundcheck, we said, ‘Let’s do “Stanley’s Tune” because we all know it.’ We knew Stanley knew it [laughs]. And Vic and I grew up with it. So we played it and right there at the soundcheck it was so easy, you know.
And I’d jammed with bass players before, man, and it’s usually horrible because a lot of them don’t know how to leave space and they don’t recognize that you can’t play like you normally play because you’ve got to leave room for the other guy. But this was completely different. This was very natural and we all fell into our own little space and people were really excited about it, so we said, ‘Hey, you know what? We should probably try to make a CD and do a tour out of this. We had been thinking about it before and this is a good launching point.’
In terms of the bass being a lead instrument, you know, I started playing the bass in 1972, ’73, you know, and my world was Stanley Clarke, Sting, Bootsy, Larry Graham. You know what I mean? In my world, bass was the instrument that was always out in the front. I didn’t recognize that this was kind of a little special period in music and in normal circumstances the bass was in the back. And even in R&B music I was listening to, Kool & The Gang and Isaac Hayes, all the music was centered around the bass. You know, Motown, the bass was driving that music, so I was kind of surprised once people finally said to me, ‘Oh yeah. Your instrument is a background instrument.’ And so I would say that because of Stanley Clarke, who was one of the first guys to kind of strap the bass on in front of the band and lead things, it’s a really natural thing for Victor and myself. We were just kind of stepping into those footsteps. And in terms of the people who are our fans, I think they feel the same way. It’s fun to see people who haven’t been exposed to that culture, you know, walk in the door the first day and go, ‘Whoa. You guys are playing bass. Don’t you know where you’re supposed to be in the band?’ [laughs] So it’s a new day.
Well, obviously Stanley Clarke is Stanley Clarke, and you and Victor have a boatload of talent, but are you surprised at all when you do the soundcheck at the bass convention and it worked as well as it did? Did you need to hear it work onstage before you knew that it was a good idea?
Yeah, because with music, you know, it’s kind of like of sports, where you go, ‘Okay, this game should go this way.’ You know, when you analyze both teams. But you’ve still got to play the game, you know what I mean? It’s the same thing. I knew there was no reason why it shouldn’t work with the three of us, but you’ve still got to play and feel that feeling of ‘Oh wow. That’s nice. That felt good. That felt right,’ you know what I mean? So it was special when we finally played together.
So how did you come up with the material? How did you decide what you were going to play and, I guess more importantly, how did you decide who was going to play each part?
You say to each guy, ‘Write two tunes and when we get back together in a month, have your tunes ready. Or send it to us in an e-mail so each of us can listen to the tunes, and the other two guys will make comments on the composer’s songs, you know, and when we get together we’ll finally kind of agree on which songs are the best. And we’ll agree to use at least two songs from each guy.’ That’s how we got started. And so the composer was the one who dictated whether you played the top, the bottom or the middle. When we did the Stanley Clarke jam, Stanley played the top, Vic played in the middle and I played the bottom, and those were very natural roles for us. And a lot of the songs on the album, we did the same thing, but every once in a while we switched it up so that Stanley would play the bottom on the acoustic and I’d play the melody or Vic would play the melody, but it was up to the composer who arranged the song to tell us where he wanted each guy.
There’s 13 tracks on the album, and while I don’t want to sell anything short, since it’s less that a minute long I’m going to leave “Let Me Try Your Bass” out of the mix.
Which one of the remaining dozen comes together the quickest, the easiest, the most organic, like the three of you have been playing this song together all your lives?
Well, let’s see. There’s a song called “Pendulum,” which was a jam. You know, a friend of mine brought Butterscotch into the studio. She’s a beatboxer and she had recently won “America’s Got Talent,” and she just went to the mic and started doing this beat and we all fell in. And that was the easiest. But in terms of the arranged songs, you know, they were all pretty much the same, where we had the kernel . . . There’s a song called “Los Tres Hermanos,” which I wrote, and when we played it that felt really, really nice and really comfortable. And it felt like everybody’s part was really well defined, which was the thing that I was hoping that we’d get–to do music where you can tell each personality really clearly when you listen–and I think we did a good job with that song.
Which song are you hoping that no one can hear the sweat that came off of your forehead when you were trying to get it right?
[laughs] “Milano” took us a minute to get right because it was a song that each of us had different things. Stanley’s playing the upright and Victor and I are playing Italian mandolin, you know, so we’re kind of doing that really fast picking and creating harmonies that way. And then we do these arpeggios in the middle. It was crazy. And that was the one we had to work on to make sure we got it right.
