Author: Gooding, Francis
Date published: June 1, 2011
Until a recent re-issue compilation on Jazzman Records (A Lifetime in Oriental Jazz, JMANCD.028, reviewed in this issue) gave his work a greater hearing, the music of multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Miller has been an almost exclusively private affair. Despite a long career in music teaching, a scholarly and practical mastery of some of the world's most complex and ancient musical traditions, and a life spent immersed in the playing of jazz, Miller has never released a record on a major record label, and most of his output has only ever been available on his homemade and privately distributed CDs.
Those tracks that were released only ever saw micro-pressings on university imprints or privately owned record labels. Nevertheless, the quality and originality of his music has made him a cult figure to those dedicated to exploring the outer reaches of experimental and eastern-influenced jazz, and the scarce original vinyl copies of his few LPs are in continual demand amongst collectors. His recent exposure has caused a flurry of more general interest, and resulted in some interesting collaborations with jazz-groove outfit the Heliocentrics (Lloyd Miller/The Heliocentrics OST, Strut records STRUT060CD/LP; Lloyd Miller Trio, Jazzman Records JM12.020), both of which confirm what is plain to see: Miller is an original.
The musical path travelled by Lloyd Miller has been unusual to say the least. Always outside of the mainstream, his career and music have been an unconventional parallel to other developments in music and society, like an intense echo in an unfamiliar key. In Paris during the early 1960s, Miller frequented a scene populated by the cream of America's ex-pat jazz fraternity, yet his only published recording during the period featured him playing the West African balafon and a home-made instrument termed a 'micro-organ'.
On his return to the US, he studied at the University of Utah, where he released a series of jazz and eastern music LPs: the distribution was limited and the pressing runs small. During the 1970s, a decade which saw sustained Western interest in the music and religions of the East, Miller was not only ahead of that particular curve, but had left it behind entirely. Already adept on numerous middle- and far-Eastern instruments and fluent in dozens of languages, in the early '70s he was to be found hosting a weekly jazz program on Iranian television, and was learning classical Iranian music from authorised masters of the tradition.
It would be a mistake to label Miller solely as a jazz musician, as he is expert in musical traditions from Turkey to Vietnam and beyond, and is a considerable authority on Iranian traditional music. Nevertheless, he continues to perform in jazz bands that play everything from be-bop and New Orleans revival to expansive indo-jazz fusions - the results have only been available on CDR, direct from Miller himself. His learning is broad, his music unique - steeped in history but almost totally off the historical record. For nearly 50 years Miller has been studying and participating in traditions that stretch from America, through North Africa and Eurasia to the Far East....but it all began in California.
Miller was born in Glendale, California, in 1938. It was a musical family: his father was an accomplished clarinettist who had played with cornettist Doc Evans in the 1920s, and his mother played piano and had been trained as a dancer. Lloyd began to play the piano at the age of three, at first learning by ear. Later he would pick up the accordion, and by the time he was at high school he had added cornet, banjo, clarinet, saxophone and trombone to his repertoire.
Miller was sent to schools far from his West Coast home, one in Woodstock, Illinois, and another in Rexburg, Idaho. At both he was musically active, cutting a 78 disc with a New Orleans-style combo in Woodstock (he played clarinet), and playing with various school and local bands in Rexburg, where he finished his early studies. Back in California, as a teenager he hung out and sat in at venues such as the Purple Onion and the Red Feather, absorbing the sounds of the mid-'50s LA scene and considering how he might make some headway as a professional jazz musician.
All that was interrupted in 1957 when his father, who was then teaching at the University of Southern California, was invited to journey to han in order to oversee the creation of a School of Business Administration at the University of Tehran. The Millers left Glendale and, after some weeks of travel in the East, arrived in Tehran where they set up their new home.
The absolute rule of the Shah, Mohammed Reza-Pahlavi, had been cemented in 1953 after covert CIA and MI6 operations had successfully deposed the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadeq, and US support for the Shah's regime meant that there was a fairly significant American military and civilian presence in Tehran. Lloyd's younger sister was able to attend an American school, but the 18-year-old Lloyd could not apply for a place at the university as he could not speak Persian.
Temporarily unable to continue his formal studies, Miller got a job as the manager of a Commissary warehouse; his mother, in her memoir of Iran titled Bright Blue Beads, recalls that he was determined to learn Farsi and was able to speak, write and read the language passably within a few months.
The Miller family spent over a year in Tehran and during this time Lloyd immersed himself in Iranian music and culture. However, his ambition at this time was to pursue a life in jazz music, and in 1958 he left his family in Tehran, bound first for Beirut, and then on to the jazz clubs and nightlife of Germany.
