Allison Miller Interview for Jazz and Jazz Stories

Excerpts: Allison Miller: Inspiration, Creativity and Joy

Interviewers: Bob Danziger and Dan Ouellette, January 11, 2019

Links to articles by Dan Ouellette

EARLY YEARS

Allison Miller –  I come from a very musical family and especially the maternal side of my family. I’d say almost all of the women on my mom’s side of the family are musicians. They are either musicians in church or they are professional musicians outside of church – but mostly sacred music. 

Music was just always a part of my upbringing and from the very beginning. My mom would always tell me that even when she was still pregnant with me that I would beat, I would kick to the beat of the music when she was directing the choir at church. And then when I came out, she said [I did] the same thing. I was always moving, fidgety. Any time music was on, which is basically all of the time at my house, I was beating – beating along on top of the table and playing as much as possible. And she said that once I started talking I just always said “I want to play drums, I want to play drums, I want to play drums.” 

And you know one thing that she did for me, that I am really eternally grateful for and I know is a huge reason of why I am where I am and why I’m the kind of musician I’ve become, is because she actually prohibited me from learning [drums] until I could play piano. So she taught me piano at a really young age. [Note: Allison now writes most of her music on a “beautiful baby grand piano that was” willed to her by mentor, friend and grandfather figure Walter Salb, who also gave Allison his drum set “which is what I still practice on, it’s in my drum studio now.”]

Bob Danziger –  What was it like having a mother who was choir director of a Church?

Allison Miller  –She had me singing in church from the time I was probably three. Me and my sisters would sing trios and duets from the time I was very small, and we just had music going all of the time. I was in church probably four days a week growing up and Sunday was, of course, church day. But then there was Wednesday night choir practice. When I got older I became the babysitter for church choir practice. I was there for youth group and we were always doing music and productions in that group. Then usually I was there Friday night doing some kind of outreach in the community. So I think church had a lot of influence. 

I was raised in the Episcopalian church, and it had a lot of influence for me. At home we listened to mostly jazz and classical and some limited 70s funk or soul like Earth, Wind and Fire and some James Brown and stuff like that. 

Bob Danziger – Earth, Wind, and Fire used to have their studio out in Carmel Valley.

Allison Miller –  Wow, I didn’t know that, that’s great. 

Allison Miller –  For me music was just a part of our household and. It was just expected to play music and I never thought twice about it. We were always singing. We were always making up beats on the kitchen table. Me and my three sisters, all three of us played multiple instruments and sang.  It just it was kind of what we did. I never even second-guessed it. It just seems to be like oh, this is what you do, you play music. I don’t think they really needed to have [a conversation] with me because once I discovered music, and especially once I was drumming – I just was completely, completely immersed in it. 

Bob Danziger –What was it like having a Dad who was a computer scientist in the early days? 

Allison Miller –I’m a real ‘80s kid, and my dad was really a computer scientist [who] was involved with computers since the late ‘60s. As a kid, I grew up with one of those really old mainframe computers that took up a whole room. We had one in our basement – and a recording studio.  Incredible. 

I had . . .  computers in my room from the time I was maybe eight, and my dad taught me how to basically write commands [for Radio Shack] computers.  I would kind of hang out in my room and experiment with my computer before bed. 

I remember spending a lot of time alone. I have two older sisters, and I think they made it a sport to either ignore me or make fun of me.

Bob Danziger –  That’s normal.

Allison Miller –  Yeah, that’s pretty normal, right? 

Bob Danziger –  Your dad was an audio engineer . . . 

Allison Miller –  He started [by] recording mainly jazz artists from DC, which is how I met so many greats. He was recording mostly to . . .  ADAT [an early video-tape based 8 track digital recording system; 1992-2003].

Bob Danziger –  That’s a name from the past.

Allison Miller –  I know. Of course once digital recording started he jumped right on board really quickly.

[Links to artists recorded by Allison’s father:  Etta JonesHouston Personand Keter Betts.]

Bob Danziger –What brought your family to Texarkana [where Allison was born]?

Allison Miller –  Wow, that’s a good one. We [my family] have generation after generation living in the South. When my family and my distant relatives came over from Europe [Germany, Luxembourg, Scotland and Ireland], they settled mostly in Tennessee, and Oklahoma shortly thereafter. I still have a lot of family in Oklahoma and Tennessee. 

