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Marcus Miller Performs Live in NPR's Studio 4A

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan live in Studio 4A in Washington.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: When you talk about the bass guitar, some people would say you feel it more than hear it, and if you listen to much music over the last three decades, you've certainly felt Marcus Miller's bass. Miller first made a name for himself as a New York session musician while he was still in college, and at the tender age of 21, Miller was summoned by the great Miles Davis to join his band. He later wrote and produced three of Davis'final albums. Over the years, he's played on more than 400 records with artists the include Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, McCoy Tyner, Paul Simon, Robertta Flack and David Sanborn, but he might be best known as the bassist, co-writer and producer for Luther Vandross.

That decades-long collaboration turned out any number of hits and earned Miller his first Grammy for R&B Song of the Year. He's also scored films, played in the House Band on "Saturday Night Live," and well, I'm sure you've heard his work on TV commercials, too. He's currently on tour to promote his latest CD entitled "Marcus," and Marcus Miller and his band have made a stop at Studio 4A today. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MARCUS MILLER (Bass Guitarist): How are you doing, Neal?

CONAN: Good. Now, if you have questions for Marcus Miller about his long career, his many collaborations, about music and the music business, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email, and you can join the conversation on our blog at We'll introduce the members of the band in just a minute, but why don't we start with a tune.

Mr. MILLER: All right, here you go.

(Soundbite of band music)

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: And that was "Blast." Marcus Miller on bass joined by Patches Stewart on trumpet, Keith Anderson on sax, Poogie Bell on drums, Gregoire Maret on harmonica, Bobby Sparks on key and Jean Baylor on vocals. They're all with us here in Studio 4A. Marcus Miller, I know your dad was a musician, but I've read that what got you serious about music was the first time your heard the Jackson Five.

Mr. MILLER: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

CONAN: How come?

Mr. MILLER: Well, you know, my dad. I come from a very musical family, but music was around all the time so I never really took it seriously. I took it for granted, I guess. But when I saw those five guys who, all my age, on the stage, making that wonderful music, man, doing that thing, I said, oh, wait. I know music, I can do that, you know. Started growing my afro.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And getting your dance moves down?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, getting my dance moves down, and I got myself a bass guitar. One of the brothers, Jermaine, played the bass guitar.

CONAN: And that's when you took up the bass?

Mr. MILLER: That's when I got serious. I was fooling around with it a little bit, but I saw Jermaine, I heard all those girls screaming over him, I said, you know, this is what I need to be doing.

CONAN: This is the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: This is the truth, the light and the way. At the time, though, you were studying clarinet, recorder.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah. I started clarinet when I was ten, in public school...

CONAN: Mm hm.

Mr. MILLER: And they offered clarinet, trumpet and drums, and my father wasn't going to have any drums going on...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: In our apartment and the trumpet - between the trumpet and the clarinet, I figured the clarinet was something I could eventually move to saxophone, so...

CONAN: Mm hm.

Mr. MILLER: And I played clarinet all the way through school, all the way through college, and I played bass a few years - I started bass a few years later, and found my voice. I think I really found my voice on the bass guitar.

CONAN: Mm. I think your father was right. My son is a drummer and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The lesson we learned is the band always rehearses...

Mr. MILLER: Yes, at your house.

CONAN: At the drummer's house. Yeah, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: Exactly.

CONAN: And you know, those first years, it's not so great to listen to. Anyway, let's see...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers on the line. 800-989-8255. Email is We'll start with Antonio, Antonio calling us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

ANTONIO (Caller): Hi, Marcus. Hi, hi, guys. I love the show, man. Marcus, my question is - I'm actually a percussionist with a jazz - kind of a jazz/funk (unintelligible) audio form, and our bass player is like, totally, totally influenced by you. And not just your jazz but all the other ventures that you've gone out to. And as for myself, I'm also influenced by you a lot, especially - one of the albums that influenced me was when you sat in with Al Jarreau, on this album, the live one - I can't really think of it now.

Mr. MILLER: "Tenderness." It was called "Tenderness."

