BY BOB DOERSCHUK
Trying to describe a set by Sammy Miller And The Congregation would be like telling someone watching Casablanca for the first time, “She winds up with Claude Rains.” It’s better to single out memorable random moments.
The action begins as Miller wanders over to his drums and starts a second-line parade beat. Then the band files in and calls the room to order by blasting the 20th Century Fox movie anthem. Trombone player Sam Crittenden appears at one point in drag. Alphonso Horne leaves the stage, kneels before the nearest woman and woos her most persuasively with seductive trumpet coos and whispers. Miller laments his sorry love life on one sad tune as the horn section croons in harmony: “We know how it goes.”
When the band stretches out, it becomes clear they could gig with any of the “serious” jazz masters. But Miller would counter that his band’s fusion of virtuosity and schtick is no laughing matter.
“What we do is serious,” he insists, relaxing backstage before a gig at Nashville’s City Winery in July. “There’s not a thing we do up there that we don’t take seriously. Humor is serious; joy is serious, because people pay money to see us. They give us their time. So we make sure that our performance isn’t just positive. It has to be the best thing they’ve ever seen.”
To better understand his goal, we travel back to Miller’s early years in Palos Verdes, just outside of Los Angeles. He started playing drums more or less by default, since his older siblings in the family band had already picked other instruments. Their parents booked them around Southern California, where they covered hits from rock, pop, and some country for parties and social events.
“I’m not playing for musicians. I’m playing for everybody.”
Eventually Miller developed a curiosity about jazz. “I couldn’t understand it but I loved the way it made me feel,” he recalls. “It was almost mystical. I’d go to the library because you could check out up to 30 CDs at a time, so I’d start with the A’s in the jazz section, trying to piece everything I heard together like a puzzle.”
By age 15 Miller was sitting in at jam sessions hosted by his teacher, Kevin Kanner, at The Mint. After graduating from the High School Of The Arts, he headed out to the New School in New York on scholarship. Almost immediately he hit the clubs, digging the music he heard but increasingly feeling something wasn’t quite right with how it was presented.
“It didn’t seem like a lot of care and tenderness was being put into it,” he says. “People would just go up there and sight-read stuff they’d never played. They’d be wearing T-shirts. It was like they were just hanging out. I just didn’t understand why you’d want to create something that’s inaccessible.”
While at the New School and also after transferring to Juilliard as a jazz studies major, Miller polished his musicianship through lessons with Jeff Hamilton, spending time with Charli Persip and Kenny Washington, and working through Charlie Wilcoxon’s tutorials. He also took his first steps at gathering musicians who shared his discontent the state of jazz performance. When he landed a weekly residency at The Ella Lounge, Miller started bringing them onstage to see what they might do about it.
Alphonso Horne was an early recruit. “When I met him at Juilliard, he was pretty rigid, always wearing a bow tie,” Miller recalls, laughing. “But then we’d hang out afterward and he was a totally different person. I was like, ‘That is who you should be onstage!’”
The Congregation took shape at The Ella and during regular dance gigs at Dizzy’s in Lincoln Center and at The Woods in Brooklyn. At first it was kind of a novelty, but after a while they clarified their mission. “It’s not just about having fun,” Miller notes. “I want people to feel both extremes. I want them to hear Dave [Linard] play something beautiful on piano that makes them cry.”
He continues, “I’m not playing for musicians… I’m playing for everybody. I mean, life is so hard. Being uplifted is so important. I don’t care how you do it — people go to church, people drink, whatever. I’m just trying to create something that’s honest and pure and that helps people feel the way I want to feel.”
As for those first days in New York, when he sensed that jazz could be made more accessible to the public, Miller, now 27, takes a second to think. “Look, I love jazz so much. But it’s becoming less and less about that. What we’re doing now is what I’ve always wanted to do. Is it jazz? Is it theater? All I know is that I want people to come to the show with questions and,” he concludes, with a playful smile, “leave with more questions.”
BAND: Sammy Miller And The Congregation
ALBUM: Sammy Miller And The Congregation
BIRTHPLACE: Los Angeles, CA
INFLUENCES: Jay Bellerose, Jeff Hamilton, Papa Jo Jones, Cozy Cole, Gene Krupa, Zutty Singleton, Duke Ellington
DRUMS: “I love Radio Kings and all the old drums.”
CYMBALS: “Mostly Zildjian”
STICKS: Vic Firth