When all the components are just right, the “music in the air” is a delightful and immersive breeze. Mark Christian Miller shows skills in pacing, punctuation, scat and melody. It’s all there in his new album, where he and the band swing like a gate in a hurricane.
A thoughtful and multi-colored tonal experience in “Mutineer” presents an offering to the gods of love. With clever lyrics, unexpected movement through different keys and an open-ended resolution, this song could easily rise to be a classic. “If You Could See Me Now” is sweetly redrawn as a bossa nova and “Too Darn Hot” has drama and spice.
Do you remember your first performance and what did you sing?
There was a guy named Bill Riley who had a show on WHO-TV in Des Moines, Iowa. He hosted talent shows in schools throughout the state, and the winner of each school’s show got to appear on his TV show. He came to our school and I sang Rod McKuen’s “Jean.” I won second place so I didn’t get to go on TV, but I was thrilled nonetheless. I wore the dorkiest gray-and-white checked slacks, a black shirt and a gray cardigan. A dorky outfit for a dorky song. But I was in junior high, so what did I know? I was a shy kid, so really it was an amazing and positive experience for me.
Why do you feel vocals are the most natural way for you to express yourself, as opposed to an instrument?
My parents encouraged us to participate in school activities, including band and choir. I played baritone horn in school and was pretty good. My mother was a wonderful classical pianist and taught from our farmhouse for several years. There was always music around. But I just took to singing. The human voice is the most expressive instrument we have. You can tell instantly if somebody is tired, joyful, sad. It’s universal.
Where did you receive your music education and what made the strongest impact on you?
I took some music courses at the University of Iowa. Later, I had a lot of private voice instruction in opera and classical singing. In San Francisco, I sang with the Lamplighters, a company that still performs mostly Gilbert and Sullivan. My goal was to get into the San Francisco Opera chorus. But before I could make that happen, I auditioned for and was accepted into the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Music Theater Workshop, which brought me to LA. Later, when I got into jazz, I completed the two-year music program at Los Angeles City College on a full scholarship from drummer David Alpert, Herb’s brother. After that, I studied piano privately with Jane Getz and the late Joyce Collins. Joyce was a wonderful jazz pianist, very accomplished, and was in the Bill Evans bag, gorgeous, dense chord voicings. Jane is more in the Bud Powell vein, linear, bop-oriented. So it was a nice combination of approaches. In recent years, I have been self-taught on the piano.
How have you developed as a musician over the years?
On my feet. Singing in clubs and halls. And then before that, I did a lot of musicals, summer stock, dinner theater, light opera in San Francisco and a small theater in Los Angeles, and a couple seasons for Radio City Music Hall. My piano studies have greatly improved my singing.
Name a few of your favorite collaborations and what made them special.
I loved working with Gildo Mahones when I was first getting started singing a jazz repertoire. Gildo is on many of the classic Lambert, Hendricks & Ross recordings. I learned a lot from him. Joyce Collins and I gigged together a lot, and I enjoyed singing and recording with Page Cavanaugh. I was once put on a bill with Anita O’Day to sing a couple ballads each night. Anita wasn’t singing any ballads at that point. It was in a big, beautiful supper club called The Atlas that used to be next to the Wiltern Theater on Wilshire, and the engagement lasted a summer. One night we did a duet, trading fours on “This Can’t Be Love.” That was certainly memorable. More recently, I loved recording with Josh Nelson in 2015 and of course with Jamieson Trotter on my new album.
I enjoy singing with pianist Bill Anschell when I gig in Seattle. He’s a very insightful, sensitive player. I had fun with Ronny Whyte in New York, right before the pandemic hit. Betty Bryant is a dear friend and we really enjoy hanging out. I help her with bookings and the business in general. She is not an accompanist; she is used to doing her own thing. But I am so familiar with her style that we do a couple of songs together every year at her Betty Bryant Birthday Bash Brunch, which I produce at Catalina Jazz Club. I love singing with her. In 2008, we recorded an album together titled “Together.”
Talk about the special touches that are part of your repertoire.
