We learned over the weekend that pianist Bill Miller had died.

(Soundbite of piano music)

ADAMS: For more than 40 years, Miller played piano for Frank Sinatra. Miller's clean and classy piano style, along with his ability to tailor his playing to Sinatra's vocals, made him the singer's closest musical advisor.

(Soundbite of song, One For My Baby)

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) It's quarter to three. There's no one in the place, except you and me...

ADAMS: Miller died in Montreal of a heart attack after suffering a fall. He was 91.

(Soundbite of song, One For My Baby)

Mr. SINATRA: (Singing) So set 'em up Joe. I got a little story...

ADAMS: We asked musician and DAY TO DAY contributor David Was to write about Bill Miller and about the difficult art of being an accompanist. Here is David.

(Soundbite of song, One For My Baby)

DAVID WAS reporting:

When a great accompanist like pianist Bill Miller passes from our midst, it's only fitting that people should scratch their heads and ask, Bill who? A good accompanist should be heard and not seen, act the role of the puppeteer, gently guiding the movement of the singer and the song without obtruding or calling attention to oneself. And Bill Miller was one of the best, a musical midwife of sorts.

(Soundbite of a Schubert Lied)

WAS: The same circumstances rule the classical world as well. When you hear a recital of Schubert's Lieder, you go home talking about the soprano, and not the guy on the piano bench.

(Soundbite of a Schubert Lied)

WAS: A great accompanist has the skills of a good psychotherapist, following the lead of one's patient and letting them stumble on their own epiphanies. The trait the two have in common is the ability to listen, to appreciate the value of silence and space, and let the other person in the room lead the way.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: In the jazz world, the best accompanists can also be fine soloists in their own right, as evidenced by the career of Herbie Hancock, whose role in Miles Davis' quintet in the mid-60s was one of almost telepathic support as he and his band-mates shifted from background to spotlight per the music's demands.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: But in recent recording of duets with contemporary singers, Christina Aguilera so studiously ignored what Hancock was playing that she might as well have been accompanist by a player piano.

(Soundbite of song, A Song For You)

Ms. CHRISTINA AGUILERA (Singer): (Singing) I've been so many places in my life and time. I've sung a lot of songs...

WAS: Better examples of the symbiosis possible between two artists are the recordings of Ella Fitzgerald with Tommy Flanagan, or Billie Holliday and pianist Teddy Wilson.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Singer): (Singing) I can't give you anything but love, baby...

WAS: And perhaps best of all is when the singer is also the accompanist, as was the case with double threats like Shirley Horne and Nat Cole, whose phrasing was so supple and elastic it defied comparison.

(Soundbite of song, (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons)

Mr. NAT KING COLE (Singer): (Singing) I think of you every morning, dream of you every night ...

WAS: But Bill Miller had the toughest seat in the house. Pleasing a taskmaster like Old Blue Eyes night after night for 45 years should've earned him a Nobel Peace Prize. When Frank died, Miller played One For My Baby and One More For The Road at his funeral. Now that Bill's gone, set 'em up again, Joe.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: Bill Miller's piano with Frank Sinatra. Musician and writer David Was is half of the musical due Was (Not Was). DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from I'm Noah Adams.


And I'm Alex Chadwick.

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