Three years ago, Marcus Miller got a phone call from one of the many music legends he’s worked with over the years, Bill Withers. “You’re gonna get a call from ASCAP,” the “Ain’t No Sunshine” singer told him. “Just say, ‘Yes.’ You’d be great for the job.”
Since then, Miller has served on ASCAP’s board of directors, helping the organization advocate on behalf of its 660,000 songwriter and composer members for reforms regarding the way royalties are tracked and distributed in the digital era. The renowned composer, producer and bassist also participates each year in the ASCAP “I Create Music” Expo, a three-day event featuring panels, workshops, keynotes and master classes with some of the organization’s most accomplished members.
This year’s expo, held May 7-9 at the Loews Hollywood Hotel in Los Angeles, featured appearances by such artists and songwriters as Peter Asher, Desmond Child, Meghan Trainor, Jermaine Dupri and St. Vincent’s Annie Clark. For his part, Miller moderated a panel focused on what he described as “probably the most important person on the stage” for any major concert tour or musical television performance: the music director. Joining him on the panel were three giants of the field: Kevin Teasley (Jennifer Lopez, Katharine McPhee), Paul Mirkovich (Cher, The Voice) and Greg Phillinganes (Michael Jackson, the Grammys).
“This is the person that the star is always looking back to,” Miller said as he introduced the panel. “You have no idea the stress of having Madonna or Christina Aguilera on the stage [with you] if something goes wrong. They don’t turn to the audience, they don’t turn to the bass player and they don’t turn to the drummer—they turn to the MD.”
Over the course of a lively discussion and audience Q&A, the four industry veterans shared stories and insights from their long careers and demanding day jobs. (When Miller asked Mirkovich how much sleep he’d gotten in the past two weeks, The Voice’s music director admitted that he averaged only four hours a night.) Some of the panel’s most entertaining moments came from Phillinganes, who regaled the audience with Michael Jackson stories and even imitated some of his late boss’ signature dance moves.
Each music director acknowledged that to recreate today’s synth-driven pop music, many elements have to say “in the box”—in other words, played back from ProTools or another digital platform. But they stressed that despite this, the live elements remain crucial to performance. “If you just play [everything] back, sometimes it sounds canned,” said Mirkovich. “You’ve got to manage what’s coming from the box, what I’m going to use from the record, and how the live musicians are going to breathe life into it.” To that end, on The Voice, “we learn every song like it’s Mozart, note for note,” Mirkovich said, as his fellow panelists nodded in agreement.
After the panel, Miller spoke with Downbeat about the importance of getting the next generation of jazz musicians to join ASCAP. “You put out a jazz record, it doesn’t go away in three months like some pop music,” he said. “Your songs have the potential to live forever. And that’s where ASCAP comes in. They are monitoring the world to see where your songs are played on the radio, where your songs are performed in public—and they’re collecting money for you.”
He also stressed the importance of conservatory-trained jazz musicians being versatile and open-minded enough to take on gigs playing pop music—which, he noted, can be harder than it looks. “I can’t tell you how many classical and jazz musicians have found themselves in this realm and just crashed and burned,” he said. “It’s a completely different talent. And if you don’t respect it, it’s clear to everybody right away.”
After the ASCAP expo, Miller planned to begin preparations for the release of his latest album, Laid Black, out June 1 on Blue Note. A sequel of sorts to his 2015 album Afrodeezia (Blue Note), it features a core group of Alex Hahn (saxophone), Brett Williams (keyboards) and Alex Bailey (drums), along with special guests Trombone Shorty, Belgian singer Selah Sue and South African guitarist Jonathan Butler. He’ll be touring in support of the release for the remainder of the year, as well as organizing his growing roster of jazz cruises, including the next Blue Note At Sea cruise, scheduled for January 2019. The participating artists, he said, enjoy the cruises as much as the fans.
“When do we get to spend a week with each other? There are so many collaborations that have come together just from the cruises.”