I first saw Mulgrew Miller almost three decades ago, playing with Tony Williams in a nightclub in St Louis. I remember thinking that was about the most elegant jazz piano playing I’d ever heard. The lines were smooth and swinging and flowing out like waterfalls cascading—gorgeous! Then somebody said his name was Mulgrew and I was floored by that. Who names their kid Mulgrew?!
Fast forward a few years. I was living in New York, and went one night to Bradley’s to see Mulgrew and Kenny Barron in a piano duo. Bradley’s is a little shoebox of a place, seats no more than 40 or 50 people, and it was packed with the who’s who—Art Blakey, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, and the next-generation players like Roy Hargrove and Antonio Hart. When you’re at Bradley’s, you’re there with The Cats. There are very few civilians. So that night, with that kind of pressure, Mulgrew rocked the house—with ballads! He played these fat, lush chords, and Kenny would answer. It was like falling backward into an ocean of the most beautiful, most soulful music.
One of the top jazz pianists of his generation, Mulgrew channeled the rhythmic lines of Oscar Peterson and the harmonic complexity of McCoy Tyner. If you think of McCoy as a muscle car, Mulgrew is more like a Cadillac—a quiet, powerful, smooth ride. He got his start in the early 80s with Betty Carter and Woody Shaw, joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers for three years, then worked for several years with Tony Williams. Over the course of his career, he made more than fifteen recordings as a leader, and more than 500 as a sideman. For the last few years, he was the Director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University, and active as a touring and recording artist.
Mulgrew performed in Winnipeg twice—including a duo concert with Kenny Barron—and audiences here appreciated his extraordinary gifts at the piano. But I find myself remembering the masterclass he did in Judy Kehler Siebert’s office. He was working with a much younger Will Bonness. His quiet observations about voicing, technique, harmony, posture opened up new understanding for all of us crammed into that small room. That was a life-altering experience for me.
Once while I was on tour in Japan with Carl Allen and his band, I noticed our Japanese hosts buzzing and whispering about Mulgrew. They had some special name for him, a sign of high honour for someone who had an old soul. I thought, “That seems appropriate!” Just standing next to him, you could feel the weight of his peacefulness.
Mulgrew went through the world with grace and good humour—he was one of those guys everyone felt comfortable around, yet he was never phony. He made enormous contributions to his community as a musician, an educator, and a very fine human. He was only 57 when he died of a stroke on May 29, 2013. He will be sorely missed.