Q. I believe you grew up in Brooklyn in a musical family. How did your family influence your interest in music?
I grew up in two different Brooklyns. I was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy). At that time (1961-62) Bed Stuy was all black with low to middle income families. The socio-economic make-up was similar to Harlem. My dad was a bus driver during the week and played the organ in church on Sundays.
At the age of 2, our family (my father, my mother, my younger brother and I) moved to the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn which was mostly white (Italian and Jewish). Sheepshead Bay is near Brighton Beach, New York State. It was mostly middle income, working class families. It was during this period that I remember dad practicing the piano and my mom playing records on the family record player. My dad practiced classical and Episcopal Christian music. My mom played Ray Charles records. On Sundays we would return to Bed-Stuy to attend church services at the church where my father was the organist.
When I was 10, we moved again– this time to an area called Jamaica, in the borough of Queens in New York. We moved to a housing development called Rochdale Village, which was sort of a social experiment in New York that had Blacks and Jews living together. The development was situated in the midst of the all-black area of South Jamaica, Queens. If you land at Kennedy Airport, and you take a taxi to Manhattan, the first neighbourhood you travel through after leaving the airport is Jamaica, Queens. This is where I began to get serious about music. Up until then music was a daily part of my life but not something
I focused on.
Q. Did your early education influence your interest in music?
In Jamaica, Queens, my school offered us clarinet lessons. I was 9 years old. I was fortunate to have a music teacher starting in the 6th grade who saw my potential and encouraged me. His name was Mr Guarino. After a couple of years on the clarinet he had me start on saxophone.
The Jackson 5 were becoming very popular at this time and I was crazy about them. They were black kids of my age who were making incredible music. Inspired by them, I decided I wanted to get deeper into music. I was very fortunate because I had my father, who taught me about piano harmony, and I had Mr. Guarino at school, who had me playing clarinet in the wind ensemble and the orchestra, and sax in the Jazz band. I also sang in a vocal group with three of my friends from my neighbourhood. We started out singing
In order to get deeper into the R&B and Soul music that I was so excited about, I decided to try playing bass guitar. When I played the first note on the bass, I knew I had found my true instrument
Q. When did you first start playing in front of an audience?
My first performances where with our middle-school wind ensemble at school concerts. I also performed at local talent shows with my singing group and later with our neighbourhood R&B funk band. Sometimes my parents would have me play clarinet for our extended family, which was the most stressful because it was a very musical family where everyone either sang or played. My father's cousin, Wynton Kelly actually played with Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery in the 60's. The family's standards were very high.
Q. When did you focus on bass guitar as your main instrument ?
I was 12 when I first started playing bass guitar. As far as R&B and Soul music went the bass seemed to be at the centre of the music. Plus Jermaine Jackson, Michael's brother, looked so cool playing it. I played bass guitar in local bands but still studied clarinet in school and learned piano harmony from my father at home. I began playing R&B, soul and funk and eventually started playing jazz as well.
Q. When did it occur to you that you could make a career out of your musicianship and who encouraged you?
Around the age of 14, I began to notice that people were responding to my bass playing. Older kids in the neighbourhood who were musicians began to encourage me. In High School, I met drummer Omar Hakim who was already a great drummer. I started hanging out with him. He introduced me to all the best musicians in Jamaica, Queens. Once I started hanging out with these guys: Donald Blackman, Tom Browne, Weldon Irvine, Bernard Wright, Lenny White and Omar, I pretty much knew I was going to be a musician. They all were tremulous musicians; very confident, each of them had their own style. While I wasn't on their level yet, I felt like I was getting there and I was on the path to becoming a professional.
Q. How did your early days in music progress ?
I met Omar Hakim in high school when I was fourteen. I joined a band he had called Harlem River Drive. This was 1974. We made some demos but the band never really took off. We couldn't get a record company to sign us, which was disappointing. Around 1976, we broke up and each of us began looking for opportunities as individual players. Our guitarist, Ronnie Miller, got a job with flutist, Bobbi Humphrey. He arranged for me to audition and I got the job playing bass in her band. The drummer in Bobbi's band was Buddy Williams. Buddy was really well known in the New York scene and started recommending my name. That led to a lot of gigs in and around New York.
Ronnie Miller also got a job playing guitar with Lonnie Liston Smith in 1977. By this time I was starting to write songs. Ronnie arranged for me to show some of my tunes to Lonnie and Lonnie ended up recording a bunch of them over the next couple of years (1977-78). These were tunes like Space Princess, A Song For the Children and Journey Into Love. This was a great opportunity to write, arrange, and play bass in the studio for a very prominent artist.
