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Sammy Miller And The Congregation 'Putting The Generosity Back Into Jazz'

The Sammy Miller Congregation
Bryon Gaynor
Sammy Miller and The Congregation perform at the GLT Summer Concert on June 9.

Sammy Miller said he began formulating the idea that jazz needs to return to its dance and entertainment roots while studying at the renowned Juilliard School in New York.

The leader of the band that sports his name appears at the GLT Summer Concert on June 9. A quick peek at the homepage of Sammy Miller and The Congregation reveals the band’s stated mission: to put the generosity back into jazz and bring art back to the people.


“I’ve always thought of jazz as a very accessible music,” said Miller of the genre that’s been under siege for decades. “It’s been about bringing in outsiders from its inception. We lost some of that in the 60s and 70s and certainly by now, young people have a negative connotation of the word.”

Miller is the group's drummer. He said the idea to reimagine jazz as not just for old people came during his studies at Juilliard. Miller was surprised by the lack of intimacy between jazz musicians, listeners, and fans in the jazz capital of the world, as well as the “take for granted” attitude many musicians had for their audience. It was almost as if musicians were pushing away a potential audience.

“Rather than complain about it, I thought I should create a band that does the things I’m not seeing,” said Miller, who believed a more theatrical approach to the music would energize an audience and attract a younger demographic. It’s actually a return to the birth of jazz roughly a century ago, when theater, dance and other artistic elements were often part of any “jazz” show.

“It’s not about innovatin. It’s about understanding all these gifts from the past,” said Miller. “The more I study the history of this music and certainly America, you understand how much these different arts grew up together.”

Those arts eventually took different paths for different reasons. Miller thinks that hurt the music.

“I think jazz lost the notion that it’s (a) dance music, and (b) that its entertainment. Entertainment doesn’t mean it’s not high art. And that’s something that I feel a lot of musicians forget,” said Miller.

The wall between audience and jazz performer has been much discussed in jazz circles for at least a couple decades. It seems a new "jazz is dead" article appears online annually. As far back as the 1960s, many critics were even saying "free jazz" was alienating listeners.

“There’s this idea that if the audience doesn’t like it it’s because they're the ones in the wrong ... right?” said Miller. “That doesn’t make any sense to me. If people aren’t eating at a restaurant, maybe the food’s not good. In any other business there’s a notion that the market is dictated by what people want. This music is so rich and has such depth to it … it’s such an easy sell actually.”

Sammy Miller and The Congregation, along with Dan Hubbard and Shemekia Copeland, plays the GLT Summer Concert on June 9 in downtown Bloomington. Gates open at 3:30 p.m. The music starts at 5 p.m.

Listen to the entire GLT interview with Sammy Miller of the Sammy Miller Congregation.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.