ANTONIO: I think that - gosh, what's the name of it - that you play with Paulina DeCosta. And I'm always impressed with how percussive you are with the bass. And my question is, and I can take it offline if that's possible, is that how do you feel your bass playing - how do you feel about playing with percussionists and how have they influenced you?

Mr. MILLER: Well, the first percussionist that I worked with seriously, he was a drummer. His name is Lenny White. And Lenny White had just finished with Chick Corea, which is Chick Corea's "Return to Forever." And they were one of the most popular fusion bands. They were really influential.

And I joined Lenny White's band soon after he left Chick Corea. And my whole aim was to be able to play all of his licks that he played on the drums on my bass. And it really influenced me. It helped me to develop this kind of percussive - intricate, percussive style. So Lenny White really had a big influence on me.

ANTONIO: I really appreciate it. You've definitely had - you may not know it, but you have a big influence on a lot of people. Young cats. We're still out here trying to keep it alive and we do appreciate you a lot.

Mr. MILLER: Thank you, man.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Antonio.

ANTONIO: Thank you.

CONAN: Not only an influence on their music, an influence on their instruments. I understand there's a Fender Signature Model of the Marcus Miller Bass.

Mr. MILLER: Well, you know, there's a lot of basses available now. But when I was a kid, there were only two or three models that you could choose from and one was a Fender. And I had to have a Fender, because again, that's what Jermaine Jackson played...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: So I had to have a Fender, and I got one and over the years - I mean, it's still the same one I play now, and over the years I modified it, added a little bit of this and changed that. And about five or six, maybe, ooh, seven or eight years ago, Fender approached me and said, we want to take the Fender Jazz Bass and modify it the same way you modified it and make it the Marcus Miller model. And I think it's their biggest selling artist's model that they have, so it's really an honor.

CONAN: That's quite an honor, yeah.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, really an honor.

CONAN: You also play a fretless bass, I see, next to you.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, I have a fretless bass. I was influenced very much by a bassist whose name was Jaco Pastorius who played a fretless bass. And for those of you who don't know, the frets are the vertical lines on the neck that help you keep yourself in tune. And with a fretless bass, the tuning's up to you, more like a violin or a cello. And so it enables you to be a little bit more expressive with your vibrato and your intonation.

CONAN: We're talking with Marcus Miller and listening to him and his band. More music is coming up, and of course, if you have questions, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us, There's also a conversation underway on our blog at Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Bassist Marcus Miller and his band are here in Studio 4A. For nearly three decades, the bass guitarist has collaborated with some of the giants of pop and jazz, including Miles Davis and Luther Vandross.

If you have questions for Marcus Miller about his long career, his many collaborations, about music and the music business, 800-989-8255. Email is and you can join the conversation on our blog at And why don't we hear another song?

Mr. MILLER: OK. Here you go. This is a song that I played in Miles' band when I first joined. It's a song Miles wrote, very simple melody, very interesting how much you can find in this simple melody. It's called "Jean Pierre."

(Soundbite of band playing "Jean Pierre")

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Miles Davis tune, "Jean Pierre." That's Marcus Miller on bass. The tune also featured Patches Stewart on trumpet. And it must be a little scary to do a trumpet solo on a Miles Davis tune? Nevertheless, anyway, let's get another caller on the line, and let's see if we can go to - this is Chuck, Chuck calling us from Buffalo, New York.

CHUCK (Caller): Hey. Good afternoon, guys. How are you guys doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

CHUCK: Good. Marcus, first off, can't wait to see you in a couple of days up here.

Mr. MILLER: That's right. We're coming out to Buffalo.

CHUCK: Yes, back to the Tralf. So a lot of people up here excited about it and can't wait to see you. I've got two questions. One, looking back at it now, what was - what did you actually think about playing with Miles Davis? I mean, it's - the enormity of it must have been a little overwhelming.

Mr. MILLER: Well, the great thing about playing with Miles Davis, for me, was that I was 21 when I did it. So there wasn't a lot of thinking going on, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHUCK: Right.

