Did You Ever Hear the Blues? The Music, Film and Influence of Big Miller

JC-1980-Cover
Big Miller on the cover of the August 1980 edition of the Edmonton Jazzette. That shirt is due for a comeback. Photo provided by the Yardbird Suite.

Generally speaking, the ol’ City of Champs hasn’t been known as an international hub of art and culture as say, Montreal, New York City or Los Angeles. Artists of all stripes – musicians, dancers, visual artists – tend to get their feet wet in Edmonton then head off for the greener pastures of large international centres of creativity. So to hear stories of popular artists choosing to do the opposite and actually move to Edmonton to pursue creative endeavours (in the 1970s no less!), well, that’s something worth exploring.

Jazz music has a long history in Edmonton; incredible venues like the Yardbird Suite are recognized as important institutions in the city and former events, like the Jazz City Festival are recognized for their historical role in promoting the genre in the city and province. This week is the 2018 Edmonton International Jazz Festival. Since 2006 this festival has brought some of the world’s finest jazz musicians and acts to Alberta and has promoted local musicians at an internationally recognized venue. This week’s blog post is about one of those unique Edmonton transplants, one that may not be as well-known as jazz contemporaries Tommy Banks and PJ Perry, but one who certainly deserves to be recognized in the same ranks – the great trombonist and Kansas City Blues singer Clarence Horatius “Big” Miller.

Trombonist and 6’3’’, 250 lb former football player, Miller grew up in Topeka, Kansas. Due to its proximity to Kansas City, he was likely highly influenced by the “Kansas City style” of jazz (simple arrangements, loose and relaxed rhythmic feelings) and by some of the cities’ most prolific artists including Count Basie, Charlie Parker and bandleader Jay McShann. Very early on in his career, Miller was known as a “blues shouter,” a singer whose voice needed no amplification to be heard, even over top of a big band or orchestra.

He also worked with Count Basie and Duke Ellington and began to appear at such storied clubs as New York’s Birdland and Chicago’s Cotton Club. In 1958, he was a featured vocalist with the Bob Brookmeyer band at the Newport Jazz Festival, which led to his vocals being recorded on tracks for Brookmeyer’s albums. In 1959, Miller signed a solo deal with Columbia Records, with whom he released two albums – Revelations and the Blues (1961) and Sings, Twists, Shouts and Preaches (1962).

Although Miller was a popular performer throughout the United States, his concerns with the racial tensions in his homeland during the 1960s led him to frequent and prolonged tours outside of the country. These international tours led him to perform in Toronto in 1962 and, in 1970, a Canadian tour which ran out of money left him stranded in Vancouver. In the Lower Mainland, he regularly sang in a pizza parlour and worked small shows in the area, eventually bringing him to Edmonton. He recalled in a 1983 interview with the Los Angeles Times “I worked Klondike Gay ‘90s-type dates in Edmonton. …It seemed like a friendly city… and I would end up settling.”

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Show poster for performances put on by the Edmonton Jazz Society, 1973. Photo provided by the Yardbird Suite.

In Edmonton, Miller threw himself into the local music scene. He performed at high schools, playing music that the kids wanted to hear and forming fast friendships with Edmontonians such as bandleader and jazz pianist Tommy Banks, with whom Miller recorded the 1979 Juno award winning album Jazz Canada Montreux 1978. Miller also joined the Edmonton Jazz Society and was a driving force behind the society’s establishment of the Edmonton Jazz City Festival, which was held yearly from 1980 into the mid-2000s.

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Tommy Banks won a Juno for this live recording at the famed Montreaux Jazz Festival.

Miller used his vast experience with jazz and the blues to strengthen the jazz scene and to influence Edmonton’s and Alberta’s performers. Banks recalled that Miller, “was able to tell us about fundamental things, which we were getting from him first-hand, which we never would have got at all without him.” Miller continued to tour internationally, but he remained an Edmontonian for the rest of his life, and became a Canadian citizen in 1973. For a time, he even taught music at Grant MacEwan College and the Banff Centre for Fine Arts.

One lesser-known aspect of Miller’s career after relocating to Edmonton was his foray into acting. Like other utterly strange moments in Alberta music history, his appearance in the 1982 sci-fi cult film Big Meat Eater is another unique example.

Producer David Banigan, who had helped make a documentary about Miller for the National Film Board of Canada, helped connect director Chris Windsor with Big. Because the original actor wasn’t prepared to leave his managerial job at a certain Canadian apothecary, Miller was offered, and eventually accepted, the role of the mysterious, swash-buckling Abdullah.

Miller’s various appearances through the film are, shall we say, strange. Yet, he was still able to show off his vocal and trombone chops, as is evidenced by this clip of one of the many musical numbers in the film:

Clarence “Big” Miller died of heart failure at the age of 69 on June 9, 1992. In 2001, the City of Edmonton gave the name Big Miller Park to the green space adjacent to the Yardbird Suite in Old Strathcona. In 2009, a statue of Miller was unveiled in the park. It is a larger-than-life statue, befitting a man who everyone seemed to describe as a great and generous person and a man who had such a huge influence on Alberta’s music scene.

Written By: Jared Majeski and Ronald Kelland

Sources:

“Big Miller” Canadian Encyclopedia, available from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/big-miller-emc/.

“Clarence ‘Big’ Miller” Black History Canada, Historica Canada available from http://www.blackhistorycanada.ca/arts.php?themeid=22&id=7.

Chadbourne, Eugene. “Big Miller: Artist Biography”, AllMusic, available from https://www.allmusic.com/artist/big-miller-mn0000069362/biography

Oliver, Myrna, “Clarence Miller; Singer with Jazz Groups,” [obituary] Los Angeles Times (11 June 1992), available from http://articles.latimes.com/1992-06-11/news/mn-86_1_jazz-singer.

Zdeb, Chris, “June 9, 1992: Longtime Jazz Great Big Miller Dies of Heart Failure,” Edmonton Journal, 9 June 2015, available from http://edmontonjournal.com/news/local-news/june-9-1992-longtime-jazz-great-big-miller-dies-of-heart-failure.

Windsor, Chris, “Exclusive: The making of Vancouver cult classic, Big Meat Eater,” The Georgia Straight (7 June 2018), available from https://www.straight.com/movies/1086836/exclusive-making-vancouver-cult-classic-big-meat-eater

“Big Meat Eater” Letterboxd, available from https://letterboxd.com/film/big-meat-eater/

“Kansas City style” available from https://www.britannica.com/art/Kansas-City-style

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