Ron Miles is not only a brilliant trumpeter and composer — nearly peerless in today’s jazz realm — but he’s a beloved educator and mentor as well. The Director of Jazz Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver moved to Colorado from Indiana as a child and grew up here, attending Denver East High School and University of Denver (as well as Manhattan School of Music). His latest outing — and first on the legendary Blue Note Label — Rainbow Sign dropped Oct. 9. It was written as his father was dying, and in true Miles form, it weaves a stunningly beautiful collection of uplifting songs that reverberate with love, optimism and most importantly, humility. It’s the latter that defines Miles — a man whose manner and mere presence brings the best qualities out in others, and that’s likely why every album he puts out is so resonant. Rainbow Sign continues that tradition, highlighting an egalitarian collection of conversations between virtuosos who demonstrate no need to prove anything other than a love for the song they’re playing at the moment. Here, Miles talks about the profound experience of his father’s “transition,” why music matters so much now more than ever, and how he manages to find optimism amid the most tumultuous of times.
French Davis: It’s hard for me to believe this is your first album with Blue Note.
Ron Miles: I was on a record with Bill (Frisell, guitarist), Floratone (2007), years ago, that he did for Blue Note with Matt Chamberlain — but this is my first certainly, as a leader. It’s pretty odd at this point to be signed to Blue Note when I’m almost 60 years old.
FD: Get out.
RM: Yeah, I’m 57. I mean, I didn’t make it for Blue Note. We just made the record. Don Was (President of the Blue Note label) heard it and said he’d like to put it out on Blue Note. I think that’s a testament to that thing that we always preach: You do the music that you want to do, the music you feel strongly about, and then it’ll find its place in the world. You don’t have to force it or anything. I think that’s what happened here.
FD: When you say he heard the album, you had done the whole thing at (Mighty Fine Productions) in Denver?
RM: Yeah. Well, we actually recorded it in New York, at Sear Sound, but Colin (Bricker, Rainbow Sign producer and owner of Mighty Fine. For more on Bricker, check out our Spotlight interview with him in the Aug. 5 issue of Yellow Scene — Ed. ) came out to New York. We were going to do it at Colin’s, but since Bill had moved to New York at that point, it felt like, well, having everybody come to Denver is not really that big of savings really, so why don’t Colin and Brian (Blade, drummer), and I go to New York? Because Jason (Moran, piano) and Thomas (Morgan, bass), and Bill were already there. Colin came out and we recorded at Sear Sound.
FD: You’ve worked with Colin a number of times, right?
RM: Oh yeah. I’ve worked with him on just about everything. I mean we wanted to keep the whole team together. We just took it on the road to New York this time. We did the album and it was there. Bill came to Colorado. We did a masterclass at CU. He asked me, he said, “Hey, man. What’s happening with the record?” I said, “Oh, there are a couple of labels that are interested” and he said, “Would you mind if I played it for Don Was?” I was like, “Sure.” We’ve all been in this for a long time and so the first response was the response we always get, which is, “Hey. We’ve got a full production scheduled for the next lifetime, but I’ll listen to it.” Then a day or so later, he called Bill and said, “Hey, man. Can I get Ron’s number? I love the record. I want to put it out.” That was it.
FD: That’s great. As far as that goes, there was no remastering or touch up at that point? He was just like, “Give it to me. I’m putting this out on my label?”
RM: Yeah. Actually, we hadn’t had it mastered yet, but he actually said he loved the mix that Colin did, and just said, “Hey, man. Whoever masters it, make sure it has the beauty of these roughs that I’ve heard.” Greg Calbi who mastered… all of Bill’s records and Jason’s records, he ended up doing the mastering and he even complimented Colin on the mixes and said that it was really fun to work on this project because the mixes were so strong.
FD: Fantastic. The album itself, when did the work start on that? It hadn’t been long since you released I Am a Man (Yellow Bird, 2016)
RM: It was probably that summer of 2018 that I started writing the song when it became clear that my dad was transitioning at that point. Then the songs just started showing up. We recorded it in early November of 2019, so it hasn’t been long since it was even recorded. There’s a Japanese release too, that actually has another song that didn’t make it on the U.S. version just because of time. There was a lot of music that got written during that stretch of time.
FD: Let me back up a second. I lost my father in 2013. We knew it was coming eventually, but the day it happened… I referred to it as the most profoundly transformative experience of my adult life.