Mr. MILLER: You know, it was - the way it even happened, I was on a session. I don't remember what session it was. It was for some vocal group, and it was kind of what I had been doing for the last few years, and someone handed me a note and it said, call Miles. And you know, Miles had been in retirement for seven years up to that point. So I didn't believe that it was actually Miles, but I didn't take a chance and I called the number, and it was, indeed, Miles Davis. And he said, can you be at Columbia Studios in two hours? So there was no thinking, Chuck. It was, get to Columbia Studios!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: And the next thing I knew, I'm staring at Miles Davis and we're recording and it's the best way it could've happened for me, because I didn't have a chance to go home and decide what bass I was going to play or what clothes I was going to wear or what, you know - I just went and reacted and I played from my heart and everything worked out.

CONAN: Did you hold on to that - did you ever hold onto that note?

Mr. MILLER: Oh, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: I wish I had, because I'd frame it. But no, I threw the note out like an idiot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHUCK: Yeah, because "Tutu" is obviously one of the greatest albums ever. One more thing, and I'll let you guys go. Marcus, where do you get those hats?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHUCK: They - you've got probably one of the best hats in all of music.

Mr. MILLER: Thank you.

CHUCK: So I just - where do you get those porkpie hats?

Mr. MILLER: Well, I'm not wearing it right now, so the people here in the studio audience are going, that's not a nice hat...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Porkpie hats don't do well with headphones.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, but the headphone and the porkpie hat thing is not really cool. But there's a couple of shops in New York and you can go online and find them. And I'm going to, actually, start selling porkpie hats because I get that question all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Signature model, maybe.

Mr. MILLER: Yes. There's a guy in Japan, man, I won't tell you how much he paid for my porkpie hat. It's unbelievable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHUCK: Well, have a safe trip up here to Buffalo. You guys have a good one.

Mr. MILLER: OK. See you soon.


CONAN: Thanks for the call, Chuck. Here's an email from Don in Virginia. "I saw you perform with Miles at The Mosque in Richmond in the mid-'80s. He went through several bass players in the last years and you and Darryl "The Munch" Jones were my favorites. How did you carve out your sound with Miles? And how did he guide you? P.S., my band used to do a version of 'Jean Pierre.'"

Mr. MILLER: You know, Miles was a very interesting leader because he never said anything to you...

CONAN: Really?

Mr. MILLER: About - especially about how to play. He talked about food and clothes and women and cars, all the time. But in terms of music, he would start something, you know, sometimes he would sit at the piano at rehearsal and he'd just lay something out and the band would fall in and we'd play. And either he'd nod at you or shake his head. And that was - and you just dug down to your toes to find something good. Because with Miles Davis, you know, it's Miles and you want to give him your best. So I found myself finding things that I would never, ever have found if it wasn't for him standing in front of me. So, he really made you find it on your own. And I think that was one of the geniuses of Miles, was that he made you find it on your own.

CONAN: And how did the transformation happen, from being a player in Miles' band to being a major contributor as his producer, his writer?

Mr. MILLER: I was in his band for a couple of years as his bassist. And after a couple of years I said, Miles, I want to leave. I want to leave your group because I want to go in the studio and develop my range and my composition and my production skills. I really feel like that's the future for me. And, you know, you can imagine how nervous I was to tell him that I was leaving, but he was really, really supportive. Man, he said, man, you are one of the best bassists I've ever had. You have my full support. If you ever need anything, let me know.

A couple of years later - so I did go, and I got into producing and I got into writing. I was working with different people. And a couple of years later, I called Miles and said, I have some songs, would you be interested? I actually called Miles' producer at the time. He said, yeah, bring your songs. And that song was "Tutu", and that kind of started my second relationship with Miles, this time as a composer and a producer.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is James, James with us from Birmingham, Alabama.

JAMES (Caller): Yes, Marcus. I want to know what are some finger exercises you can do to increase your speed and fretboard familiarization, like when you solo, and - I'm talking like more or less "Teen Town"?

Mr. MILLER: Right.

JAMES: Trying to play something like that.

Mr. MILLER: Oh, you want to know how to play the complicated stuff.


Mr. MILLER: Well, to get your fretboard memorization, that's just playing all the time. You know, playing all the time, and stop looking at your neck while you play. You know, if you can close your eyes and really visualize where you are, that'll really help. In terms of your finger speed, I would suggest that you buy an acoustic bass and practice on that thing. Because after you get some speed going on that beast, you pick up an electric bass and you have a lot more - it's like swinging two baseball bats, you know? And then you throw one down and you have a lot more strength. So you might want to try that.