Everything I do now is piano-driven. I have no delusions about my piano skills. I would say I am well on my way to being a musical piano player and a competent accompanist for myself. These days I never perform a song as a stand-up singer that I have not learned on the piano. This, of course, helps greatly in developing scat lines. And I am starting to break the ice when it comes to playing and singing in public. It is an entirely different set of muscles, a very different skill set than being a stand-up singer. Over the summer, I did a five-song set to open for Betty Bryant’s appearance at Jazz at the Merc. That was the first time I performed more than one song in public. I had every note planned ahead of time, and a very solid bassist in Richard Simon to help keep me anchored, and a beautiful reed player in Robert Kyle. They handled the soloing. It was a blast and I felt a real connection with the audience. I know it is going to get more spontaneous and improvisational as I continue on the journey.
What was the inspiration for launching Los Angeles Jazz Society Presents and where you’re at with it now that the lockdown is over?
The LAJS is a great organization, dear to my heart. Their late founder, Teri Merril-Aarons, gave me an early push and a lot of support. So I am proud to be on the board. It is also a financially stable organization, so it seemed natural that we should step up and provide paid streaming shows for our gigging musicians in response to the lockdowns.
I discussed the idea over email with Sara Gazarek, who was on the board at the time and pitched it in a Zoom board meeting and everybody loved it. I have done some of the booking, but the heavy lifting is done by our events manager Scherr Lillico and our tech person Evita Wagner. Scherr has really kept it going. I just dial into Zoom and host from time to time. Other board members host as well.
We had some outside funding that was earmarked specifically for LAJS Presents. I believe we have used most, if not all, of it now. So they are kind of winding down. But the series has been great for the organization. We are honoring Bill Hollman, Rickey Minor, Ledisi, and KJAZZ radio in our upcoming Jazz Tribute show on October 29th in Hollywood at the Montalban Theater. It is great to be live again!
Do you prefer a small or very large venue?
When I was doing musicals and light opera, I sang on some very big stages. That is a different kind of vocal production, of course, and I loved it. But now I consider myself to be a “room” singer. I like the intimacy and the connection, especially as I continue to explore being a pianist/singer. It is, sadly, getting harder to find rooms, but I remain hopeful. Having said that, if they ever ask me to do the Hollywood Bowl, I will not turn it down. Also, I am not sitting by the phone waiting for that to happen.
What is your preferred instrumentation?
Well, it is all about the quality of your collaborators. The basic piano, bass, and percussion combo, with the right people, is a slice of heaven. The right drummer is important; they have to be able to play lightly with intensity. I have also enjoyed doing duos with a guitarist. I performed for Flip Manne’s hundredth birthday celebration with Larry Koonse—we did Flip and Shelly’s favorite song, “I’m Glad There Is You.” That was great.
Talk about writing Music in the Air.
Jamieson Trotter and the others on the album make it special. I think Jamieson is currently one of the most talented arrangers for vocals in the business. I love the charts he wrote for me. They are solidly rooted in jazz, but also have a theatricality. Larry Koonse on guitar, Danny Janklow on alto, and Kevin Winard on percussion and Mike Gurrola on bass are all great musicians.
I took my time, as I usually do with recording projects. I really lived with the charts before we recorded, was able to perform most of them publicly first a couple of times. That helped. Also, I had a great engineer in Paul Tavener. I give myself credit for getting out of his way. When it came time to mix and master, I told him, “Just do it, send it to me when you’re finished.” Part of that was because this was happening during the isolation of the pandemic. But also I’ve learned over the years that I have a hard time letting go of a project and I can fuss with details too much. Bottom line is I love the results. Paul had my complete trust throughout the project and was great to work with.
Performances lined up for the rest of the year?
We have the Betty Bryant Birthday Bash Brunch coming up on November 6th. I have two private holiday parties booked in December, so that’s nice. I am getting the material together to perform at a little room in Hollywood and will announce that date soon. I’ll be on piano and vocals, bass TBA, and the wonderful Robert Kyle on reeds. Then I will take that show into the studio and film and record it so hopefully I can scare up some piano work. It is good to have a plan.
What would you tell your younger self (musician) about the music biz?
I have no regrets because that’s a waste of time. But I would say to my younger musical self, get a music degree. Music is never an easy career, but it might have been easier with the experience of completing a top conservatory or university music program. It seems as I look around at all my wonderful musician friends, the ones who had that academic experience and continued alumni support, tend to be doing better. Not that you have to go that route. But it helps you to diversify, which is crucial to being in the business. Even the experience of completing the two-year music track at LA City College benefits me to this day.
Great to “meet” you, Debbie. Thank you. Jazz people are the best!
For more information, visit www.markchristianmiller.com/music-in-the-air.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2022 Debbie Burke