RM: I’m right there with you, man. (My wife) Kari’s parents had both passed before my dad passed, and certainly, I empathized with her. I mean I was with her when she heard the news and everything, but the loss of a parent is something that no one can really describe to you what it really feels like. It was incredibly transformative. Then the journey of him passing, from him being this person who would give me rides everywhere and take me everywhere, and take care of me to the point where now, he can’t drive. I am giving baths or helping him get dressed and making sure he’s taking his medicine, those kinds of things, and the bumps along the road because it’s not like that just happened. Somebody has been your caregiver for 50 years and all of a sudden, you’re doing that for them.
It was pretty bumpy, but I think that the good part was that I felt like we made it around the circle so that there was a kind of acceptance at the end. Also, a realization for him too, of how much he was loved, because I think that for fathers, I think the expression of love, at least in my generation, has always been certainly more understated than it is for moms. The connection obviously is different too. You’ve known your mom literally your whole life. Really. I mean your dad, if you’re fortunate, you meet when you come on out like, “Oh, okay” and then you have to develop a relationship. I think that that sense at the end — of him knowing how much all of his children loved him and were willing to do anything for him — I think was incredibly important and the most valuable part of the journey for us who are still here and I hope for him too.
FD: Was that the thing that got you going, “I need to write this?”
RM: Yeah because I think that for me, there’s no real theoretical reason that a song shows up. It’s pretty mysterious still, even after all this time of writing all these songs. It’s usually some emotional trigger that gets something going and then they just start showing up in a batch and a family of songs. That’s really what happened here. As always, Kari and the kids go away during the summer and I’m just here by myself. Every day, I get out a freshly pressed shirt and I sit at the piano. Sometimes I just sit there and nothing comes out, but then songs start to show up. I don’t really see anyone, except I saw my dad and my mom during this time because I don’t want to be affected by being out in public, just anything. I just want to be alone with my thoughts and just who I am at that point, just whatever I am, my failings and triumphs, or whatever. Just confront it all. Sit at that piano and see what shows up.
FD: There was a line in the press release about the album that surprised me a little bit. Even as your father was aging and you’re at the point where you’ve had, I think, pretty good success in your career, you’re still showing up to help him clean, to do his job as a janitor.
RM: Oh, man. Well, that was the best, man. I mean this was at (Metropolitan State University of Denver), I think because there were a couple of periods where I was really sick and I wasn’t able to go out on the road and so I was like, “I’ve got to get things going.” My dad was a janitor. He was like, “Hey, man. Do you want to help me at this janitor’s job?” “Yeah. That’d be great.” I’d teach at Metro. We’d get in the car and drive out to this janitor’s job and do it for a few hours a night. It was so great to see how serious he was about it. I mean he was just making sure that all the lines on the carpet when you did the vacuuming were perfect.
The way you folded the bags and put them into the trash can, it’ll be a certain way. I was like, “Oh, man.” You felt a real sense of pride at the end of the night. Especially, he felt like, oh, man, you did a good job. “Thanks, dad.” We’d listen to R&B music driving to the place and jazz music on the way home and stuff. It was just a great time just to be just the two of us in this building because no one else was there. We’d each other in the hall, just giving a glimpse and check stuff out. It was really joyous. I really enjoyed that time.
FD: I think one of the things that struck me about this album after reading that was it’s a constant conversation on the album… it really is that way for you on everything I’ve ever listened to. It’s not — “We’ll do the head, bridge, and solos… It’s not just Ron or just Bill. It sounds like there’s this dance happening throughout the album. This album, it felt even more fluid than some of the other ones. Was that intentional? Was that a part of this process with your dad transitioning? How does that manifest itself?
RM: Well, I think it certainly manifests itself because of the people involved. That’s the way we all think about music and we’ve played together so much and in so many different contexts that when we come together, we bring this sense like, “Oh yeah. We’re hanging.” I’d made these demos of songs and I thought, no. I’m not even going to play them. I’m not going to send them to anybody. We’ll just show up and rehearse, and we’ll talk through things. Then we play them. I mean most of the songs are actually really the first or second take. We’d rehearsed them the day before. Solos show up or not really show up. It just moves in a very, very natural way…My job, I feel like, is to give them as much song as I can because I can show up and we can just improvise for an hour. It would be great because they’re great, but I feel like I owe it to them to work as hard as I can and make sure these are the best songs that I got. That doesn’t mean the most notes or anything. It just means the best song I got. Then we go in and we knock it out. It was so fun to do. It was such a relief, I guess to make it all the way around there and to really hear these songs realized beyond my little demo tapes. I was like, “Oh, man. These guys are my brothers, man. They came to play.”
FD: What does a chart look like in that situation for you? Is there a chart? Or you just show up and lay out some lines?