You know, I’m looking at the credits, and I don’t see the words “Italian mandolin.”
[laughs] No, we call it obligato bass. That’s what Vic and I played on that song, and Stanley played acoustic.
You’re known for playing a Fender Jazz bass. Can you tell me about your relationship with your bass without getting so technical that I feel left out?
I first got a Jazz bass in ’75, and at that time there wasn’t a lot of choices if you wanted to get a professional bass. There was a Fender bass, a Gibson bass and if you played rock there was a Rickenbacker. And so I got a Fender Jazz bass. Lost it. Left it at the side of my car and drove off in ’77. And lost that one. My mom replaced it, and I left that in the car three weeks later and got that taken. And my mom–don’t ask me why–but she went and got me a third one in ’77, and that’s the bass I play today. That’s the one that I played all the way through. And the thing about this bass is that I did a lot of studio work in the late seventies, all the way through the eighties and into the nineties, and in the studios if you have a bass that’s too specific to a certain style, if you end up in a different style of music, you’re in trouble because, you know, your bass doesn’t sound right. The thing about the Fender bass is that it was versatile. It sounded right in just about any music I played, so I didn’t have to walk around New York in the streets carrying four basses on my back. I could just carry my Jazz. As a matter of fact, the other studio bassists who were popular at the time, Will Lee and Anthony Jackson and Neil Jassen and Francisco Santana (?), they all played Jazz basses as well for the same reason. Because it was the bass that worked.
And so when I started playing more solo stuff, it’s more difficult to play solo stuff on the Fender Jazz bass because it’s more of a meat and potatoes bass. But when you work hard and you do make it through the solo thing, it’s really distinctive because you can hear the effort, I think. You can hear that it’s not that easy to do, and I really like that, you know. Kind of like when you hear a guy on an acoustic bass really working hard. You go, ‘Wow,’ because that really sounds like it takes a lot of effort. And the Jazz bass is like that in relation to other basses. You know, when you get something going on it, it really sounds, it has the energy in it that people can appreciate.
I understand that you’re only 18 years old, but Marcus, where is your head that you’re going to leave two different Jazz basses over a period of three weeks? Is it a case of being a distracted teenager?
You know what it is? It’s music, man. Because the one bass I left in the car and I was supposed to go upstairs and come right back down. I had forgotten something. And when I got upstairs this song was playing on the radio [laughs] and I had to sit down and listen to this song. And then I said, ‘Man, I’ve got to figure out these chords.’ And I got lost in this song and when I picked up my bass to learn the song is when I realized that it was still downstairs in the car. And that’s when I get in trouble is when I get lost in the music. That’s like my drug. And if you want to see me disappear, that’s when it’ll happen. When I get caught up in the music.
All right, last question. I’m looking at the tour dates, and I understand that sometimes you’ll do a date for outreach or for a good cause, but as a general rule, musicians, when they tour, go where they’re going to be paid.
Now I haven’t done the exact math, but there’s something like three or four times as many S.M.V dates overseas as there are in the States. Does that say something ugly about the state of jazz in America?
You know what it is? The overseas market, they book way far in advance and they don’t need to convince the promoters, so just at the suggestion that the three of us were going to get together, Japan gave us gigs, right? And the same thing in Europe. Promoters in the U.S. had to wait and make sure that we were actually going to make an album. They had to wait and actually see that there was an interest, and so by the time we started booking the States we’d already locked ourselves into Asia and Europe. So what we’re going to do, probably, is once we’re finished with this first run, then we’ll come back and complete the States. At least that’s what we’ve been talking about.
Because, really, if you’re not on the East Coast or the West Coast or gambling your money away in Vegas, you can’t see this show.
Yeah, exactly. Hopefully we’ll be able to take care of that when we come back around, but you know they’re so, so excited about this music in other places in the world. And for a lot of countries who don’t understand English, our instrumental music is the closest connection they can have to the culture here in America. You know, hip-hop is cool. They like the rhythm, but they don’t know what the guy is saying, you know what I mean? So they kind of have to get into it only on a surface level. Since we don’t have any vocals and since our whole thing is about communicating through the notes, I think it really gets the overseas audience excited that they can understand everything that this music has to understand.
Marcus, Stanley and Victor as a bridge to the world.
[laughs] I hope so.