Event to Honor Piano Legend

Originally published by Bryn Stole for The Greenwood Commonwealth
April 6, 2015

A longtime music journalist will be paying tribute to the great pianist and Greenwood native Mulgrew Miller with an event at Turnrow Books.

DownBeat magazine senior contributor Robin Tolleson will be mixing together selections from some of Miller’s jazz albums with recordings of interviews about Miller with friends, associates and colleagues in a format Tolleson calls a “Spinterview” Tuesday beginning at 5 p.m.

Miller, a 1973 graduate of Greenwood High School, died in 2013 at the age of 57. He was widely considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of his generation, having played and recorded with many of the titans of jazz during a storied career that began in teenage cover bands and behind the organ at Greenwood-area churches.

Tolleson said he’d spoken with a number of noted contemporary jazz musicians about Miller — including pianist Donald Brown, saxophonist Donald Harrison, trombonist Steve Turre and saxophonist Alphonso Sanders — in preparing the “spinterview.”

“I was hearing all these great stories from these guys about Mulgrew,” Tolleson said. “To me, it’s a real pleasure to be able to do this — to play some of the great vinyl he played on and let people hear these interviews.”

In his nearly four decades as a professional jazz pianist, Miller played on more than 600 different albums, playing with iconic stars including trumpeter Woody Shaw and drummer Art Blakey.

Miller’s professional career began in 1976 when he was recruited to replace the recently deceased Duke Ellington behind the piano in the Duke Ellington Orchestra and also included a three-year stint in Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers.

Tolleson said he’d gotten interested in putting together a tribute for Miller after visiting the journalist’s son, James Miller, who lives in Greenwood School District as a member of FoodCorps, a national nonprofit.

Tolleson said he’d met Miller several times while living in the San Francisco area but had never realized he was from Greenwood. Talking with folks around town during his visits, Tolleson found many who’d known Miller personally but didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of his achievements in jazz.

“They may have known who Mulgrew was, but they didn’t realize what all he’d accomplished in music. It’s pretty astounding how many albums he played on, the great people he played with,” said Tolleson, who now lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina. “I was always really impressed with him as a person and as a jazz musician. When I started visiting James, so many things kind of came together to make this happen.”

Tolleson said he’s been putting on “spinterview” performances for several years now, drawing from the massive vinyl record collection — about 8,000 records — he amassed during his 30-year career as a freelance music journalist, as well as tape recordings of hundreds of interviews with jazz greats.

“In the last few years I’ve noticed how many of those people that I’d interviewed start passing away and thought their voices really need to be preserved,” Tolleson said. “I just had the idea of mixing them, spinning the vinyl, dropping the vinyl down and bringing up little bits of the interview.”

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