Eric Miller, Engineer Who Helped Preserve Jazz Milestones, Dies at 75

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Eric Miller (1941–2017) (Photo: Courtesy Terri Hinte )

Eric Miller, whose career as an engineer, archivist and producer put many milestones of jazz history into collectors’ hands, died in Los Angeles Feb. 24 of a heart attack. He was 75.

Born in Cleveland in 1941, Miller grew up in Los Angeles and was drawn to jazz as a child. For much of his 30-year career, he was closely associated with Norman Granz, who already had made his share of history with Jazz at the Philharmonic in the 1940s and Verve records in 1956—a period when Miller was still trying to get into local jazz clubs on Central Avenue as an underage teen. 

Granz sold Verve to MGM in 1960 and went into semi-retirement in Switzerland.  Meanwhile, Miller was working odd jobs in the ’60s, and in 1969 met engineer Val Valentin, who got him a job as a tape archivist at MGM Records.  There Miller would become familiar with the wealth of issued and unissued material MGM had absorbed in its Verve purchase.

Miller soon became acquainted with Granz himself, who continued to serve as an MGM consultant from time to time on reissues of his catalog.  When he decided to return to the record business and establish Pablo Records in 1972–’73, he asked Miller to become his associate and A&R executive.

In the early ’70s Miller served two masters.  He worked largely behind the scenes for Granz at Pablo organizing tours and record sessions.  Although Miller’s name never appeared on a Granz record as producer, according to his daughter, he was largely responsible for the Porgy and Bess project with Cleo Laine and Ray Charles, among other albums. At the same time he continued to compile occasional MGM/Verve reissues of Johnny Hodges, Buddy Rich and JATP material.

In the early ’70s he also compiled a series of previously unreleased vault recordings by Hodges, Sonny Stitt, Clark Terry and others. For one album Miller unearthed a bit of backstage play in which Stan Getz, Bill Evans and Elvin Jones perform a hilarious parody of the Gene Krupa Trio. 

Miller’s focus through the ’70s and ’80s was Pablo, where he dug into unreleased material that Granz had held back in the MGM sale or recorded since. These included several 1950s JATP concerts and two John Coltrane tours from 1962-’63.

“Eric also went on many of the tours Granz arranged in Europe,” said David Luke, a close friend and fellow engineer. “He’d talk about staying in all the fancy hotels of Europe. He got to know Basie, Ella, Oscar, Dizzy. It was a great life.” 
     
In 1987, Granz sold Pablo to Fantasy, and once again Miller went with the sale. At Fantasy he came out of the shadows as he moved the Pablo catalog from LP to CD. As part of the Fantasy Group under Orrin Keepnews, Miller became producer of record on new sessions for both Milestone (McCoy Tyner/Stéphane Grappelli, the Tyner big band) and Contemporary (Frank Morgan/Bud Shank).

He also added to the Pablo catalog with archival material by Coleman Hawkins, Milt Jackson, Ray Charles, Shelley Manne and new sessions he produced himself with guitarist Ron Affif, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass in the post-Granz Pablo era.     

His masterpiece, however, may be the 1990 box set conversions of the original Granz Art Tatum solo and group sessions. Miller added more than an hour of never-released material to the Tatum canon. Miller retired from Fantasy shortly before its sale to Concord in November 2004.

Miller kept a low profile in a business where modesty is not typically an asset.  The Fantasy publicity department never had any kind of biography on Miller, according to publicist Terri Hinte.

“He was fine with that,” she said.  “The office he had at Fantasy was right off studio A. It was a tiny little room where he kept the lights on low, and sat surrounded by shelves of tapes smoking his cigar.” When Tad Hershorn was researching Norman Granz’s biography, he sought Miller out repeatedly with interview requests, but his calls were never returned.

“My father really emulated Norman,” said daughter Julie. “He learned about art, food and wine from him. And neither suffered fools well at all. They tended to be difficult and push people they didn’t like away. But my father respected Norman and was not afraid of him. He never minced words.” 

Miller owned a large private collection of historic sessions and other papers. Much of it, along with an oral history, has already been donated to the Smithsonian and the Oklahoma Jazz Museum in Tulsa, according to his daughter.  Last year’s Bird With Strings and The Unheard Bird  (Universal Music Group) were assembled from Miller’s archive.

Miller is survived by his daughter, son Andrew and grandson Joseph. DB

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