RM: Each one is different. I mean you’ve seen it, I write on this big 11 by 17 paper. They’re always that way. Some of them are totally full. I mean it’s a couple of pages, even. There’ll be orchestrated parts. I like to have everybody see everything. There’s just a score. It’s not just a guitar part so that people know like, “Oh, somebody’s touching on that. I can touch in on that or I can see if I can … They’re going over there. I’m going to go over there and see if I can meet them.” It’s just this balance about figuring out how much is just enough to write? Not too much, not too little, just the right pitch. Some songs, like I said, are a few lines and then others are a couple of pages, dependent, but it definitely is always a score, never just a part.
FD: Do you have a favorite song on this album?
Ron: No. I mean I go back. I mean, I think maybe the first song on the record is the very first thing I wrote, “Like Those Who Dream.” I really like that one a lot. It was blues. Well, it’s not really a blues because I thought, oh, I’m writing a blues and then I was like, “Oh, but I don’t want to do a blues in that measure. I want to do something else over here.” Then it’s not a blues exactly, anymore, but it has that blues feeling. Then the last song that we ever played was “The Rumor,” actually, and that one was the toughest one because you really got to play the song on that one. I was like, “Man, I don’t know, man.” This seems like … I don’t know.
It’s got some jazz in it, but it seemed more like the Bee Gees or the Delfonics or something, one of those kinds of songs. I could imagine Bill getting in there and playing that melody. I said, “Guys, I know this might not be good, but can we just try this song?” We played it and they were just like, “Oh no, brother. We got to do this song. Oh no. This song is bad!” I said, “Oh, really?” They go, “Yeah. You got to play it.” That’s the strategy, but I must say I love all of them because I feel like everybody gets a chance to speak on every song, not just one or two, but everybody gets moments of stuff I hear and you’re like, “Oh man. Wow. That’s beautiful, what Thomas played there.” You’d cry listening to it.
FD:The album comes out. Obviously, touring now is not happening. How do-
RM: We were supposed to play at the Village Vanguard, man. I was so excited. It’s all just on the back burner.
FD: How does that feel? How is that impacting you, from both the standpoint of being an educator and trying to figure out a way to teach, especially ensemble work in this environment?…Then on top of that, trying to be a musician, trying to play. How has this impacted you? What has this period been like for you?
RM: Well, I’m teaching the jazz history classes online and then the combos in person. When I go to school on Tuesdays and Saturdays, I wear my Dickies, one-piece janitor’s outfit. I show up an hour before and clean up the room. I know how to do that. I set the room up. I want those students to feel, when they come in there, that they know the person who set this room is safe for them. They can look at that person. It’s me. If it’s not safe, then it’s on me. Then I take time at the end when they’re done and clean it up. Put it back together and leave it for the next person to come in. It’s really good for the students. I think they have missed the structure of school, the sense of camaraderie that they get from playing with their brothers and sisters. I think we’re doing an important thing. The students are really serious. There’ve been showing up on time. People don’t miss class. People aren’t late. People are ready to play and are taking this opportunity very seriously. I hope we can make it through the semester and the year, I hope.
As far as playing, I mean I haven’t really played with anyone. But I feel that records have a different resonance now because I know I’m doing a lot more listening and checking out people’s music online, and all that kind of stuff. Having a new record out here is a way that we can keep these days from being Groundhog Days. You know what I mean? Immanuel Wilkins’ record (The Dreamer, Omega Records, 2020) came out last month. Bill’s record (Valentine, Blue Note, 2020) came out. This record is coming out. Stephanie Richards has one coming out soon. I was like, “I’m going to look forward to getting that playlist.” This time is making a little bit more sense.
FD: Good. The scene locally, if you got a crystal ball, what do you see it looking like next year or the year after?
RM: Well, that’s a good question. I wonder whether maybe there might be more performances with less people attending, as opposed to these big performances where tons of people show up here, which might be cool. It might generate just more activity. A band might really be able to play at a place for a week because now instead of 100 people coming that one day, 20 people come five days. That’s the optimist in me. Also, there’ll be hopefully more of a sense of the importance of a local scene because maybe people aren’t going to be getting on planes as much and going to places and so developing a real scene in our community becomes even more important… Musicians staying in their communities maybe, as opposed to everyone feeling like they have to go to New York or they have to go to L.A. or go to Chicago. Like I said, the optimist in me is thinking those things a little bit more. Also, this sense too… I don’t have to physically go to New York. I can check out the Village Vanguard online. If you want to have 200 people or so, then it’s more virtual and stuff. That’s maybe … I don’t think any of this is happening for the next year, honestly, but that’s actually maybe on the other side of a year from now.
FD: I agree with that. There’s always opportunity and regrowth, and rebirth. I mean that’s something I heard with in Rainbow Sign. With transition, I guess there’s … going to be this next round of people who have to close out, close shop and let go. That’s going to create this valley of opportunity for new entrants into the scene, I think.