My parents met at OSU, Oklahoma State University, and my dad then moved to Texas to get his doctorate in computer science. He didn’t finish his PhD – I think primarily because he all of a sudden had three children, and you know, had to make money. 

At the time he was also really into photography. My dad has always been a real kind of renaissance man. He’s a recording engineer, he’s a photographer, he paints, he does all kinds of things. And at that time he decided to open a photography store in Texarkana. We moved there so he could open a professional development and photography store. So that’s what we were doing there. I don’t know why he picked Texarkana–. I mean of all places.

Bob Danziger –  Yeah, not a tourist destination.

Allison Miller –  Yeah, right.

Bob Danziger –  What brought your family to Maryland? 

Allison Miller –  From there it was chasing the jobs that would pay for these three children. So from [Texarkana Dad] got a job in Virginia. We lived in a town called Chesterfield, Virginia, which is outside of Richmond, for about a year and a half. Then from there he got a job working for a company in Prince Georges County, Maryland just outside of DC, which for me was  great. Once I finally discovered jazz and started playing jazz, I loved living near DC because DC had such a fruitful jazz community at that time.

Bob Danziger –  There’s an artist here in Monterey whose great, great, great, great, great grandfather was George Washington’s drummer.

Allison Miller –  Whoa.

Bob Danziger –  He was the chief drummer for the Continental Army and all of the DNA stuff, genealogy stuff I’ve heard of descending from kings or whatever, blah, blah, blah. Being George Washington’s drummer – that’s the coolest ancestor I’ve heard of. He was at Bunker Hill and was chief drummer for the Continental Army. Pretty cool.

Allison Miller –  Yeah, I mean, wow.

What Lullabies do you sing to your kids?

Bob Danziger –Can I just ask you what lullabies you sing your kids?

Allison Miller –My wife is a great singer, and my daughter loves to sing so we kind of just make up songs. Sometimes she’ll give me a topic and we just do it. And she likes to sit at the piano and just kind of improvise. We do a lot of making up songs. I don’t really know traditional lullabies, I also sing [songs] like Puff the Magic Dragon; and, I like to sing Prince songs because I like some of his slow [songs]. I [also] like to sing The Nearness of Youto her. Those are kind of my go-to’s. It changes, you know. 

My son is one now and so now I’m kind of in the mode of singing to him but he’s a very different kid. He’s like we read two books and I maybe do a little humming of a song and he’s like okay, good night. . . . 

Discussing Derrick

Bob Danziger –  And all of that is reflected in you and I’m sure you’re going to pass it on with your own flavor to the next generation because you’ve proven you actually have something special. Derrick is also really special, the way his mom taught him to listen.   He listens unlike anyone I’ve ever been around. 

Allison Miller –  That’s why he’s a great producer.

Bob Danziger – Did he ever tell you the story about co-producing an album with Quincy Jones?  And after they were working, he was trying real hard, and I’m paraphrasing, but he said he said Quincy said to him “look your only job is to be honest, do the best you can and be honest. He said don’t worry about perfection, leave some room for God.”

Allison Miller – Wow.

Bob Danziger – Yeah, when he said that I said hang on a second, I’ve got to think about that before we go on.

Allison Miller – Right, right.

Bob Danziger – That was – what a great line.

Allison Miller – That is a great line. First line was great too – “your only job is, to be honest.” I mean that is deep and that can be taken on so many levels you know, and applied in so many different ways.

Bob Danziger – Yeah, exactly.

Allison Miller – “Your only job is tobe honest.” I mean, wow – if we approached every aspect of our life with that in mind it would be a beautiful place – or maybe not a beautiful place [laughing].

Bob Danziger – Exactly. Nobody knows the future so you do things today you don’t really know what they mean over time, but what else are you going to do? . It’s like you have to put absolutely 100% of everything there is about you into every note.

Value of Improvisation Education

Bob Danziger –  Cal State Monterey Bay gave me their first honorary doctorate  for music, invention, and pioneering sustainable energy. In my speeches,  I was able to talk about when you are trying to do something that’s never been done before – In my case with some alternative energy stuff, being able to improvise is the crucial skill. Not being scared of working through the unknown. Going to work every day and improvising every day was the training that allowed me to do something that had never been done before.

