Bobby Sanabria remembers trumpeter and educator Dan Miller
Dan Miller, a trumpeter known for his soaring lead sound and skill as a jazz improvisor, died unexpectedly in his sleep on Friday, Aug. 19 in Ft. Myers, Florida. It was confirmed by his younger brother, trombonist Dave Miller. He was 54.
A native of Chicago, Illinois, he performed with the big bands of Lionel Hampton, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Harry Connick Jr., with whom he spent 11 years traveling the world and recording numerous albums and television specials, as well as with pop stars like Tom Jones and with the prestigious Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra directed by Wynton Marsalis. In a text sent to this author, Marsalis wrote about Miller:
“Dan was the essence of our music: soulful, original, virtuosic and consistent. He was a great great educator and even better student. Most importantly, he was deeply engaged with humanity and how it could best be expressed in our interactions with each other and through the trumpet. Big sound, big spirit, his sudden passing is shocking and a wake-up call for us all to savor every moment down this road.”
Audiences across the country heard and saw Miller perform on TV shows such as The Tonight Show under both Johnny Carson and Jay Leno, Conan, The Late Show with David Letterman, MAD TV, The Today Show, as well as major specials such as "NBC Christmas at Rockefeller Center" and Super Bowl XXVI.
Not confined to just big bands, he also performed in small group settings with renowned artists like Branford Marsalis, Curtis Fuller, Randy Brecker, Frank Foster, Jon Hendricks, George Coleman, Charles McPherson, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Tom Harrell, David "Fathead" Newman, Ira Sullivan, Bobby Shew and Jack McDuff.
Here’s an example of Miller with his own small ensemble utilizing his favorite mute, the cup:
As an educator Miller helped organize the Naples Youth Jazz Orchestra and taught improvisation classes in the Jazz Studio of the University of Central Florida's School of Performing Arts. In an interview with longtime Miller colleague and collaborator Jerry Stawski by Harriett Howard Heithaus for The Naples Daily News, the pianist talked about Miller’s work with students. "Dan was an incredible educator,” Stawski told Heithaus. “The kids loved him. He was a walking encyclopedia of jazz. You could play any record from any era and he could tell you the tune, what musicians were playing on it, even what arrangement they were using.”
Here’s an example of that erudition as Miller drops knowledge about one of his trumpet heroes, the great Freddie Webster, about whom Dizzy Gillespie once said, “[He] had the best sound on trumpet since the trumpet was invented—just alive and full of life."
"He was a wonderful musician and performer, but the thing that impressed me most was the way he worked with kids,” said saxophonist Lew Del Gatto, another longtime bandmate in the same story. “Miller had a way of transforming students who grew up without the benefit of big-band orchestras on TV into polished jazz musicians.”
Besides being founder and director of the Naples Philharmonic Youth Jazz Orchestra, Miller was also a member of the Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra.
Dan Miller was born May 31, 1969 in Waukegan, Illinois, His father, John Roderick Miller, worked in car sales while racing, owning, and “wrenching” cars in NASCAR and Indy-sponsored events. His mother, the former Virginia Marian Pacioni, worked for the Collier County Solid Waste Department as a weightmaster. Beginning to play trumpet in grade school, he was influenced by recordings his father would play for him of Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Webster, Fats Navarro, and Maynard Ferguson. In the bio on his website he talked about the influence his father had on him.
“Chicago in the ‘70s had an incredible jazz scene,” Miller wrote. “There was Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase that had Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Max Roach, Horace Silver, Woody Shaw and Joe Henderson. There was Rick’s Café American with Dizzy, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald. Mr. Ricky’s had all the organ greats like Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff. Von Freeman ran the Tuesday night session at the new Apartment Lounge. Bob Koester owned the Jazz Record Mart (the best jazz record store in the world) and used LPs were cheap. Buddy Rich, Woody Herman’s [and] Maynard’s bands were always coming to town. Fortunately for my brother and I, my dad took us to hear music all the time.”
His studies continued with Nick Drozdoff, Gary Slavo and Bobby Shew, whom he met in Chicago in 1984. Shew would become a lifelong teacher, mentor and friend. "Hearing Bobby was a revelation to me,” Miller wrote. “He blew sensational bebop and such swinging lead trumpet, that I felt that here was a musician that can do it all. Bobby is also one the finest teachers in the world.”
But a meeting with trumpeter Tom Harrell at a Jamey Aebersold Clinic that same year would also prove to be a Rubicon for Miller. “Harrell was just there for one day, but he came into the trumpet master class with Hal Galper and proceeded to tear through ‘Cherokee,’ rhythm changes and the blues in all 12 keys,” Miller recalled. “I sat five feet away from the front of his bell, enamored by that big, burnished sound and thought that this is what I wanted to do.”
In 1987 Miller continued his studies at North Texas State University with Don “Jake” Jacoby, as well as with John J. Haynie, the legendary father of the North Texas State Trumpet Department. In 1989 he went on the road with the Woody Herman Orchestra completing a virtuosic trumpet section which featured Ron Stout, Greg Gisbert and Paul Mazzio. By 1990 he had become part of Harry Connick Jr.’s big band traveling throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia, and Japan, recording the multi-platinum, Grammy-winning album Blue Light, Red Light as well as When My Heart Finds Christmas, Star Turtle and Come by Me.
In 1991 Miller moved to New York City with his younger brother, the noted trombonist David "Dave" Miller. After getting an apartment in the bohemian Greenwich Village, the two immersed themselves in the city’s vibrant jazz and salsa scenes. Miller would eventually spend August 1994 with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Tanglewood recording and filming Marsalis on Music. The project yielded four television specials for PBS, a companion CD, book and 4-DVD set.
In 2004, Miller began to split his time between NYC and Florida leading his own groups, making numerous appearances in NYC for the Jazz Foundation of America, while also working with David “Fathead” Newman, Lew De Gatto, Jimmy McGriff and others as well as appearing frequently in the city at Smalls and Fat Cat. Since 2014, he had been an Artist-in-Residence for the University of Central Florida (UCF) School of Performing Arts and the Jazz Department. In the Fall of 2019, he joined the faculty of UCF teaching jazz trumpet. Besides all this, he taught the improvisation concepts of Barry Harris, as well as teaching and coaching the UCF Flying Horse Big Band trumpet section.
His brother Dave, who plays lead trombone in this author’s Multiverse Big Band, said succinctly: “Dan lived a life worth living, making a positive impact on everyone he came he into contact with. The outpouring of love on his passing is not surprising. Dan was an outstanding trumpet player, educator, brother and friend.”
Dan Miller is survived by his mother Virginia, longtime companion Judi Woods, his brother David, sister-in-law Julie Miller and beloved niece Melanie Miller.
The author thanks Dave Miller for the biographical and anecdotal info.