Miller's first port of call was Frankfurt. After a year as a guest in the hospitable culture of Iran, the emotional and economic austerity of reconstruction-era Germany came as a shock. Miller was on his own, and without a job. His parents mailed him a monthly cheque, but in the absence of other work the money did not go far. He had decided to live by his wits and try to make his way playing jazz (he had taken an old cornet with him). It did not prove easy.
Frankfurt was a difficult town for a young man with no firm contacts to get a paying gig, or even a chance to sit in. Miller lived in fleapits and hostels, eking out a living, and waiting for his next cheque. He hung out at the famous Domicile du Jazz on Kleinen Bockenheimer Strasse (since 1963 known as the Jazzkeller Frankfurt), a spot which was a catalytic contact point between the German jazz scene and ex-pat US jazzmen.
There he would regularly catch such acts as the Mangelsdorff brothers, whose outfit then featured legendary bassist Peter Trunk and tenor saxophonist Joki Freund, who had earlier played with pianist Jutta Hipp. Occasionally Miller would get to sit in, either on cornet or, if he was lucky, piano, his favoured instrument. Apart from this limited exposure and playing time, Miller was at a dead end in Frankfurt. With no money and no work, he upped sticks, travelling by train to Mainz, where he had heard the living was somewhat easier.
In Mainz, things briefly looked up. He got a gig as house pianist at a jazz keller, put together a trio, also began working with Turkish trumpet player Maffy Falay and drummer George Solano. Falay, a pioneer of Turkish jazz, had been 'discovered' by Dizzy Gillespie in 1956 - he would go on to introduce Don Cherry to Turkish sounds, and help found the important Turkish and world jazz outfit Sevda.
Sometimes there would be a chance to sit in with visiting American musicians. Miller recalls a memorable night playing with Don Ellis and Eddie Harris, with whom he shared his thoughts about Eastern music and jazz. Miller caught part of the evening on a cheap tape recorder he had brought to the club with him, creating a lo-fi and all-too-brief document of the session.
Despite the improvement on his time in Frankfurt, Lloyd Miller did not have the money to get a permanent place to live, and though there was an occasional short stay with a fellow band member or an acquaintance from the club, he was effectively homeless. The little money he was sent periodically ran out, and he would spend weeks at a time sleeping rough in parks or in station waiting rooms, surviving on little more than the generosity of his friends at the club.
From time to time during these weeks there was a better paid engagement, and the trio travelled to various cities in Germany and France for gigs, but Miller was close to destitute, scraping by without independent financial resources of any significant kind.
His situation changed after a visit from his mother, who flew in from Tehran to see him. Appalled by the condition she found him in, she insisted he abandon his failing attempt to make a living from music. Along with his sister, Lloyd was packed off to college in Geneva, where he studied Eastern languages. There was music too, of course, and Miller frequented the jazz clubs for the usual sit-ins and blowing sessions.
Despite the poor luck he had experienced in Germany, the allure of the musical life eventually led him to abandon Switzerland. In 1959 with a few hundred dollars between them, Lloyd and a few friends left Geneva in a beat-up Volkswagen, destined for Stockholm.
In the Swedish capital Miller started to taste some success: he played with various combos, arranged for bands, and put together the group he would eventually take to Paris. Collaborators at this time included some notable Swedish jazzmen, such as tenor man Bernt Rosengren (who would later go on to play in erstwhile Miller bandmate Maffy Falay's Sevda group), baritone specialist Lennart Jansson, and trumpeter-composer Lars Färnlöf (who would record widely, notably with Staffan Abeleen). A few raw tape recordings of live performances from this period survive and are in Lloyd's possession, but no music was released.
Miller spent around a year in Sweden, playing all over the country. Then, in 1960, with a combo consisting of saxophonist Jansson and bassist Conny Lundin, the young pianist set out for pastures new.
After a stopover in Germany, they journeyed to Brussels. The Belgian city was a good source of gigs. Miller and Jansson, with the addition of Miller's old drummer George Solano and bassist Freddie Deronde (who replaced Lundin after the Swede abruptly departed for home), began to gig as the International Jazz Quartet. They had a regular spot at the famous Rose Noire club, where they were occasionally joined by guitarist Phillip Catherine. (Then still a rookie, Catherine would go on to record with Deronde and the legendary Marc Moulin.)
They soon established a reputation, and August 1960 saw the IJQ's most prestigious engagement yet, a slot at the Comblain-La-Tour festival. The festival performance gives some idea of how far Miller had come in Europe, and how much work he had put in. Just months before he had been virtually down-and-out on the street of Mainz, unable to secure enough work even to pay for even the simplest of necessities. Comblain-La-Tour saw him share the bill with luminaries such as Kenny Clarke, Chet Baker, Dusko Goykovich, and Martial Solal.