Allison Miller  I think being able to engage in improvisation in various aspects of your life is really important and it opens up a side of, a part of your brain that I think a lot of people don’t get a chance to explore.

Bob Danziger –  I wish we had some form of improvisation for every college kid you know for two years where they have to do it every day for a while and it would just, I thinkactually improve their lives tremendously.A

Moving to New York

Bob Danziger –  I read that you moved to New York when you were 21 and engaged ever since in music. What was it like being 21 in New York?

Allison Miller –  Fabulous. I mean I feel like I kind of moved into the tail end of an era, the mid-nineties. But it was pre-cellphone so I was fortunate enough to experience New York without cell phones. So I feel like you know people had to hang out and engage in conversation to play and to work. And it was such a great, fruitful community of music happening. 

When I first moved to New York they were all like the Vanguards and all of that, but there were all of these tiny clubs in the East Village in the lower east side that were having jazz every night. And so one of the first nights I was in New York I went to this place called La Linea and there was a gig going on. The drummer basically was nodding out because he had just shot up and he was nodding out and he couldn’t really play. And then someone [asked] was like you can play? Who can play? And I was like, “I will.” So I just like jumped right in. 

Then, I think the second time I went to that club I got to hear Denis Charles for the first time who I hadn’t heard of.  Here I walk in and he’s playing a drum solo. He’s missing a thumb and he is swinging harder than anything I’ve ever heard. And I was like who is this man? He was playing a drum solo based off of like –  not pomp and circumstance, what’s the wedding song? [Wagner’s Bridal Chorus?] He was playing this incredibly swinging but free drum solo based off that melody and it just blew me away. And then, of course, I’m like Denis Charles, who’s that?  And then I go and look up Denis Charles and it’s like he’s played with all my favorite downtown musicians you know, but I didn’t know who he was. 

And you know New York just became this treasure chest, a treasure chest of jazz gold for me. I loved it. 

I also loved how you at that time you could really live here cheaply and I didn’t have to get a day job. I worked really hard, I practiced and you know I played in the subways, I did whatever needed to do to just be able to play music and it was great. I mean I just ate it up. 

I also liked how kind of nothing, nothing is odd in New York. Even today I was on the subway, I think I was at West Fourth and I was waiting for the train to come back to Brooklyn, and there was this guy – well I guess born a man but he was dressed up in this kind of grandma – kind of an old fashion grandma dress, and he had a wig on and some lipstick. He had this whole set up and he was [playing acoustic guitar] and singing.  And sounded like Billie Holiday. 

He had a little train track set up with elephants going around – it was just . . .  out. Even for me who’s been here for so many years – I hadn’t really seen that version of this [New York] before. I was just like New York is great, and no one’s batting an eye, no one cares. It’s like anything goes. And I loved that about New York once I landed. 

This will give you some idea about how in some ways green I was. I graduated from college and grew up in Maryland and DC my parents never–we never went to New York once, and so I had never been here and I was really fortunate enough to get calls pretty early on. Rachel Z called me early on and I ended up coming to New York to work with her. 

But my first visit ever to New York was to come and hear her this great guitarist originally from DC Paul Bollenback play, and he was playing at Blues Alley, and he’s a friend of mine, and he was kind of a mentor of mine. He started hiring me when I was really young and so I came up to New York but I was so scared to drive into the city, so I parked, I parked my car in New Jersey and of all ways the first come to New York I took a ferry over from New Jersey and we got off at like 34th Street, where Javits Center is. I was all of the sudden on the island of Manhattan and it was like a storybook kind of journey of New York for the first time because I landed and walked onto the island and it was just super sketchy back then, sketchy part of New York and I just immediately fell in love with it. I was like there’s a jazz musician, there’s like a trans person, over here, what’s over here. It was just so much to offer. I loved it.

Bob Danziger –  I love it, too. My own little version of the story too. It was the first thing I was driving one of those u-drive cars from LA to New York and all my stuff in the back the springs were gone and I pullinto this street and I don’t know what’s going on, and the first thing I see, like right across the street and there is a guy pulling a chair on a leash and he was periodically turning around and screaming at the chair for not walking with him.

Allison Miller –  A guy pulling a leash pulling a chair on a leash, that’s amazing.

