Ron Miles, cornetist who imbued modern jazz with heart and soul, dies at 58


Cornetist, composer and bandleader Ron Miles has combined a quintessentially American harmonic palette with a frank emotional clarity rare in modern jazz.

Johnathan Chimene / WBGO

Ron Miles, a cornetist, composer and bandleader who stood quietly in the forefront of jazz artists of this century, died Tuesday at his home in Denver. He was 58 years old.

The cause was complications from polycythemia vera, a rare blood disease, Hans Wendl, its longtime manager, told NPR.

Miles sounded warm and perfectly centered on the horn, with barely a trace of fierceness or flash. Through his playing, he could create the feeling of something both robust and precious – especially in the context of his own compositions, which combined a quintessentially American harmonic palette with a frank emotional clarity rare in modern jazz.

“If you played a Ron Miles song correctly, in the best of moods, you’d be crying,” pianist Jason Moran told NPR. “Because the songs were full. I liken that to how John Coltrane composed ‘Lonnie’s Lament’. He knew how to find the joy in a melody, and he knew where the heart was. Even just when playing them , it would rush at you. A lot of the music we play doesn’t have that, it just doesn’t.”

This soft yet confident musical temperament made Miles an ideal collaborator for guitarist Bill Frisell, in an association spanning nearly three decades, and drummer Brian Blade, in a range of combo settings. Miles fronted a trio with Frisell and Blade for several years, achieving a delightfully balanced pair of albums. Miles and Blade also made up half of Still Dreaming, joining saxophonist Joshua Redman and bassist Scott Colley in a free-spirited tribute to the band Old and New Dreams, which featured Redman’s father, Dewey Redman.

Miles can be heard on a handful of Frisell albums, dating all the way back to Quartet in 1996; on two albums by pianist Myra Melford’s avant-garde chamber group Snowy Egret, including the remarkable The other side of the air; and on a succession of albums by tenor saxophonist Fred Hess, a colleague in Denver until his death in 2018. Among Miles’ other longtime affiliations was one with Chicago bluesman-turned-Denver Otis Taylor, with whom he started recording in the early 2000s.

On his own most recent releases – I am a man in 2017 and rainbow sign in 2020, each enjoying considerable success – Miles formed a quintet with Frisell, Moran and Blade alongside bassist Thomas Morgan. In the fall of 2021, they became the first band to play live at the Village Vanguard after an 18-month pandemic shutdown. The sound of the band in this room, under these circumstances, felt like a harbinger of restoration and renewal.

Ronald Glen Miles was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on May 9, 1963 to Fay Downey Miles and Jane Miles. He moved to Denver when he was 11, in part because his parents suspected the mountain climate would help soothe his asthma. In Denver, where both of his parents became federal employees, he picked up his first trumpet at a summer music program; his main musical influences at the time were not jazz artists but rather people like the Bee Gees and the Jackson 5.

Jazz became a more serious concern for Miles at East High School in Denver, where Frisell had preceded him by a dozen years. He then studied music first at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado, then at the Manhattan School of Music, before returning to Denver, where he began teaching and became an anchor in the music industry. local scene. His career in music education culminated in an appointment as Director of Jazz Studies at Metropolitan State University in Denver.

Miles’ entrenched presence in Denver, far from the hub of the jazz industry in New York, surely had a slowing effect on his solo career, deepening his aversion to self-promotion. But over the past 20 years, and especially over the past decade, it has gained indisputable notoriety. I am a man was included in NPR Music’s Top 50 Albums of 2017, and rainbow sign made the Top 10 of the NPR Music Jazz Critics 2020 poll.

Among his collaborators, including Moran and guitarist Mary Halvorson, Miles was renowned for his consistency. “Its sound is so beautiful that it’s easy to forget the power it contains,” observes Frisell in Michelle Mercer’s liner notes for I am a man. “There’s just this incredible power and clarity in what he does. It comes from within, from the center where everything comes from. When I play with him, it’s really easy to pick up his sound or to lean on it – and because it can be flexible, I can even move around in it.”

In the same liner notes, Miles reflects on the primary motivation for his music. “Love fuels my work the most,” he says. “My love for my fellow musicians. My love for my audience. My love for the tradition of which I am a part.”

This sentiment manifests itself throughout Miles’ recorded career, not least on his 1989 album. Witness that on rainbow sign. (Among his many beautifully crafted compositions are a radiant waltz titled “Unconditional” and a country blues song titled “Just Married.”) The generosity of spirit that Miles brought to the practice of music-making is plainly evident in the results. , who came about by careful intention. “I just wanted to be a musician that other musicians wanted to play with, and that was it, not be a star,” he told Ian Patterson about all about jazz in 2020. “Just when I was playing with other musicians the music sounded better. That’s the biggest compliment.”

Miles had planned to perform at the 2022 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee later this month, until his health issues led him to cancel. The other members of his quintet will now perform in his honor. “We always intended to play something for Ron,” says Moran. “So we’ll keep doing it, and it’s going to be very heavy.”

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