During this time Miller's group had used Brussels as a base to make forays down to Paris, and after a few longer stays, they had started to get a feel for the clubs and personalities of the Parisian scene. Despite the success at Comblain-La-Tour, the IJQ quickly fragmented, and Miller and Jansson departed for Paris, where Jansson had been promised a permanent slot at the famous Blue Note club.
But soon after Miller had arrived in the French capital his partnership with Jansson broke down, and the young American was once more on his own and without a band.
Scouting for work, Miller found a paying gig at the Mars Club for a few months, which made him enough money to keep a roof over his head and pay for some practice time at a piano store on the Rue Monge.
He hung out at the jazz spots, sometimes getting a chance to sit in; he remembers vividly evenings at the Blue Note when he would drop by to see his old bandmate Jansson (then playing with Bud Powell and Kenny 'Klook' Clarke) and occasionally get the chance to play a set.
These memories are not without regret for Miller: the price of playing was often a surreptitiously-bought drink for the declining Bud Powell, who the management had barred from drinking. It was a frequently employed trick - Powell would ask someone else to buy a whisky for themselves and a soft drink for him, then quietly switch the glasses over, sitting out for a number or two to take his drink.
The Mars club gig was essentially a stop gap, without any possibility for development. Miller was beginning to think about recording, and a lucky encounter was eventually to result in the first released project to feature him: a now legendary 10" LP with Jef Gilson, issued on Gilson's own Spirit Jazz imprint (Jef Gilson Septet avec Lloyd Miller, Spirit Jazz SJD1).
Gilson, a visionary pioneer who still has not achieved the status he deserves, had been active on the French jazz scene for several years, arranging for French groups such the Double Six, and collaborating with American ex-pats. Indeed, the b-side of the Spirit Jazz LP is a 1958 session featuring drummer Art Taylor and pianist Walter Davis Jr.
Hoping to record an LP of piano solos, on a whim Miller had wandered into Kiosque d'Ophée, a recording studio where Gilson was working. This chance encounter initiated a friendship - the two men got on well, had similar musical tastes, and shared an interest in introducing authentic non-Western music forms to jazz. In this vein, Gilson would later record with Sahib Shihab, another American jazzman with a fascination for Eastern sounds, and with the Madagascan ensemble Malagasy.
Gilson was looking for a featured soloist to play in his most recent outfit and on learning of Miller's fearless willingness to improvise on just about any instrument, he invited Lloyd to take on the rôle. He also agreed to record and edit Miller's own personal projects, a record of piano solos and a session which Miller calls his 'World Tour' LP, which featured tunes in traditions reaching from Sweden to Japan, with Miller playing all instruments.
Gilson organised the sessions, and edited and spliced the tapes. The pair had but one single copy of the piano record made (Gilson kept the tapes), while a mere 6 copies of the 'World Tour' LP were pressed. Two tracks from the 'World Tour' LP, Pentalogic and Sahar-E Meh-Alude or 'Early Morning Mist', would find their way onto Miller's later Oriental Jazz album.
Miller began to rehearse with the existing Gilson group, but since Gilson himself played piano it was not immediately evident what rôle Miller was to have. Gilson eventually found him an unusual keyboard to play - the 'micro-organ' - and also suggested he pick up a 12-tone African balafon that had been put on sale in a local antique shop; later, baritone horn and tuba were also added to Miller's solo duties.
This unlikely combination of instruments was part of a front line which was already untypical in consisting of just tenor and soprano saxes. The rhythm section was composed of drums, Gilson's piano, and two basses - the innovative decision to include an electric and upright bass was a device that prefigures by some years Coltrane's famous use of two bassists on the Africa/Brass recordings, made during the same year.
After an intensive program of rehearsals, this all-new Gilson septet began to gig around Paris and went on tour around France. As the main soloist, Miller performed with showmanship and humour, and the group was a hit, garnering excellent reviews. Miller's adaptable virtuosity enabled him to cope with the challenges of such difficult and limiting instruments: the micro-organ was a crowd-pleaser, and he learned to get half-tones out of the balafon by pressing one mallet down half-way up a given key before striking it, thereby opening up its range somewhat. The three tracks on the Spirit Jazz 10" which feature Miller were recorded in December 1961. Several other tracks were recorded at the same session but remained unissued.
