An Interview With World Musician Lloyd Miller
It was over six years ago that I first learned of Lloyd Miller’s work. I was introduced to him – like many others – by ‘Egon’ Alpatt of Stones Throw Records. I was puzzled by his opinions on western music’s state of affairs and his hardline stance against all that it represented. But what of his own music? Surely for one to make such statements they ought to have substantial works of their own to offer in rebuttal. While I could not afford his records (if I could even find them), I was growing more intrigued with this man’s work. He seemed to have spent his life as an outsider in terms of art and culture. Why had he chosen such a path? Does one wantonly fall into it? What precipitated a lifetime studying and embracing cultures so far from his own upbringing and early life?
Always opinionated, articulate and with no shortage of substantial responses to any of my questions or even fleeting comments, Dr. Lloyd Miller provided me with enough material for two or three interviews, regular entertainment (always intentional) and above all a grounds for thought between two artists, however far detached they may be. This is an excerpt from our conversations:
When you met Preston Kies, you pitched the idea of a collaboration based on the success of having a jazz trio play side by side (not combining) with your own eastern instrumentation, as you did with Jef Gilson’s group. Why do you think that in the 60s Jef Gilson would have been open to such a thing? What informed his interest in eastern music and culture? What was it in him that fostered his interest in working with a musician such as yourself?
“As for Preston Kies, the only reason we ‘collaborated’ was to avoid a hardcore confrontation between two pianists which would have been detrimental to both of us. I saw the pending problem of both of us entering the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival with our piano trios, so I went to his rehearsal and pitched the concept of joining forces and of course we won. I did this various times in my life, working in consort with potential or perceived opponents to engender the greater good. So Pres Kies played his Bill Evans style modal cool jazz which was a perfect platform for Eastern music. I paid little attention to the jazz trio and just performed the exact notes of a Persian mode (dastgah) unrelated to what the jazz trio was doing.
It was merely a tasteful placing of two traditions side by side in a manner that did not affect either. There are many ways in which traditional authentic far or Middle Eastern or Central Asian music and instruments can share the sound space with cool modal chordless jazz in pieces with no chord changes only changes in spiritual moods.
So the multitrack recordings which Jef Gilson merely helped me to achieve technically, those were attempts to mutually display jazz and Eastern music, similar to arrangements I wrote for quintet in Tehran in 1958 which Don Ellis and Eddie Harris later performed. And the things I did with Jef on the 10” and in many concerts around France were just my continuation of that same effort. Jef was on another kick from my Oriental Jazz quest, although Jef’s jazz concepts occasionally paralleled some of my ideas. He needed a wild and unusual soloist to play strange instruments which helped gain attention for his jazz innovations. I never really was able to play any of my jazz with Jef, just a few solos on unusual instruments. We were friends, he gave me a chance to play for big audiences, I helped bring curious audiences to his concerts and we liked some of the same types of jazz. But he was more avant garde than I was, I still am very old fashioned and traditional.”
I’m sure you are already aware of the prices your records fetch. I know you produced them without profits in mind, what do you have to say about the irony of your original intent and its current state of affairs?
“The thousands of dollars that sneaky ‘collectors’ and slick shysters have gleaned on my LPs on the internet is horrible. The only reason I jumped in after that whole scam was being perpetrated worldwide was to try to stop it by devaluing my old LPs. As revenge for all those creeps making a killing on MY LPs, I have mostly been giving them away for free. How does that happen? Well I just sell from 15 to 20 CDs and DVDs of my best recordings from over the decades for a reasonable price per CD and include the Oriental Jazz LP for free in the package.
They are only buying the CDs and DVDs NOT the LP. I hope by this manner to devalue the LP to $0, that way no thieving pirates can make money on my hard work by reselling my LPs at a profit. I think that recently the Oriental Jazz LP has not been selling for the $500 each it used to fetch for some slimy sneaky shark somewhere. I am also offering most of the best music on that LP on a flash drive which is given away for only $20 or whatever. Of the half dozen that have been set out, some were never paid for.”
One thing I would like to ask about now is your ‘Jazz at the Anjoman’ album. You recorded this soon after returning to Iran in the early 70s due to your involvement at the Iran-American Society. This is easily your least known work. First of all, it must have been very interesting to find such an array of capable musicians in that organization but I’m a bit surprised you did not take advantage to feature some eastern instruments on the recording. What can you tell me about your association with the IAS at that time and the jazz recording you did with your group of diplomats?
“As for ‘Jazz at the Anjoman’, that was one of my least known and the least skilled efforts because of the dearth of jazz performance virtuosity in Tehran. I suggested it to the director of the Iran-American Society as a nice souvenir of the weekly jam sessions I had been directing during those years in Iran. So we did it but it doesn’t represent my concept of great performing, just a few informal jazz sessions.