I wrote a tune for Bobby Humphrey in '79 that she presented to her record producer, Ralph MacDonald. Ralph liked the song so I came to record it with Ralph and his studio musicians. After the session, Ralph asked me if I could read music because as he wanted to recommend me for studio work. I assured him that I was an excellent reader. Ralph started dropping my name and within two months I was getting steady studio work; recording music for TV commercials in the mornings and recording for various artists the rest of the day. I was playing for artists like: Grover Washington Jr. (I played on his hit, Just the Two of Us), Dave Grusin, Elton John, Bryan Ferry (Boys and Girls, Bete Noir), Carly Simon, David Sanborn, Roberta Flack, Donald Fagan. (The Nightfly album), Angie Bofill, Julian Lennon, the Beach Boys, Bob Skaggs, Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones, Lee Ritenour, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter (High Life), McCoy Tyner, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey (her first hit, Vision of Love) and Paul Simon.
I was awarded the NARAS award for studio musicians called the ‘Most Valuable Player Award’ for bass three years in a row. After that they retire you from eligibility.
I met Luther Vandross during those early studio years. We worked together with Roberta Flack. He was one of the top studio background singers at the time. Luther asked me to play on the demo
for his Never Too Much album. Eventually he got a record deal and the album became a huge hit. This was in 1980. Luther and I started writing songs together after that. The first hit we had was for Aretha Franklin. It was called Jump to It. After that we wrote many songs for Luther himself. Songs like: Bad Boy, It's Over Now, Til My Baby Comes Home, The Night I Fell In Love, See Me, Any Love and The Power of Love.
In 1980 I was also in the house band of ‘Saturday Night Live’. Buddy Williams, who I had met in Bobbi Humphrey's band, got me the audition. I met David Sanborn in the band and I started writing music for him soon after. Our first big song was called All I Need is You for which David won a Grammy. In 1981, Miles Davis decided to come out of retirement. He had heard about me based on what I was doing in New York at the time and called me to record with him. Soon after that he asked me to play in his band. I stayed in his band for two years from 1981-83 and then came back to him as a writer/producer in 85. This was when we recorded Tutu. I worked on two more albums with Miles after Tutu, Siesta and Amandla.
The careers of Luther Vandross, David Sanborn and Miles Davis' final decade are ones that I participated in on the level of writer, producer and bass player. These were important artists for me. In 1990, I started scoring movies with film maker Reginald Hudlin. We did House Party, Boomerang and a bunch of others. Since then I've written music for films starring Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Idris Elba (This Christmas) and Vivian Fox (2 Can Play That Game). I also wrote Da Butt for Spike Lee's film School Daze.
Q. What recordings would you recommend to those who would like to get to know your work?
If you want to listen to my early stuff – Lonnie Liston Smith Exotic mysteries. That’s pretty cool. Also Lennie White’s album called Streamline which I did when I was 17/18 years old, which is a good example of my really early work. Then Luther Vandros’s Never too much, which was the first album Luther and I did together and then
The night I fell in love, which I think is Luther’s most representative work. With Miles if you listen to Tutu you can hear what I did with Miles as a producer, composer and musician. Also the albums Siesta and Amandla. My first album with Miles was called the Man with the Horn. David Sanborn – my favourite album with him is Upfront; I was the producer and writer on that as well as the bass player on that one –
a very cool album. I also liked the stuff that I did on Brian Ferry’s Boys and Girls. These are all pretty representative of my work outside of
my solo stuff.
When you’re talking about my solo albums – The Sun Don’t Lie is the first album where I found my voice as a solo artist and M2 is an album that I am really happy with from 2001. My last two albums Renaissance [One of Marcus’s best! ed.] and Afrodeezia – if you listen to those you get a good sense of who I am musically.
Q. What are your current projects?
We have a tribute tour for Luther Vandross in development. It’s been
10 years since Luther has been gone and its very important that people remember him, and recognises his greatness. He was not only a great friend but also a truly great artist, one of the most important R&B singers of his time. We are currently touring the latest album Afrodeezia, We’ve done Asia, US and Europe and now touring the UK this fall.
My band has some exciting young musicians:
Alex Han – plays Saxophone. I discovered him at Berkeley College of Music some six or seven years ago. He has complete package: soulful, amazing technique and imagination. I have just produced Alex’s own album, by the way, which will be released in New Year.
