• Dear Mulgrew, We Miss You...

    June 4, 2013. Posted by Becca Pulliam.

    Professor Mulgrew at WPU, preparing for a celebration of James Williams .. photo by Becca Pulliam
    Professor Mulgrew at WPU, preparing for a celebration of James Williams .. photo by Becca Pulliam

    Mulgrew Miller (1955-2013) was a friend of WBGO. As we mourn his passing, we are playing his music and remembering the touchpoints of a shared history.

    In the 1980s, Mulgrew lived at the Colonnade Apartments in University Heights in Newark. WBGO was the new station in town and Mulgrew the new pianist. And a really, really good one.

    In that era, Mulgrew worked for – in this sequence and back to back – the Duke Ellington Orchestra conducted by Mercer Ellington, vocalist Betty Carter, Newark-born trumpeter Woody Shaw, drummer Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, and drummer Tony Williams. Mulgrew was no apprentice; he was ready for these great groups. And WBGO played this music.

    One morning (9am) in 1994, he drove to the studio from his new home in Easton, PA, to talk with Gary Walker about With Our Own Eyes, Mulgrew’s latest album as a leader. The conversation is on our blog here. He played some piano too; I like how he closed the segment with a slow blues.

    When WBGO celebrated our anniversary in 2004, we threw an outdoor party on Park Place and Mulgrew played again, saying, “Thank you for coming out and celebrating the 25th anniversary of WBGO, one of the greatest stations in the nation! (PAUSE) I will say the greatest station in the nation!” Here are three songs from his set, heard later on JazzSet.

    Two months later, Mulgrew lost his dear friend, pianist James Williams (1951-2004) from Memphis and New York. Then Mulgrew succeeded James, directing Jazz Studies at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ. In 2009, the WPU faculty and students celebrated James's life with a concert on what would have been his 58th birthday,  with Mulgrew leading on piano. We made a JazzSet from the concert. You can hear it, here.

    Photo by David Tallacksen
    Detroit Jazz Festival Photo by WBGO's David Tallacksen

    In 2010, the Detroit Jazz Festival honored Mulgrew as Artist-in-Residence, and a WBGO team was there to make a Labor Day special hosted by Rhonda Hamilton. We saw his opening night show with Take Six; sets with his trio, a WPU student group, the Michigan State Big Band, and – as you’ll hear on this week’s JazzSet – Mulgrew's late Saturday night set with his group Wingspan (a tip of the hat to Charlie Parker a/k/a Bird) and two-piano duets with Kenny Barron on Sunday. All this music was outdoors and free, downtown in the Motor City. Mulgrew played with full commitment and he smiled too. David Tallacksen took great photos.

    As mentioned, Mulgrew was the Director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University. Every April, he and his co-director David Demsey brought student ensembles to WBGO, to play on Michael Bourne’s afternoon show for Jazz Appreciation Month. Just this past April, Mulgrew and his students played Mulgrew's  “The Sequel,"  live on WBGO. "I wrote it for Wingspan," Miller told Bourne. "It's loosely based off Miles' song 'So What.'"

    Click here to hear the full hour with Mulgrew's WPU ensemble, The Hawk Flies.

    “If I can get the students to learn how to listen,” Mulgrew would say, “then they can teach themselves.”

    “[Mulgrew] could levitate a bandstand,” wrote saxophonist Loren Schoenberg (a Jazz from the Archives host) on Facebook. Behind that effortlessness was a lot of work. Mulgrew once told me that he was practicing so that his left hand could intercept a right hand run at any point, and as we know, those runs could move. Besides intercepting, his left hand could stride and swing so authoritatively, and then there were the conversations between his hands and the times when they get together so he could send the train down the tracks. (I can't remember where I read that metaphor for his shout choruses.) Then there’s the way he lays down a carpet of flowers. What a touch.

    Many are commenting on Mulgrew's integrity – musical and personal. We will be missing him for years to come. Our condolences and gratitude go to his family and friends. Long live the music and memory of our friend, Mulgrew Miller.

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