CONAN: Thanks for the call.

JAMES: OK, thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye.


CONAN: And here's an email, this from Rob. Has Marcus ever had the opportunity to meet Jermaine Jackson and tell him of his influence?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: Actually, I absolutely have. I met him about four years ago, finally. It was at a club, you know, and you know, I'm pretty cool, man, I've met everybody, man, and I don't flip out, but it was all I could do to be cool with Jermaine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: So I say, hey, man, how you doing, man? He says, I'm doing OK. I say, hey, you all right? Man, you're the reason I play bass, man! I love you, man!

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Mr. Cool.

Mr. MILLER: I love you man! It was beautiful, man. He was really surprised. He said, you play bass because of me? And I say, absolutely, man. So, there you go.

CONAN: We're talking with Marcus Miller. The rest of his band, Patches Stewart on trumpet, Keith Anderson on sax, Poogie Bell on drums, Gregoire Maret on harmonica, Bobby Sparks on key and Jean Baylor on vocals. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

How about another song?

Mr. MILLER: OK. We're going to feature Jean Baylor on this one. It's on the album "Marcus." And on the album, the vocalist Corinne Bailey Rae. But we had Jean here to do her thing. It's an old Denise Williams song from the '70s. It's called "Free".

(Soundbite of band playing)

Ms. JEAN BAYLOR (Vocalist): (singing)

Whispering in his ear my magic potion for love telling him I'm sincere and that there's nothing too good for us and I just got to be free

Whispering in his ear my magic potion for love telling him I'm sincere and that there's nothing too good for us but I want to be free free free and I just to be me me me Teasing hands on his mind gives life such mystery happiness all the time oh and how that just pleases me but I want to be free free free and I just got to be me me

Feeling you close to me makes all my senses smile lets not waste esctasy because I only be here for a while I got to be free free free and I just got to be me me me Free Free and I just wannna I just wanna be me FREE!!

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Marcus Miller and his band. Stay with us, more coming up. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation coming to you from NPR News.

Right now we're celebrating Jazz Appreciation Month here in Studio 4A with bass guitarist Marcus Miller and his band. We have an email from Leslie in Sebastopol, California, who writes, "When you input 'Pork pie hat' into Wikipedia, Marcus Miller's picture comes up."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: Wow. Wow. That's even cooler than the bass, man.

CONAN: Yeah, I think so. Are we going to hear another tune?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, I'd like to play a song and feature my alter ego, which is the bass clarinet. I told you I was a clarinetist, originally.

CONAN: You were playing air-piano during the break, so...

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, I play everything. I'm an expert at air instruments. But I eventually settled in about 10 years ago on the bass clarinet. And I really loved the sound I want to play. I'm not going to tell you what it is, you have to recognize it, OK?

(Soundbite of bass clarinet solo)

(Soundbite of applause)

NEAL CONAN: "When I Fall In Love." Marcus Miller on bass clarinet and also Gregoire Maret on harmonica. Is that a chromatic harmonica?

Mr. GREGOIRE MARET (Harmonica Player): Yeah. Yes.

CONAN: OK. And well, all the other musicians here in studio 4A. And before you leap to the next instrument, we have an email from Laurine in Portland, Oregon. "Could Marcus Miller give us a little example of the difference in sound from a fretless bass and a regular bass?"

Mr. MILLER: All right. That's easy, man. Hold on. So the fretless bass has frets. You're supposed to laugh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We just were being polite.

Mr. MILLER: That's obvious. You're being polite. Don't be polite. OK? And so, here's a sound of the fretted bass.

(Soundbite of bass guitar)

You can hear a little bit of metal sound because the frets are metal and the strings vibrate against the metal and it contributes to the sound. So give me three seconds, and I'll play it fretless. Here's a fretless.

(Soundbite of bass guitar strumming)

It's more wooden sounding and I can play with more vibrato because the frets don't lock me into one note. So I can go...