Brett Williams – on piano. From Pittsburgh, 23 years old and just got his degree in piano performance from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. The music he knows at this young age is amazing. I can play a song from the ‘40s and he is right there, playing it as if he’s been playing it for years. He’s really incredible keyboardist.
Adam Agati – Guitarist from Portland Maine. He attended Berkley College too. He’s a great guitarist with fantastic soloing skills and good rhythm, which is important to me. Most guitarists can only do one skill. Adam can do both very well.
Marquis Hill – Plays Trumpet. A new guy who’s just started to play with us. I am very excited for people to hear him. He’s from Chicago and just starting his career. I am always looking to present new young artists to my audiences.
Alex Bailey – Drums. Also just starting his career on the international scene. I am really happy to be presenting him. He attended Berkley too.
I found a lot of these musicians through Alex Han. Before this I had been working with older musicians such as Pujie bell and Alex Stewart. I am now tapped into to this younger community of musicians, which is
Mino Cinelu – Percussion. I played with him back in the 80’s with Miles Davis. We haven’t played together since those early days but he has played with Sting and Kate Bush. With this Afrodeezia album, having all these Afro percussive elements. I asked Mino to tour with us because he has such a broad knowledge of all the different rhythms from North Africa, West Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America. We have been having a great time being reunited.
Q. What are you ambitions for the future?
Musically I continue to try and find new flavours, new colours, new ways to express myself with my music. I feel very blessed to be a musician and to have a career in music. For me its fantastic to be a musician as the journey never ends, as age doesn’t hold you back as it would if you were, say, an athlete. I look up to Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis, when he was alive, because they were always looking for something new. They were always interested in developing and growing musically into their 80’s, so that’s what I want to do. I am looking to explore music that happened away from my main area of concentration. In other words, I am from New York City, I grew up playing funk, jazz, R&B and soul, for my latest album Afrodeezia I collaborated with some musicians from West Africa, Brazil, Caribbean so that’s exciting and I think I would like to continue this experimentation and collaboration.
Family wise – my wife and I have 4 kids: 2 boys and 2 girls, all in there 20s. It’s exciting to see them becoming young adults. We want to be there to support them. Keep the music going and keep the family going – that’s enough for me!
Q. It is said that jazz is dying and no longer of interest in the USA. Has this affected your career?
Jazz is not dying. Jazz has always had a smaller percentage of musical interest in the US. Jazz was popular in the 20s, 30s and 40s. In the late 40s it started to evolve into ‘art music’. After the creation of rock ‘n’ roll jazz became a minority interest and not been popular for many years and is now at an all time low.
It’s the expression of a couple of things. Americans have a short attention span, a reflection of this digital age. Their attention has to be captured within the first 15 seconds. Jazz musicians today have taken the jazz into an intellectual realm and are not interested in rhythmically direct music. In the 20/30/40s the rhythm was very strong in jazz and you could dance to it. You could snap your fingers and understand the melodies. Through people like John Coltrane Jazz has evolved into something very intellectual. My job is to reintroduce the rhythm; the urgent funky soul rhythm, to make sure it has a relevance to the people of today! I want to connect with the original inspiration of jazz, which was a really rhythmic African inspired music, with wonderful inspired melodies, harmonies and improvisation. But I don’t want to lose the soulful part of it. The youngsters of today learn jazz in the universities. I learnt jazz on the streets from musicians in the neighbourhood who insisted that you ‘swing’; that is you make the music feel good. This was the most important thing. As Duke Ellington said “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”. When I have young musician join my band I say, ‘man, we gotta make it feel good’. I emphasise that we must let people know where the beat is and only then we can take it to another place with the harmonies and the improvisation.
In Europe we have a great audience. They have a history of celebrating great art and music that’s been around for a while. They have a way of honouring great music; as they do with the classical tradition they do the same with jazz. In the US they are more concerned with what’s happening now and tomorrow – very trendy. In the UK there appears to fall somewhere in between these two. I’m anxious to combine the two – classic jazz and the music of today.
Q. Are you uninvolved in music education at all and
if so how are you involved?
I do clinics when I am touring. I take a couple of hours and visit a school or music store to talk to young musicians. The most important thing is to convey the way I ‘think’ about music, to get them to be broad, to listen to all different types of music and to find their own personal sound. It’s hard to teach someone how to find his or her own sound but if you are serious about music, this is very important.
Q. Fender produced the Marcus Miller Signature Jazz Bass
in 1998. How did this come about and how do you benefit from its production?
