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Sammy Miller wants to make people really happy

By Dan Cava

April 21, 2016

Sidestepping the cliche of the tortured jazz artist, the Juilliard-trained Sammy Miller and his band, The Congregation, openly celebrate the welcoming aspects of jazz music. Their shows are marked by a level of spontaneity and virtuosity (as well as popularity) that many jazz musicians dream about. The secret to their success seems to lie in an intense focus on creating a memorable, one-time-only experience for the audience. Sammy Miller & The Congregation are bringing their brand of “joyful jazz” to the Queen City this week as the opening act of the Charlotte Jazz Festival.

We caught up with Sammy over the phone as they packed up for the world tour that includes their weekend stopover in Charlotte.

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Photo Credit: Joe Martinez

CLTure: Where are you right now?

Sammy Miller: I’m in New York City.

CLTure: Oh cool. For a gig? Or because you live there?

Sammy Miller: I live in New York, but we’re about to go on tour in about an hour! [laughs]

CLTure: I’ve had a blast listening to your EP, it is so fun and accomplished. How has it been touring the album?

Sammy Miller: We’re always in discovery mode. We play those songs, but now, we do such a variety of gigs all over the country that that’s just a small little bit of the variety we draw from. It’s actually harder and harder to get something on a CD that represents what we do as we evolve and change.

CLTure: Is some of that just the nature of jazz and the kind of music you are playing? It’s participatory, it’s organic. You’re not playing off sheet music.

Sammy Miller: Yeah! Nothing we play is written out. Everything is done by ear in a collaborative manner. We’re very affected by audiences, so one day an audience member will yell something and that will become a break in the music, and the arrangement has changed. It’s always in motion, and that’s one of the cool things about jazz.

CLTure: How do you hang on stuff you like? Do you write it down?

Sammy Miller: Never, never! [laughs] Paper and pen are not our friends. All of the musicians’ focus should be on the here and now, what is happening. As soon as you introduce sheet music into the environment, it’s one more way that musicians can’t be present.

CLTure: You went to Juilliard. You and members of your band have had some measure of success separately, so what made you band together instead of going solo?

Sammy Miller: I’ve been always been a little disappointed in the lack of bands anymore, like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Organizations where you could come up and learn.

For me, it’s always been about bands. The history of jazz, it’s like baseball. You fall in love with, not just the players, but the camaraderie among the players, and the story of how they interact. Take non jazz-music. The Beatles and The Rollings Stones, they don’t get to where they are be changing players every two weeks. To get to any depth, like Malcolm Gladwell says, you need to put in a lot of hours as a collective.

If you have seven people who all believe in the same thing, you can do a lot together.

CLTure: How did you find these people, these seven in your band?

Sammy Miller: It’s all been over time. We all live in New York, but we have people from all over the country. But all chose to come to New York City; it’s like the mecca of our kind of music. There’s not that many people in the world [like this]; I’ve been very lucky to find these people with a similar outlook.

CLTure: Kind of like a snowball, are you kind of collecting more band members as time goes by?

Sammy Miller: Yeah! It was five, and then it was seven. It’s not about the number, but more so about finding people who understanding the seriousness and the privilege that it is to play music.

CLTure: Especially for money.

Sammy Miller: Yeah! People work hard all week, and if they are going to pay money to hear music it should be a meaningful experience. We never degrade that.

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Photo Credit: Chris Randall

CLTure: As I listen to your music, it is participatory by design. You create a sense of “crowd” even on the EP. Talk about the “joyful” part of your jazz.

Sammy Miller: That’s always been my tendency, no matter what type of music. I’ve been playing since I was five, I played in a band with my siblings. I was always a communal experience. As an artist, I’m trying to foster an environment where people feel included. Always thinking about the audience, and trying to create something that’s selfless.

CLTure: That’s interesting, because you definitely have certain kinds of jazz where the audience goes to just sort of behold what’s happening on stage, but no one is really meant to dance along with it. What you guys are doing is creating a whole room full of music.

Sammy Miller: It’s in part inspired by going to some of those shows with incredible artists. I just never thought you should be creating art just for yourself. If you want to, that’s okay, I just don’t think you should be asking people to pay money. Everything is service. Art is a service. You’re doing something that has the power to uplift people.

Go listen to Louis Armstrong, go to listen to Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club. It is a wild, participatory experience! With the band members, and the dancers, and the singers, and the people. You can feel that everyone is coming together.

CLTure: How does that tie into your idea of “globally conscious music”? What does that phrase mean?

Sammy Miller: For me, it means understanding your art in context. We don’t create it in a vacuum. We are creating something in 2016. All the music and what is happening informs what we do. Especially in jazz music it’s important to be conscious of what our impact can be in a larger context.

There’s a lot of terror in the world right now. There’s a lot of pain. Things are so unfortunate, and we’re so aware of it. We see it everywhere. I think it requires an artist who is trying to uplift to be every extreme in the other direction to try to combat that. We have a responsibility, once you are aware, not to be somewhere in the middle but really be out here trying to do good.

CLTure: So, it’s like you’re looking at the sum total of all the bad stuff on earth and deciding that you are going to be a part of the sum total of the good stuff.

Sammy Miller: Yeah. There’s this idea that millennials are jaded. There’s too much irony in art right now. Earnestness. David Foster Wallace writes about this. Earnestness is where we’re headed next. It only makes sense.

Sammy Miller & The Congregation and special guest Wynton Marsalis will perform to a sold-out crowd at the Mint Museum Uptown this Thursday at 7:30pm, and making other appearances at the Charlotte Jazz Festival throughout the weekend.

This interview has been edited and condensed from its original version.

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