RM: That’s a really good point. Also, there’s going to be a lot of new ideas about how to do this. We always, as old-timers, can sometimes hold onto these ideas for a long time. I mean I know how long it was, me taking stacks of CDs on the airplane while young folks had iPods. They’re like, “Brother, why are you bringing all this stuff all the time? Put it on here.” “Oh no. The sound … I can’t really.” I was like, “That was really not very smart.” I’m sure there’ll be some innovation too that will come out, that somebody my age can’t even predict, but it’ll make sense of the world that we are in now and not the world we used to be in.
FD: Which is so different today. Obviously, with this recording, you focused on hearing the intensely personal experience. Meanwhile, you’ve got this external swirl that is unlike anything that I’ve experienced in my adult life, with regards to our social upheaval…
RM: I hear you.
FD: How did that seep in? Were you able to block it out? Where’s your head at when you have to deal with this and work in a classroom with students of so many different backgrounds and know that they’re coming from some different places?
RM: Oh yeah. I think that when I was studying for the priesthood, which I never finished obviously, when I was studying, one of the first meetings we had, all of us were starting to process that you’re the pastor to your whole congregation, not just the people who think like you, but you’re the pastor to all of them, so you have to approach it with love and respect, even if it’s not immediately coming back to you. I probably told you this, but when I walk into the Jazz History class for the very first time, I just close my eyes just for a second and think about whoever I want to think about that day. Maybe it’d be, I don’t know, Frederick Douglass or Oprah or Albert Einstein, whoever.
Everyone in the whole class … When I open my eyes, I see that face on every person. Then as I approach the class, then I think about, how would I approach this class if this person was Albert Einstein? Let’s say Albert Einstein took a Jazz History class and got down. Would I think Albert Einstein isn’t that smart? No, I wouldn’t think that. I would think maybe I didn’t write a good test or maybe Albert Einstein isn’t good at music, but he’s definitely good at something. I approach that with every student. Everyone is a genius at something. My job is just to assess how good you are in this class. And I’m going to approach you with respect. That you bring something to this and just go from there. I already had a student write something recently, complaining about Black Lives Matter being the same as minstrelsy.
Ron: I was just like, “Well, let’s unpack this a little bit,” not just like, “Oh no, you didn’t! Let me get up in this person.” I was like, “No. Wait a minute. Let’s just approach this factually and reasonably.” I’m not even trying to change any minds. I’m just like, “This is where your answer does not work,” that kind of sense about love and respect because of again, part of this whole Christianity thing that we lose sight of, especially with all this political discourse. This is a person that’s phased in and using it as some kind of cudgel, really, more than anything else. When Jesus shows up the second time, he was like, “Man, you guys can’t figure these 10 commandments thing at all. Let me just give you … Can you remember just one? Just love each other. Can you just remember that? Don’t worry about all the other stuff, just that.”
It just worked for that point. That’s how I approach it like, “Let me just make sure I got that one together, and then everything else will flow.” It’s the sense of the racial dynamics of this time, especially with … I mean I never grew up in a world where I could imagine turning on the five o’clock news and seeing someone get killed. I mean see somebody actually die on TV. I mean that would happen in a movie, an R-rated movie, but not just like, “Oh, let’s sit down for the news. Oh, this cop is going to have his knee on this brother’s neck and kill him in front of us.” I can’t imagine this world that people are growing up in. We have to be sensitive. Obviously, the fact that this is not new stuff.
My parents had these conversations with me when I was a kid, I was born in 1963 like, “You’re out with your white friends and people might want to get a little wild and do some stuff. Don’t you forget you are not them and so your job is to make sure your ass gets home at the end of the night. That’s your first job.” From that point on, you realize that this world is not fair, but if you’re a person of faith, then you believe that you’re supposed to treat people with respect and love in the face of unfairness. A lot of times, I look at this political climate as a chance for us to show that this is just something we say to make ourselves feel better.
Is this love for our brothers and sisters or is this something we believe? We have to believe it when it gets hard, not when it’s easy. In the Jazz History class this semester, I listened to a Mary Lou Williams song, which I’d never heard before. Mary Lou Williams was raped on the way to the recording session and she shows up and plays this beautiful piece. “Drag ‘Em” is the name of the piece. She is assaulted and still gives us a gift. We’re all living their stories through all our history. You just got to realize that people had to deal with some shit. We’re dealing with some shit right now too, so you have to get it in line, and let’s see what we got.
Rainbow Sign is available for streaming and download on Spotify, Apple Music and other digital music platforms today.