Mulgrew Miller

extraordinary Pianist, Composer, & Educator

Mulgrew Miller was born in a small town along the Mississippi delta. Miller’s father purchased a piano when he was six, leaving a big impression on the young boy. Miller would sit at the piano and pick out melodies to popular songs. Mulgrew would often learn hymns by ear and play them for his father when he returned home from work. When he was eight years old, he began to take formal lessons from a local teacher named Albert Harrison. 

At the age of ten, Miller began to go to gigs with his older brother, receiving his first experience seeing live music. Throughout his teenage years, Mulgrew received numerous opportunities to perform; performing in church services, a rhythm and blues band and in an assortment of school ensembles. Mulgrew also played the sousaphone in his school’s marching band and formed a trio that would perform at social events. 

Miller first became interested in jazz at the age of fourteen when he saw pianist Oscar Peterson on the television program “The Joey Bishop Show.” The years of piano lessons and performing paid off when Mulgrew received a scholarship to study music at The University of Memphis, then called Memphis State University. During college, he studied with pianists James Williams and Donald Brown. 

Miller stayed at Memphis State for two years, ultimately moving to Boston where he received lessons from Margaret Chaloff, the mother of baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff. While in Boston, Miller performed with saxophonists Ricky Ford and Billy Pierce. In 1976, Mulgrew decided to move to Los Angeles in order to build his career.

 In January 1977, Miller furthered his career when he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra, led by his son trumpeter Mercer Ellington. Miller was recommended for the job by his friend saxophonist Bill Easley. The job with Ellington brought him to New York City where he began to make a name for himself in the city’s jazz scene. 

Miller remained with the group until early 1979 when he joined the rhythm section of singer Betty Carter’s group alongside bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Greg Bandy. In late 1980, he joined trumpeter Woody Shaw’s group, performing with him until the summer of 1983. 

After joining tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin for a brief tour, Miller joined drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, making his debut with the group on 1984’s New York Scene. During his time with Blakey, Miller started to record with several up and coming young jazz musicians including trumpeter Terence Blanchard, tenor saxophonists Donald Harrison, John Stubblefield and Branford Marsalis, alto saxophonist Bobby Watson and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. 

In 1985, Miller made his debut recording Keys To The City for producer Orrin Keepnews’s label, Landmark. Starting in 1986, Miller became a member of drummer Tony Williams’ quintet. 

While with Williams, Miller pursued a dazzling array of side projects. In 1987, Mulgrew formed the cooperative ensemble Trio Transition with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Freddie Waits. The group toured throughout Europe and sometimes included alto saxophonist Oliver Lake as a featured soloist.

The same year, Miller began to perform with tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, appearing on his album Stardust. 1987 Mulgrew also performed on trumpeter Wallace Roney’s album Verses and also played with the group Wingspan on a self-titled album. In 1992, when Williams dissolved his group, Mulgrew further focused his attention on these other projects. 

Miller toured with the New York Jazz Giants before performing with clarinetist Eddie Daniels and vibraphonist Gary Burton. 

Miller continued to lead a trio while working as a sideman on various recordings. In 1993, Mulgrew performed with guitarist Ron Muldrow and tenor saxophone Joe Lovano. 

The same year, Miller along with pianists Harold Mabern, James Williams, Geoff Keezer and Donald Brown formed The Contemporary Piano Ensemble. Initially starting after a performance at the 1991 Montreaux Jazz Festival, the group consists of four pianists, with one sitting out, performing simultaneously with a rhythm section. The group performed last in 1996. 

1993 also saw Mulgrew performing on bassist Steve Swallow’s album Real Book with Lovano, trumpeter Tom Harrell and drummer Jack DeJohnette. On “Bite Your Grandmother,” DeJohnette plays an opening cadenza before the unison melody of Lovano and Harrell begins the top of the form. With the unrestrained performance of DeJohnette, Miller and Swallow prove to be a reliable and interesting rhythmic partnership with the two men utilizing the upper registers of their instruments to contrast with the dark sound of Lovano. Mulgrew’s solos offer brief, but poignant examples of his harmonic intelligence and aptitude. 

The following year, Mulgrew performed with trumpeter Nicholas Payton on his debut album From This Moment. In 1995, Miller performed with Lovano at the Village Vanguard and performed with alto saxophonist Charles McPherson on his album Come Play With Me. Two years later, Miller performed with tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy on his album Serendipity. The same year, Mulgrew toured Japan as part of the group “100 Gold Fingers,” featuring fellow pianists Tommy Flanagan, Ray Bryant, and Kenny Barron. In 1998, he performed on vibraphonist Stefon Harris’s album A Cloud of Red Dust. 

In 1999, Miller began to work with bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, and together they recorded Duets, an album featuring the music of pianist Duke Ellington and bassist Jimmy Blanton. The duo became a trio with the inclusion of drummer Alvin Queen in 2000. The group performed throughout Europe, ultimately deciding to expand in 2005 after the death of Pederson.

 On September 17, 2002, Miller released the album The Sequel with Wingspan. Released on the Maximum Jazz label, the album features vibraphonist Steve Nelson, saxophonist Steve Wilson, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, bassist Rickie Goods, and drummer Kareem Riggins. 

A highlight from this session is the song “Dreamsville,” which features Miller and Wilson performing as a duo. Miller impeccably sets up the song with a beautiful introduction using rich voicings to evoke the sentimental feeling of the song. On his solo, Mulgrew demonstrates the perfect method for constructing a solo by starting with a small idea and building upon it using different melodic devices and motifs. Mulgrew’s skill as an accompanist is quite clear during Wilson’s performance when he augments Wilson’s sound with bright ornamentations that serve to enhance his overall tone. 

In 2003, Miller received a commission from the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company to write an original piece for the company. The result was The Clearing in the Woods, which Miller and Wingspan performed with the company. Noted choreographer Ronald K. Brown choreographed the piece. 

The same year, Miller performed on trumpeter Terell Stafford’s album New Beginnings. On “New Beginnings Suite: Berda’s Bounce,” Miller begins the song with a solo that perfectly executes the swift atmosphere of the song. During tempo changes, Mulgrew and drummer Dana Hall lead the ensemble through the changes with care and ease. Mulgrew displays a fervent touch throughout the song, evoking a touch that is reminiscent of McCoy Tyner. 

In 2003, Miller performed on bassist Ron Carter’s album The Golden Striker with guitarist Russell Malone. The same year, Miller received the “Distinguished Achievement” award from The University of Memphis. For the 2004-2005 school year, Mulgrew was the Artist in Residence at Lafayette College. His recent releases include Live at the Kennedy Center in 2006 and Live at the Kennedy Center: Vol. 2 in 2007. Both albums are from his trio’s performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and feature bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Rodney Green. 

On May 20, 2006, Mulgrew was awarded an honorary doctorate of performing arts from Lafayette College. He then went on to become the director of jazz studies at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey.

Mulgrew passed away at the age of 57 on May 29, 2013.  His death was a significant loss to the jazz community, as he was considered not only a gifted pianist but also an influential educator and mentor to younger generations of jazz musicians. 

Mulgrew's legacy lives on through his recordings, compositions, and the impact he had on aspiring jazz artists. His ability to bridge the gap between tradition and innovation continues to inspire pianists and jazz enthusiasts around the world. His contributions to the evolution of jazz piano and his commitment to preserving its rich heritage ensure that he remains an enduring figure in the archives of jazz history.


Biography written by Leo T. Sullivan