US & CANADA +844.616.6279 INTERNATIONAL +01.800.852.99872
Artist Interviews
Marcus Miller on Cruising, Miles Davis, Wayman Tisdale, His Musical Upbringing & More

You’ve read a lot about Marcus Miller in the recent Jazz Appreciation Month editions of The Weekender. That’s because there’s a lot to say about Marcus. He stands among the most accomplished musicians of all time and he’s at the heart of everything we do on our jazz cruise programs.

The multi-Grammy Award winning producer, composer, arranger and performer began his professional career at 16. By 21 he was Miles Davis’ bassist and by 25 he was composing and producing Miles’ recordings. In addition to his work with Miles, during those same years, Marcus began a 25-year collaboration with Luther Vandross and a musical partnership with David Sanborn that continues to this day.

For us, his most important contribution is as the leader of our jazz programs and cruises. His combination of musical achievement, endearing personality and compelling humanity sets him apart from anyone we have known, worked for or worked with. He embodies the spirit, purpose and attributes of this amazing music.

Recently, Executive Director Michael Lazaroff posed several questions to Marcus. Now it is time to hear from Marcus directly. We know you will enjoy this back and forth.

Lazaroff: Most of us find out what we want to do as we grow up. You were fully ensconced in music long before that happened. When and how did you know that you were a music man?
Miller: I grew up in a musical family, my dad played the organ and the piano in church, his sisters all sang and his cousin, Wynton Kelly, played piano with Miles in the late 50s early 60s. So yes, I was completely ensconced in music from the beginning. I began by imitating my dad on the piano, then started the clarinet in public school. But when I first heard Michael Jackson and his brothers in 1969, that’s when I got really excited about music. To see young African American kids on TV who were my age was a pretty amazing thing – AND they were crazy talented as well? I was sold. I knew I wanted to do THAT. I already knew music pretty well so I had a good foundation. I just had to find an instrument that was less corny that the clarinet. At about 12 or 13 years old, I landed on the bass, the instrument that Michael’s brother, Jermaine played.

Lazaroff: Few of us ever met Miles Davis. The image in recent biopics blurs the picture of him as a man and a musician. In your words, will you tell us about him?
Miller: If you take a young, sensitive, artistic, upper middle class black kid (Miles’ dad was a very successful dental surgeon in East St. Louis and Miles also attended Juilliard) and you expose that kid to deep Jim Crow racism, expose him to domestic violence, expose him to drugs, but then eventually expose him to adoration from people all over the world who are enthralled with the music you make — you get Miles Davis. I met Miles when he was 55 years old and he was still sorting out all of these elements. He was a proud yet sensitive, angry but loving, mean and yes, sometimes violent, gentle musical genius.

Lazaroff: Your musical associations seem to have defined your early years. There is a lot of R&B, fusion and jazz. How do you balance the various genres and how do you select what your next project would be?
Miller: To me all of those styles are branches from the same tree. In each style you have to express yourself in a soulful way. It’s just that you put the accent on different parts of the music. In R&B and gospel, you emphasize the bluesy emotion. In jazz, you emphasize harmony and improvisation. With fusion, you emphasize multiple things at the same time because you’re combining styles. But in the end, it’s all music and it’s whatever comes out of you at any given time.

Lazaroff: As you know, I have shared with you my experiences listening to various tunes, recognizing your “sound” and then confirming that it was you from liner notes or even Google. This happened recently with some Grover and Luther tunes. You have a sound, no doubt. How would you describe and do you consciously “work” on presenting it?
Miller: I really wanted to have an identifiable sound when I was first starting out. All the bass players I admired had a sound you could identify in three notes! I’m talking about guys like Larry Graham, Stanley Clarke, and Jaco Pastorius. The problem was no one could tell me how to create an identifiable sound! I would ask all the older cats, “Man, how do I get my own sound?” They would just say, “Keep playing man, and one day, you’ll hear a recording and realize, “Wow, that’s me!” For me, it happened with my first recording with Miles. We were in the studio control room, listening back to what we had just recorded and I remember saying to myself, “Well, I don’t know if it’s good, but it’s definitely me!” From that point, when I was playing, I’d try to emphasize the parts of my playing that I thought “sounded like me.”

Lazaroff: How did you meet Brenda, your wife? Did she know who you were at that time?
Miller: Brenda did NOT know who I was! We met when we were very young (just a year out of college) on a flight that went from Boston to New York. I had just finished a gig with David Sanborn at the Boston Commons. It was a pretty empty flight and I was the last one to board the plane. When I passed David’s seat, he said, “Check out row 17, that’s you!” So I walked past row 17, took a look, went to the bathroom in the back, looked in the mirror, gave myself a pep talk, came back to row 17 and ran my mouth for the hour it takes to get from Boston to NY.

I told her I played with Miles Davis and Luther Vandross, and that I wrote Aretha Franklin’s “Jump to It” which was a hit at the time. She later told me she didn’t believe a word I said and looking back on what I must have looked like at the time (very young – just out of braces!) I can understand why. Luckily she mentioned to a friend in NY that she had met some musician named “Maurice Miller… or somebody” who claimed he worked with Luther. And her friend said, “Wait, MARCUS Miller… the bass player MARCUS MILLER??!!!” So that allowed the door to stay open to at least get her to talk to me on the phone and the rest as they say, is history!

Lazaroff: One way you came into the world of Entertainment Cruise Productions was as a friend and confidante of Wayman Tisdale. How did you first meet Wayman and, if he were here today, what would you say to him?
Miller: I got a call from a sports agent who said he represented Wayman Tisdale and asked if I was familiar with him. I said, yeah of course, he played for Oklahoma University in college and plays for the Indiana Pacers now. The agent said, “Well Wayman’s a big fan of yours and would like to meet you.” So the next time Wayman came with the Pacers to NY, he stopped by the studio and we ended up talking for hours. He wanted to know about Luther and Sanborn and Grover Washington Jr. and I wanted to know about Jordan and Magic and Bird! We became great friends. He would have me hanging out with Patrick Ewing and I would have him hanging out with Sanborn!

There’s so much I would want to tell him. That his family is thriving, that his spirit surrounds us at all times, that one of his grandsons plays his toy bass left-handed and upside down, just like him. That every time we step on the ship to do a cruise, we think of him. And that we miss him tremendously. But I’m sure he knows all that.

Lazaroff: For more than a decade you have hosted our cruises. You are the face of our programs and guests adore you. I know that you were leery at first about cruising. We all were, by the way. Addressing all the guests of our programs, what would you like to say to them?
Miller: Yeah, when you first spoke to me about doing the cruises, I was like, “What, you mean like the Love Boat?!” I didn’t know what to expect. So you invited me to just sail as a passenger on one of Wayman’s cruises just to check it out. The first thing that struck me was that the musicians were having SUCH a good time. They were hanging out with each other, something musicians don’t get to do much of. They were sitting in with each other — it was really cool. And then the cruisers, they were SO into the music. The energy was incredible. I was like, “I can definitely do this!” Now it’s like family.

I would say to all of the guests, “I feel like we’ve created something really special; musicians and guests together. What we have is something that’s impossible to describe. All you can say to people who don’t know is, “Trust me, come on the cruise, you’ll thank me later!”