So it would have been really a strange stretch to expect a bunch of amateur yet enthusiastic almost garage band level jazz enthusiasts who just liked to hang out and jam a little jazz for fun to try something as crazy as Oriental jazz. They hadn’t really mastered cool jazz or their instruments to the extent of Pres Keys or the top BYU jazzmen. Even for those cats it was a very strange experience to try to feel comfortable with the juxtaposing two somewhat different concepts without having completely absorbed both traditions. Oriental jazz cannot be really correctly achieved by musicians who are not near virtuoso and fully comfortable in both traditions.”
Too bad you couldn’t have had the others learn some simple Persian melodies to back Parisa who you were also working with at that time via the IAS. You have never hesitated to affirm her excellent skills as a vocalist or her traditional interpretation of Persian and Iranian music.
“So Parisa was in a realm way beyond any of us; I wouldn’t have dared be on the same stage with her other than to meekly announce her concert at the IAS and scamper away. More recently when I met with Parisa at two of her big US concerts, I was lucky to be able to momentarily bow and mumble humble praise as a crazed fan. But I was never positioned to ever be on a stage with Parisa. It would be like pianist Bill Evans or even someone less virtuoso than him backing up opera star Joan Sutherland – different genres and too strange to contrive. Maybe in America something like that could be possible and maybe cool, but in Iran there was a caste system in the music world and I was never fully accepted to perform with the main masters of the country.”
The cover of ‘Near and Far East‘ with you standing in front of the glass cases full of rebabs, sitars, etc… is such a great photo. The darkened room, the fact that you are wearing a suit and the way you are glancing at the instruments….it looks like some kind of secret agent or eccentric millionaire who has a mansion full of rare instruments.
“That photo of my instrument collection at BYU was taken in the 60s. After that, there was a period when someone took over the musicology program and had all my instruments removed and thrown in some empty room where they were ready to be burned as trash. Two professor friends of mine tried to rescue them. The jerk professor was soon fired or left because everyone hated him and luckily that happened before the actual bonfire. The instruments were finally put back in the display but then eventually they were removed and buried in storage in the library where only a few can be seen by staff members.”
Can you take me through some of your everyday activities presently? What do you occupy yourself with daily, specifically in terms of your involvement with music and the arts? What can the world expect from you in the coming weeks/months?
“My daily activities are mostly involved with music. I have almost completed most of the projects I wanted to do during my life with just a couple of more to go. So I spend much of my time editing YouTube videos, setting up CDs and DVDs and occasionally practicing a couple of the several instruments I play when I have an upcoming concert. I am preparing for two lectures on Persian poetry and culture coming up soon. In November we are putting on a gamelan concert at a major venue at the University and we have some school assembly concerts of Eastern music. So there is always something to do, whether it ever reaches many people or not, or whether there is any interest in our efforts or not. This weekend my jazz trio is playing for a dinner at a classy venue at the U and we have music visits to senior centres coming up. So I don’t have any huge plans for the future, I just take the events as they come or work on other things when the performance opportunities slow down.”
What do you say to the musicians and artists of today? If you don’t approve of any music of the past 50 years or more, what sense do you see in them continuing their struggles? What advice would you offer, educated from your own decades of struggle as a musician? Can the global non-music movement be undone or is it too late?
“Actually with all my griping and grumbling, what has happened in the world and the music scene is actually all for the best. So the whole theatre piece of life and this world is for our benefit even if it is mostly for our misery. We learn the difference between beautiful and ugly which is the best thing we can attain for our eternal progress.
So today’s musicians often are or can be the celestial light of the future by just realizing that what is placed before us, actually forced on us, is not that cool. And there is something out there which has real value. Probably something back there in history or ‘over there’ geographically, from the traditional East to Japan to Eastern Europe. So let’s learn from the thumping inhuman techno noise of today and be inspired to seek beyond the material world. So it’s all good, in a crazy way. Now that we have heard the most inhuman music and seen the most inhuman way of life pushed on us in the last decades, we might be willing and ready to seek something better.
When it is all said and done and the whole thing is history, the most important thing that we might conclude is the importance of total love, understanding and caring for every person or spirit who partakes in the whole drama whether wonderful, unnoticed, unimportant or horrible. I gripe, maybe more than most and more than necessary, about all the bad stuff in life and in the world, but a true saintly Sufi should just be thankful for everything. As the Buddhists would suggest, try to welcome good and evil with equal joy. I have to keep working on that one and may never really get it right.”
About the author:
I’d rather dig in bins of waterlogged, dog-eared ‘artifacts’ than visit a record store and treat the beautiful ritual like grocery shopping. I have spelunked barns, garages, basements and second hand stores around the nation in search of vinyl and I’ve met some of the best people in the world doing it. If you want to explore, you don’t rent a limo. You ride the bus. If you want to learn about a region, investigate what generations past have listened to. I have chronicled my adventures on spindlespider.com for the past three years and the stories have no end in sight. You can find me there, or at your local thrift store.
The full version of this interview appears here.
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