Mulgrew Miller, who made hundreds of recordings as one of the most skilled and admired jazz pianists of his era, died May 29 at a hospital in Allentown, Pa. He was 57 and had complications from a recent stroke.
His death was confirmed by officials at MaxJazz, one of Miller’s record labels.
Since the 1970s, when he first performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Mr. Miller was considered one of the more outstanding pianists in the straight-ahead jazz tradition. For years, he worked with the leading performers from every generation of jazz and, in time, became a noted teacher and mentor of younger musicians.
He appeared on at least 500 recordings as a bandleader or sideman. On Sept. 5, 2002, he presented the inaugural performances at the Kennedy Center’s KC Jazz Club in Washington. He was in “terrific form” that night, according to Washington Post critic Mike Joyce, “often seeking and discovering fresh ways to interpret a familiar ballad or bop tune.”
Two live albums from his performances that night, with bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Rodney Green, were released on the MaxJazz label in 2006 and 2007. Miller — along with many critics — believed that his darting, shifting style was captured better in spontaneous live performances than in the studio.
“The presence of a live audience creates a whole new dimension in the creating and the performing process,” he told the Allentown Morning Call in 2007. “I also feel less self-conscious, less self-editing when I’m playing live. I think some of my best moments are captured on these live recordings.”
A tall man with huge hands, he could produce huge waves of sound from the keyboard, with thunderous chords. But he was equally known for sensitivity and precision, even in brisk passages.
From the beginning of his career, many leading musicians sought him out. He worked extensively with singer Betty Carter, trumpeter Woody Shaw and drummer Tony Williams. Since 1987, he led a sextet called Wingspan in occasional performances and recordings, which often included his original compositions.
With bassist Ron Carter and guitarist Russell Malone, Miller formed a trio that released a well-received disc, “The Golden Striker,” in 2003.
Many of the most prominent jazz players of recent times — trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist Dave Holland and saxophonists Kenny Garrett, Johnny Griffin, Joe Lovano and James Moody — appeared with Miller in concerts and recordings.
Mulgrew Miller was born Aug. 13, 1955, in Greenwood, Miss. He played in church and in local soul groups before discovering jazz at 14 when he saw pianist Oscar Peterson on television.
“I didn’t realize that the piano could be played so creatively, with such virtuosity and sophistication,” he told the Sunday News of Lancaster, Pa., in 2007. “It was everything I needed to hear at the time. It hit me where I lived. The next day I was a different person.”
He studied at Memphis State University in Tennessee and was strongly influenced by spirited Memphis-born jazz pianists, including Phineas Newborn, Donald Brown and James Williams.
Miller left college to join the Ellington band, then led by Duke’s son, Mercer Ellington. He later worked in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, a group known as a training ground for many jazz greats.
In the early 1990s, Miller settled near Easton, Pa., and since 2006 had been the director of jazz studies at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. He had a mild stroke in 2010 and was regaining full musical form at the time of his death.
Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Tanya Miller; two children; six siblings; and a grandson.
Miller sometimes lamented the marginal place of jazz in modern culture, but he believed the music was constantly being renewed by a new generation willing to learn its traditions and subtle beauty.
“I played with some of the greatest swinging people who ever played jazz,” he told DownBeat magazine in 2005, “and I want to get the quality of feeling I heard with them.”