(Soundbite of bass guitar strum)

Mr. MILLER: I don't do that because I don't like that sound.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: It sounds like a bad trombone. But you can do it. And you can do it more subtly.

(Soundbite of bass guitar strumming)

Mr. MILLER: There you go.

CONAN: Thank you. When you started out, I mean, electric bass - I guess you didn't know it, but electric bass was just coming into its own as an instrument.

Mr. MILLER: Absolutely. When I started electric bass, it was only maybe 15 years old. And you're right. I didn't know that, you know, when you're young you just see what's around you. And what was around me was bass guitar everywhere. But it was a really new instrument. And when I began to play bass guitar, it was a really exciting time for that instrument because we had guys like James Jamerson who played for Motown.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. MILLER: We had Larry Graham, who played for Sly & the Family Stone, and Stanley Clark and Jaco Pastorius and Bootsey and Sting played the bass. It was a really exciting time for the bass guitar. And it grew by leaps and bounds.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in. Paul's with us. Paul calling from Newborn, which I think is North Carolina. Right?

PAUL (Caller): That's right.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

PAUL: How do you keep your musical ideas fresh? You sit down and write a song and it's beautiful. And then you realize it's something you've played, heard, or wrote 20 or 25 years ago.

Mr. MILLER: Man, that's the challenge. And thanks for reminding me about how difficult that is. But you know, what you do is you just try to live your life as fully as you can because when you first start out as a musician, you learn your chords and your scales and your beats and all that. You learn the tools. And you're really consumed by those tools for a while. But to continue as a musician, eventually you have to live life. And you have to try to express that life that you live through your music. And so as long as, you know, I'm experiencing different things and feeling different emotions, there's always new music to play.

CONAN: Hmm. I've read that you've called it "level one," "level two," "level three." Explain a little what you mean.

Mr. MILLER: Level one is, like I said, the scales and the notes and all the tools of music. Level two is when you're an expert playing all those scales. You play very fast and people are very impressed by your technique. Level three is when you play as if you never studied a note. But you can express yourself as simply as when you're talking. Miles Davis was level three. Stevie Wonder's level three. There's a lot of trumpet players who, when you hear them play, the only thing that you think is, wow, you must practice a lot. You know? Which is fine, but when you hear Miles, you go wow, wow. I had a girlfriend like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: That's level three.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Paul.

PAUL: Thank you.

CONAN: And we're talking with Marcus Miller. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's go to another email. This from "First Time Hearing You."

"The song you just played, the first time I heard you, and I enjoyed it a lot. As a fan of all sorts of music, my heart is in metal. I've been listening to jazz for several years now. I hear jazz influence in so many of the newer metal bands out there today. Have you ever listened to metal? What do you think of jazz's influence on metal?

Mr. MILLER: Man, you need to email me personally and school me, man, because I'm not really up on the metal scene, man. And if there's jazz influence, I want to know because I want to see what I can pull from that. I think that would be really interesting.

CONAN: That's from Tyler in Wichita, Kansas. We'll give you his email in case you want to get in touch with him. How about one more tune?

Mr. MILLER: Sure. OK. I'm going to go back to the '70s again, if you don't mind.

CONAN: I don't mind.

Mr. MILLER: OK. There was a group called Tower Power.

CONAN: Oh, yeah.

Mr. MILLER: And they were a really cool group. They were known for their horns because they had a big horn section that was really tight. And their arrangements were incredible. But I loved the bass player whose name was Rocco. And I decided on this last album that I wanted to do a Tower Power song. So we're going to do this song. It's called "What is Hip." Ready bass setting. There.

(Soundbite of band playing "What is Hip")

CONAN: Marcus Miller on bass and bass clarinet, Patches Stewart on trumpet, Keith Anderson on sax, Poogie Bell on drums, Gregoire Maret on harmonica, Bobby Sparks on keys and Jean Baylor on vocals with us here in studio 4A. The name of the CD is "Marcus." It's in stores now. Our thanks to technical director Chris Nelson(ph). He got help today from Daniel Shukin(ph) and from Kevin Weight(ph). And if you'd like to hear tunes from the CD or revisit today's performance, you can visit Ira's here tomorrow with science Friday. I'm Neal Conan. This is NPR news.

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