Allison Miller’s Life of Juxtapositions

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At age 14, drummer Allison Miller performed at Blues Alley in Washington D.C. with guitarist Charlie Byrd.

(Photo: Shervin Lainez)

​Much of drummer Allison Miller’s life is about juxtapositions. She’s the creative force behind two related but very different bands. She manages an active music career while co-parenting her two preschoolers. And she gives voice to her activism through her art.

All of this creative tension finds an outlet on Miller’s new release, Glitter Wolf (Royal Potato Family), the fifth album by her experimental jazz sextet, Boom Tic Boom.

The provenance of the album’s title reveals how these personal and professional dialectics inspire Miller: Her young son, whose middle name is Wolf, had been playing with his older sister’s costume fairy wings and ended up covered in glitter. This mishap earned him the nickname “Glitter Wolf,” a household joke that took on added dimensions the more Miller thought about it.

“The phrase is about celebrating all of who we are,” Miller explained in the airy living room of the 19th-century brownstone in Brooklyn that she shares with her partner, Rachel Friedman, and their children. “It speaks to the acceptance of all types—the fierce and the fabulous, the feminine and the masculine, and everything in between.” Juxtapositions again.

Musically, Miller is more than willing to explore everything in between. In her writing for Boom Tic Boom, she’ll move comfortably through a bashing boogaloo, maybe, into a quiet classical piece, or from a go-go vibe into impressionistic avant-garde territory. These grooves all recall different phases of her artistic development, which include time spent variously as a college student in classical percussion, on the Washington D.C. club scene, in jazz big bands and touring internationally with singer-songwriters like Brandi Carlile, Ani DiFranco and Natalie Merchant. Listening to Miller’s output, it becomes clear that she’s nothing if not an intuitive learner in the environments she finds herself.

As a child growing up in the D.C. area, Miller didn’t have to go far to find the supportive training grounds that fostered her talent. Her mother, a pianist and conductor from a long line of classical and liturgical musicians, noted her daughter’s early interest in percussion, but made sure she learned to play the piano—a skill that serves her compositional work today—before letting Miller pick up the sticks. Once Miller did so, at age 8, it was “all drums, all the time,” she recalled.

Her father, a sound engineer, often worked with jazz heavyweights, like tenor saxophonist Houston Person, singer Etta Jones (1928–2001) and bassist Keter Betts (1928–2005). When they recorded in her father’s home studio, Miller would listen in, and sometimes he would have her play for them. “I didn’t know at the time that they were famous musicians,” she said.

Later, she studied privately with D.C. jazz drummer and educator Walter Salb, whose famously gruff manner stands in contrast with the care and attention he showed the young drummer. Salb was the first to push Miller beyond her comfort zone and into professional gigs when she was just a teenager. “I wouldn’t have pursued them if he hadn’t,” she said.

Salb, too, was the one who urged her to sit in at D.C. jazz club Blues Alley with guitarist Charlie Byrd—a formative experience. “I did a brush solo with Charlie Byrd when I was 14,” she marveled. “Not many people can say that.” (Today, Salb’s grand piano sits in Miller’s living room. He died in 2006 at age 79, and his will stipulated that Miller would receive all his instruments.)

Until she moved to New York City in the mid-’90s, though, just two months after graduating from West Virginia University, the only jazz that Miller had played was the straightahead variety she’d learned from Salb. “I don’t know if I was completely ready for New York when I moved here,” she admitted. “But I was super-driven. I worked hard and started studying with some really key people once I realized what my drumming handicaps were.”

It was through her studies with drummer Michael Carvin that Miller began to tighten her playing technique, paying meticulous attention to form, melody and time. “To have the right technique, you need to learn the classical snare pieces,” she said. “Michael [Carvin] had studied with Philly Joe Jones, who’d studied with Charley Wilcoxon, the percussionist who wrote the classic snare textbook for drummers. So, I’m a part of that lineage.”

Drummer Lenny White, too, mentored the recent transplant, giving her vital lessons in the craft, like graceful use of the ride cymbal. “He taught me to treat every beat equally on the ride: 1, 2, 3, 4,” Miller said. “That quarter-note pulse produces what swing is—that feel. Just a fluid beat, where every beat is 1.”

These private sessions with Carvin and White weren’t limited to musical mechanics, though. Both of these master drummers counseled Miller in how to develop an authentic style of playing, one that remains her hallmark today. “Michael and Lenny took me from being a good technician to really discovering my personality as a musician,” Miller said.

Their affirmation, not only of her skill but of the person she was behind the kit, went a long way to boosting Miller’s confidence in her playing and alleviating doubts about her career: “When I was young, I worried about making a living as a musician, and because I was a diverse player, I’d say yes to everything. I learned that I didn’t have to do that. I didn’t have to play all of those gigs.”

Miller—who teaches at The New School and is the artistic director of Jazz Camp West in La Honda, California—passes on to her students the wisdom that Salb, Carvin and White shared with her. “Michael told me that the only way to become a master musician is to pass it on,” she said. “I follow that motto in my teaching today.” (She’ll continue to raise her profile as a jazz educator and bandleader by serving, along with bassist Derrick Hodge, as an artist-in-residence at the 2019 Monterey Jazz Festival in California next fall.)

Miller released her first album as a leader, 5 am Stroll (Foxhaven), with White as co-producer in 2004. On the album—a post-bop mélange of driving swing, Latin and blues tunes—Miller used a standard rhythm section and two saxophones. The program contains only a hint of where Miller’s composing later would travel.

That same year, Miller met pianist Myra Melford when the two played with saxophonist Marty Ehrlich at the Jazz Standard. Edgy and viscerally dynamic, Melford’s playing captivated the drummer, who immediately intended to work with the pianist again. That opportunity came in 2008, when Melford agreed to be one-third of Miller’s newly hatched modern jazz trio. “I started Boom Tic Boom because of Myra,” Miller said. “I knew I had to play more with her.”

The new ensemble provided Miller a vehicle through which to express her more experimental-leaning compositions. Her bandmates—Melford and bassist Todd Sickafoose—brought their own ideas to the effort, helping Miller shape the group’s emerging sound.

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August 2019
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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