The LP was well received, Miller's contribution being of special note. This is hardly surprising: the instruments used were unprecedented in French jazz, Miller was an unknown, eccentric and highly talented American, and Gilson's star was in the ascendant as the perhaps most innovative French jazz composer of his generation. The record itself can now be seen as a dramatically avant-garde document, its extraordinary instrumentation and stylistically original composing wholly unexpected given the general orientation of the jazz milieu in early '60s Paris. It is a fitting testament to the meeting of two singular individuals.
Despite their relative success, the Gilson group did not last. Internal dissent split the band in 1962 and, once again discouraged and alone, Miller was back to working the clubs.
The other aspect to Miller's time in Paris was scholarly. From 1961, he had returned to his studies in earnest, and this intensified after the collapse of the Gilson group.
During the years 1961-63 he took courses at the L'Ecole des Langues Orientales Vivantes and at Centre d'Études de Musique Orientale, where he studied various Eastern music traditions under the Iranian master musician Dr. Daryush Safvat and the Vietnamese scholar and musician Dr. Tran Van Khe. He also took lessons at the Sorbonne from renowned structural linguist Emile Benveniste. In total he studied ten Eastern languages.
His interest and knowledge of Eastern forms, present since his sojourn in Iran, was starting to be formalised. He finished his studies in 1963, leaving the smoky clubs, poorly paid gigs and cramped hotel rooms of Paris behind him. On his return to the States that year he enrolled at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah.
Oriental Jazz: Utah and Iran
Miller spent the remainder of the 1960s based in Utah. A year in Iran and five years playing and studying in Europe had left him with burgeoning language skills, scholarly knowledge in dozens of musical traditions and multiple instruments, and experience of poverty and hardship.
At the university in Utah, Miller studied for a BA in Asian studies, and honed his music skills. There, he found himself in an environment more suited to his temperament and his beliefs. He continued his intense study of Eastern music and languages, and began to amass a collection of Eastern instruments. His studies included a stint at Ravi Shankar's Kinnara School of Indian Music, in Los Angeles, where Miller was taught the finger-drum tabla.
In these more settled conditions, he could begin to put together more lasting groups, and think about recording. 1966 saw his first release, in association with BYU.
Near and Far East was a collection of traditional music styles from twelve countries ranging from Iraq through Afghanistan to Vietnam, Thailand and Japan, with Miller playing various instruments including shamisen, santur and tabla and dhol. This LP was followed by another, The Middle East, and later in the decade Miller would also release an LP dedicated to Afghan music, Impressions of Afghanistan. By 1967 he was also teaching at the University of Utah, initially with a class in Indian music, and had authored a book, A Survey of Oriental and Indo-Iranian Music and its Influence.
He had not been neglecting jazz though, and a collaboration with the felicitously named pianist Preston Kies (aka 'Press Keys') was to yield an extraordinary recording, the now widely-reputed LP Oriental Jazz, released in 1968 on Miller's own East-West label.
Miller's association with Kies began in 1967, when both men had intended to present bands at the Salt Lake Intercollegiate Jazz Festival. As both of them would have been representing BYU, Miller suggested that they should join forces rather than go up against one another. They entered the festival as the Oriental Jazz Quartet, playing a selection of Miller's jazz arrangements of Eastern folk and traditional melodies and jazz impressions of Eastern idioms. Miller played a variety of instruments, including oud, santur, zarb and dan tranh.
Unlike anything else presented at the festival, the Oriental Jazz Quartet took first prize - a feat that Miller would repeat in '68 and '69. Press coverage led to a TV special for KBYU, most of which was used to master the subsequent album Oriental Jazz. This LP, now a coveted collectors item, was pressed in a run of just 500 copies.
The backing on the LP is split between the Oriental Jazz Quartet (here billed as the Press Keys Quartet) and Miller's own trio on side B, with two tracks taken from the Gilson-recorded 'World Tour' session, as noted above. The music contained on the record frequently confounds all expectation, and sets a benchmark in Eastern jazz sounds which has rarely been met by even the biggest names in jazz.
The opening Gol-e Gandom, with its mesmeric combination of Miller's shimmering santur, Kies's deftly driving piano solo and the rock-solid, responsive swing of the bass and drums, by Don West and Dick Beeson respectively, is an unforgettable piece of music that sweeps the listener along in its wake. The rest of the record explores Indian, Turkish and Arabian modal sounds, and throughout Miller demonstrates a rare subtlety of conception. Oriental Jazz is a unique record.
Miller went on to issue two further jazz LPs whilst at BYU. The two volumes of Jazz at the University of Utah contain further explorations in world music and jazz, including revisited versions of several compositions from Oriental Jazz, arranged for larger ensembles.
