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JGT Interview with Chicago Jazz Guitarist Dave Miller

Jonathan Ross

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Dave Miller is something of an enigma. He is known in Chicago as a Jazz Guitarist, but if you look at his discography, it covers a lot of musical styles.

Dave Miller has shared the stage with many Chicago Jazz musicians including Matt Ulery, Dan Chase, Ted Sirota and Greg Ward (too name a very few), having recently appeared on Ward’s acclaimed new release Stompin’ Off from Greenwood. He had just come back from spending ten days in the Catskill Mountains writing new music for an upcoming yet-to-be-named project.

Over the years, we’ve been acquainted with some of the same people, I lived with a school friend of his, and after he voluntarily left a teaching job at a small school in the Old Irving Park neighborhood of Chicago, I turned out to be his replacement. Our paths have almost crossed a bunch of times. Finally, I met up with him at a restaurant in Oak Park where the owner stared at us awkwardly, and we talked about Music, the Jazz scene in Chicago, early influences, and afterward had a nice crate dig at Oak Park Records next door.

** Shortly After this interview, Dave received a Grammy nomination for “Best Improvised Jazz Guitar Solo” on the tune “Sundown”, from Greg Ward’s Album “Stompin’ Off from Greenwood.” Congrats, Dave!

Dave Miller – Photo credit: Aaron Winters

Jonathan Ross: You’re from the Chicagoland-area. Where did you grow up and what was the music scene like? Early influences?

Dave Miller: I grew up in Wheaton, and lived there until I went to college. I started playing when I was 11, and within a few months I was in a band. A lot of my friends started playing around the same time as me, and there was a cool lineage of musicians there. There were a lot of older musicians that we could look up to. There were some great musicians in my high school and we wanted to be like them. So relatively quickly after I started playing guitar I was in a band, writing songs and playing gigs anywhere we could. Being a child of 90s, we were really into grunge at the time and classic rock like Hendrix and Zeppelin. Then when I discovered Frank Zappa, that got me not only into Jazz, but into “left of center” music and experimental music in general. His career was so wide-ranging that there’s something for everyone who’s looking for music that’s different.

JR: When did you get into Jazz?

DM: I started getting into Jazz in high school. Sophomore year I joined the Jazz band. I didn’t know much about Jazz, but I knew that high school Jazz band wasn’t necessarily Jazz. I also had to things in the curriculum that I wasn’t interested in so I just stopped doing it at some point. I was writing a lot of music at the time and there was a hybrid of many musical styles at the time that I was into.

JR: When did you take your first Jazz lessons?

DM: Right after I graduated high school I took a summer of lessons with Steve Ramsdell at College of DuPage. Later, I majored in accounting at University of Illinois, and took a class in Jazz Composition there for non-Majors, which is crazy to think that they actually had that. It was run by Thomas Wirtel, who ran the top Big Band at the school. There was only three other people in the class, and believe it or not one of the other members of the class was a banjo player named Noam Pikelny, the banjo player in the Punch Brothers, who is probably the greatest banjo player in the world next to Bela Fleck. 

JR: When was the first time you heard Jazz Guitar? For me it was “The Incredible Jazz Guitar” by Wes Montgomery.

DM: That’s crazy, because that’s the same record that did it for me! I heard “Airegin” and that was it.

JR: You later transferred to Northern Illinois University. What was the culture of learning like there?

DM: After my sophomore year I applied to a bunch of different schools, and Fareed Haque was the first one to get back to me. He called me and asked for me to audition, and I met him at the school. We played the tune “Just Friends”. Then he asked me to play a C Major scale. After that, he asked me to join the music program. So within a month I had to rearrange basically my whole life to get to that school. Once I got there I was surrounded by so many musicians who were better than me, which was advantageous to me because it pushed me to be better. Fareed would assign almost an insurmountable amount of work to get done every week. But he was testing you by doing that. He wanted to see how much you could handle.

JR: You lived in New York City for several years. How would you describe the scene there, and how would you compare it to the scene Chicago?

DM: In Chicago, there’s a lot of honesty in the music, and a lot of not taking ourselves too seriously in a healthy way, and a strong sense of community. If you could boil it down to one or two points, it’s cheaper to live in Chicago. Because of that, it allows artists to not stress as much about money. There’s still stress about money, but not nearly as much as there is in NYC. That frees up time to create. Here, you get more stage time since the ratio of musicians to gigs is so much different. In NYC, there are so many musicians that have small micro-communities that are kind of insular and hard to break into. And it’s almost impossible to break into more than one of them. To try to diversify is almost a fool’s errand because the time it takes to do that is so great.

However, while in New York I took a lot of really great lessons from some really great musicians. I had about a year’s worth of lessons with a piano player named Connie Crothers, who was a disciple of Lennie Tristano. Connie was like a guru, and changed my whole outlook about music. And also, being in New York and away from Chicago also allowed me to embrace myself more. Those were probably the two biggest things that I took away from my experiences there.

JR: What do you think is the most important thing for an aspiring Jazz musician to learn?

DM: Probably the most important thing is to go see people who know how to do it, and to see it happen with your own eyes. The other things are pretty self-explanatory, like practice, learn scales and tunes, and all the other stuff that we do. The biggest divide in younger musicians or older musicians is when they haven’t see people do it in real life. I don’t envy someone who grows up in the middle of nowhere where there is no precedent as to how it’s done. We’re lucky to have grown up in Chicago where there is a distinct precedent on how it’s done. I would say go out to see as much live music as possible. Listen to the music. What does it really sound like? Listen. 

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Top Photo by Carolina Correa Caro

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