In 1997 Fender called me saying they would like to produce a ‘Marcus Miller’ bass. I played a Fender Jazz Bass that I had bought in 1977 and had modified it over the years. So I sent it to them, they put lasers on it, measured it, saw all the things I had done to it and recreated it. We sold it from 1998 to last year. It’s no longer in production. Last year I decided to develop a new bass called the ‘Sire’ bass. I felt young people could not get started as basses were getting so expensive, so we created this really affordable bass for them. The Sire bass has only been available for 6 months now but the quality of the bass is so good that the professionals have been buying them up. Right now Sire is trying to ramp up production as they were not ready for this response. I am very excited about that. How I benefit from this is that Fender pays me a royalty on the Marcus Miller bass and Sire does the same thing on the Sire bass.
Q. What’s it like being on tour. Do you enjoy it?
Touring is demanding. It’s not just about being talented – you have to learn how to deal with the demands. You may have to play a concert that ends at midnight and then we have to get on the tour bus at 2 am and drive maybe 13 hours to the next city, get off the bus, take a quick shower and go to the venue, check the sound and then do the concert again. And that can be very gruelling. But when we travel by bus its relatively easy. When we use airports we have to deal with the security lines, day and day out, and it gets to be very difficult to get enough sleep, so it’s very challenging. You have to be disciplined and take the opportunity to rest when you can.
You often come front-of-house and talk to the leaving audience. This is unusual for performers of your stature and I wondered why you do this?
I was a studio musician for many years and I started doing touring late, at about the age of 35. What was fascinating for me was I was finally getting to see the people that I was making music for. I lived in the studio for years. I knew people were enjoying the music but I didn’t know who they were. So now I really enjoy meeting the people and hearing the stories and hearing how my music fits effects their lives. That changed me and I now realise how powerful music is.
Q. How do you cope with the varied acoustics you must come across on your travels?
Yeah, sometimes I wanna pack up and get out of there sometimes. At a gig recently a guy told me ‘we have the best hall in Europe’ and then I realised he meant the best ‘classical music’ hall. Classical halls are designed to amplify the instruments. If you are playing a quiet instrument like a flute or an oboe you can hear it clearly without a microphone. When we come into the hall with electric guitars and drums was too reverberant. It was like playing in a gymnasium; people couldn’t understand the notes we are playing. It was very frustrating. We try to find solutions; we won’t play as loudly as we usually do for example. Our sound engineer has a lot of experience so we usually do well, but it’s a big challenge. We are always looking for ways to improve.
Q. How do you find the music business? When a fellow musician invites you to join them in a session what happens?
The music business in general is something that I was encouraged to learn about early on. When I was 17 years old some older musicians encouraged me to buy the book This Business of Music. So I learnt business early on.
There are different scenarios with regard to collaborations. If you are writing a song with someone some people have agreements ahead of time, like lets split this 50/50. Or some people get more detailed. For example, if someone’s is writing the lyrics and the hook that everyone is going to remember, they may feel that’s worth 65%. These are the kinds of conversations people have. Sometimes they are uncomfortable but they are really necessary.
When some one calls me to play on a record they say, ‘are you available’? If I say yes, ‘I’m available’; I say what I usually charge. If they can’t afford that then I have to make a choice. If I have a good rapport with a musician I may play anyway even if they can’t pay me what I’d like. These are the decisions that have to me made.
When I am putting together a band and I invite musicians to tour with me we go through how much they are going to get paid. Lots of times I don’t have the conversation myself because I have a management team but they always come back to me to check if I am happy with what’s been discussed. A lot of musicians would rather not deal with this aspect of music but it is very important.
In terms of CDs and royalties you really need to know about the song writing royalties and artists royalties. The interesting thing today is that things are really changing really drastically due to the digital revolution. We have companies like Pandora and Spotify that are streaming music and the benefit to musicians is very very low compared to what it was. Some pretty huge battles are coming up between the musicians and the providers of music in order to see if we, the musicians, can get a more equitable share of the profits that are being made from this digital distribution of music. We are in a really critical period right now.
Q. I have heard that musicians need to tour more now as they can no longer rely on income from CDs and download royalties. How has this affected the music business and your lively hood?
Sales of CDs are down may be 90 % which means people are listening to streaming and YouTube without paying anything. So this has severely affected musician’s lives. They cannot depend on CD royalties and you end up having to be on the road more. To me this has turned out to be a good thing because it has given me the opportunity to meet my audience. But this digital revolution has caused a really drastic change and came as a shock to many musicians. We feel that we are in the Wild West and are waiting to see how things to settle in.
But to sum it all up: I feel blessed to be able to work as a musician – keep the music going, keep the family going and enjoy being here – that’s enough for me!
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