Bob Danziger –  And screaming at it “how come you’re not walking?”

Allison Miller –  That’s amazing.

Jazz Traditions

Allison Miller –  I love Cecil Taylor. Love, still love. I remember seeing him back in the day when I first moved to New York and I was playing, hanging at the 55 Bar all of the time and he was always there.

Bob Danziger –  He only said two things to us. We rehearsed 10 hours a night seven days a week and he would you know he’d come in, he’d listen or he’d play and do whatever he did and he comeover to you and he’d say, “That sounds, man.” Or, “That doesn’t sound, man,” and those are the only two things he said. It was like if you got a, “That sounds, man” you felt really good for a while.

Allison Miller –  I guess we’re losing those people you know? I really feel I was just talking about this with somebody just the other day because I teach at the New School and I feel like a lot of these young drummers that are coming in that I’m teaching they– I feel for them because they aren’t getting a chance to hear the real masters because there aren’t that many alive anymore. When I first moved to New York I would just go hear Billy Higgins for seven nights in a row at the Vanguard. They would just let me in because I was a young musician. And then I would scoot over and hear Andrew Cyrille, or than I would hear Elvin Jones, Tony Williams. I lived on the upper West side and Max and Elvin and Paul Mosh all lived up there. I would pass them on the street. And it was so life-altering to hear those drummers on a regular basis. I feel like a lot of these young players aren’t getting a chance to hear that, and there’s something in hearing that live – like hearing Elvin hit his ride symbol once was life-changing.  And I think a lot of these young students they don’t realize that there should so much depth and space in the drumming of those masters and not just drumming – in all of those musicians.

Bob Danziger –  And even just the way they talked and walked and moved was different.

Allison Miller –  Yeah, exactly. And it was a real community.

Bob Danziger –  You are a worthy successor though. You truly are, Alisson. You bring, you bring your own special thing to this.

Allison Miller –  Thank you.

Prince

I have a Prince story if you’d like to hear it, I’m sure it’s one you’ve never heard before.

Allison Miller –  Yeah, tell me.

Bob Danziger –  So Prince was one of my investors in my alternative energy company early on and when he fired all of his management and changed his name to the symbol– We had the problem how do you write a check to a symbol? And he also changed management periodically so whenever he did you had to call him up and get his personal approval to send a check other than where he had approved to send it before. So on this occasion, I call him, the phone rings and I’m trying to figure out what to say because I didn’t know what name to call him because he was a symbol now. His real name is Prince R. Nelson, jr. So I call and he answers the phone and I said “Mr. Nelson?” and he said “yes.” And I explained the problem, and he said just keep sending them to Prince Nelson, jr. So while he was the artist formerly known as Prince, he was the guy getting the check still known as Prince Nelson, jr.

Allison Miller –  That’s great. I love that you could just call him directly.

Bob Danziger –  Yeah, that was a business thing and we would usually talk to his managers, but when he changed his name to the symbol he also fired his management, so we had to talk directly to him. He was quite an astounding talent in so many different ways. Love that guy.    

Walter Salb

Bob Danziger –  One of the things I’m really interested in is Walter Salb [Allison began studying drums with him at around 11 years old]. I watched a video on him and heard you talking about him and you mentioned that his father and grandfather were also musicians.

Allison Miller –  Yeah.

Bob Danziger –  Yo-Yo Ma’s father said that it takes three generations to make a great musician and I was just curious because you also describe Walter Salbas a grandfather and best friend. So I was sort of curious what his growing up was like musically? What kind of stuff did he listen to when he was a kid 12 years old or 10 years old and how that influenced the work that you guys did together?

Allison Miller –  Yeah, you know that’s interesting because I don’t know if I ever talked to him about what he was listening to as a kid. I know he was very submersed in music because his father was a musician. I’m pretty sure his father was doing like more kind of cabaret engagements, and professional–they call them club dates in New York, you know those kind of engagements, things through the union. 

I know his father played a lot on the radio, radio musicians worked a lot back then. Walter really loved classical music even though he didn’t play it, so I think he grew up listening to mostly classical.  I know that’s very broad to say “classical music” but I know that he was very influenced by [classical], and the early swing big band music. When I think of him as a musician, I really think of him as a lover of the early swing and listening to a lot of like Woody Herman and Gene Krupa. 