Again, the LPs were issued in very small quantities: just 300 copies of each were pressed. Both build impressively on the promise of Oriental Jazz. Miller's arrangements are impeccable throughout, and both his adaptations of traditional material and his original compositions crackle with the energy of an acute musical intelligence.
In 1970, Miller was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in order to allow him to complete his PhD. His research was undertaken in Iran, and for the next seven years Miller was based there in Tehran. Here, Miller went by the name Kurosh Ali Khan, an Iranian name he had been given by his Iranian student colleagues back in Geneva.
Much of his study was conducted at the Center for the Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music under one of his old teachers from Paris, Dr. Daryush Safvat. During these seven years Miller would deepen and intensify his knowledge and understanding of the Persian tradition, learning from authorised masters of the tradition such as Mahmud Karimi, whose musical lineage could be traced back for centuries.
As well as scholarly research, these years contained adventure and discovery. Miller spent long periods in Afghanistan (even briefly managing a hotel in Herat), and travelled widely in central Asia and the Middle East. He also revisited Europe, and a trip to Italy resulted in a meeting with Tony Scott, whose career also included a long musical Odyssey in the East.
Lloyd performed at traditional music festivals, experienced epiphanies in sacred shrines, attended wild Sufi ceremonies where mystics would stab themselves and eat light-bulbs without suffering harm, and was witness to countless other dramas.
He also worked as a journalist for several Iranian and Middle Eastern magazines and newspapers, and was attached to offices of the Iran-American Society, where he organised concerts of both traditional Persian music and jazz.
During 1971-72 he also hosted a weekly television program on Iran's state-run NIRTV, showcasing jazz and the native traditional fare.
On this show, he regularly performed modern jazz with a combo that featured the Filipino bassist Roger Herrera, a lynchpin of the post-war Pinoy jazz scene, and his group of Filipino jazzmen.
Much film of these broadcasts survives, and Miller's welldrilled group can still be watched performing a combination of standards and originals. These broadcasts broke new musical ground in Iran. Watching them today, and knowing the circumstances of their creation, is to witness the gathering and interweaving of an extraordinary variety of historical and musical threads, with Miller at the centre as catalyst.
Miller returned to the US in 1977, once again taking up a teaching place at BYU. However, he found a musical landscape which no longer had the same space for jazz that had existed in the late 1960s. Committed to traditional and acoustic musical forms, and feeling they were under ever-increasing threat from modern instruments and recording techniques, Miller founded a counterpart to Daryush Safvat's Center for the Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music: the Center for the Preservation and Propagation of Eastern Arts.
The PhD he had researched in Iran was eventually published as Music and Song in Persia: The Art of Avaz (Curzon, 1999), appearing in a prestigious series of ethno-musicological studies. It is a fearsomely complex work, authored by a man deeply involved in the music and culture it describes, and it is held in high regard in the field.
Today, Miller and his wife co-run Eastern Arts, an organization dedicated to the preservation and performance of Eastern music and dance. Miller himself plays in dozens of jazz and Eastern music ensembles. A deeply spiritual man, he regards the modal music of Central Asia as the storehouse of the most ancient sacred music, and a living link with biblical times - a corpus of revealed scales and tunings preserved in Persian music since the days of the Achaemenid Empire, and then rediffused with Islamic culture through the Middle East and into North and West Africa.
For Lloyd Miller, the blues scales developed by African-Americans in the New World are thus related to these ancient modes, and through them jazz is connected to ancient Eastern roots.
"It is", he says, "all the same musical system. For me to pick up an instrument in a teahouse in Herat, or play in an Indo-Afghan jam session in Kabul, or jam in a music shop on the Black Sea in Turkey, was almost the same as jamming in the Red Feather or Purple Onion during the 1950s, back in Los Angeles. The same spirit, the same feeling, the same notes and some of the same melodic patterns and repetitive and mirroring phrases."
Miller is dedicated to preserving these venerable arts. His career and the music he has produced have remained all but unknown outside of a few select circles, and reading through his writings on Persian music, there is perhaps a clue to his steadfast independence. Musicians of the highest order in traditional Persian music search not for an external formal perfection, and do not seek commercial success.
"Correct performance", Miller writes in Music and Song in Persia, "is 'interior', whereas as commercialized (motrebi) performance is 'exterior'" - the true musician is not concerned with pleasing a public or playing pretty melodies for acclaim, but instead seeks an interior spiritual light or truth to guide the music. "I don't care if anyone ever knows Lloyd Miller", he says today, "if they can just feel a spark of joy and light from something I have recorded."
Dr. Lloyd Miller, or Kurosh Ali Khan, has been seeking an inner musical truth for over 50 years. The music he created during this search contains joy and light in abundance.