Really that’s an interesting question. Because I’m surprised I never had more of an in-depth conversation with him about that. You know a lot of the times that we hung out we didn’t talk about music. You know he was very engaged in politics, and he wanted to talk about what was going on in the news. He read the New York Times from front to back every day, and so a lot of times we were hanging out we would just be kind of sitting around his kitchen table smoking cigarettes and cigars and talking about politics. 

And for me, it was fascinating because here we are really outside of DC in suburban Silver Spring, Maryland and talking about what’s going on in the world – as a kid, and that really wasn’t going on in my household. Not that my parents weren’t totally showing up for me, but I wasn’t having real substantive conversations about politics and social justice and broader topics at home. So to be able to go over to his house and sit around and talk about things that I honestly probably didn’t even really know anything about was great because I was learning from him. Other times we wouldn’t talk at all and we would just listen to records, and a lot of times it was Gene Krupa, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, a lot of older material.

Bob Danziger –  Did you ever smoke any cigars or cigarettes with your parents?

Allison Miller –  No, unfortunately.

Bob Danziger –  They may have opened to some kind of conversation.

Allison Miller –  Right, right, if we had partaken in smoking anything together maybe that would have opened up some.

Bob Danziger –  Yeah, yeah.

Dan Ouellette –  It sounds like almost that Walter almost had kind of like a club because everyone kind of gravitated there, right?  Because they could be naughty.

Allison Miller –  That’s kind of true in a way. Anything kind of went over at Walter’s house, but it was all centered around being very present and engaging in social activities actually like having a conversation and a dialogue and even getting into some debates about different topics. He never had a TV on – ever  – and for me growing up and being a kid in the 80s and early 90s it was kind of like I feel like almost everybody’s household in suburbia Maryland had a TV going all of the time. So really a breath of fresh air to go over to Walt’s and you know you never hear a TV, you never see a TV. You are just there to hang out and you are either going to hang out around the kitchen table and talk about politics or/and basically kind of listen to him. We were just kind of listening to him honestly – but or we are going to have some beers and listen to some music. It really was very focused. It was a focused naughty hang.

Bob Danziger –  Nothing better as a kid, right? I mean what else could you possibly hope for?

Dan Ouellette –  If there’s one take away from that whole time with Walter what would it be, why it was so important to you?

Allison Miller –  You know I think Walter was my first introduction to the importance of community and kind of chosen family. I think he was my first introduction to that, and I kind of followed that model, social model, the rest of my life really because Walter really was the center of a community and when he–really as much as he drove everybody crazy, because he really did you know, he was ornery and you know surly,and he could be just downright offensive but he really brought together community and there was no discrimination against age or sex or color. He really did just bring everybody together and he insulted – I mean everybody had equality from him as far as how much he insulted them and degraded them but somehow, we all kept coming back for more so we must have at least accepted our role in his community. 

Conclusion

Bob Danziger –  Have you had a chance to explore the Monterey Peninsula yet?

Allison Miller –I used to have a girlfriend whose family lived in Carmel so we would spend a lot of time in Carmel and Monterey and I love it. I love it out there. It’s beautiful.

Dan Ouellette –  Big Sur, too?

Allison Miller –  Yeah, her grandfather is Ansel Adams so we used to go to his house. I never get to meet him because he died in 1984, but I got to meet his wife and I knew their family really well.

Dan Ouellette –  Wow.

Allison Miller –  I really want to take my kids to the Monterey Aquarium because they have definitely never witnessed anything like that.

Bob Danziger –That will be wonderful, they will love it. They’ve got great stuff for kids at the Aquarium, that’s for sure.  Stanford has a campus next door to the aquarium. Maybe one of these years when you do your Stanford Jazz camp you could have it here. 

Bob Danziger –Allison, I loved talking to you and I loved hearing your stories. I’m going to try to transmit to the students that we’ve got this very impressive person coming into play for us and I look forward to it. We will see you actually the day before the Next Generation Festival, and then we will see you at the Next Generation Festival, and we’ll see you when you come back for the Jazz Camp and Monterey Jazz Festival.   Thank you.

Allison Miller –  Yeah, thank you, Bob and Dan. Have a good night.