The prolific bassist/bandleader/producer talks about his role as musical director on the various jazz cruises Marcus Miller has been a first-call bassist since the late 70s, when his distinctive jangly rhythmic sound seemed to be on every jazz and funk cut of note—from “Just the Two of Us” with Grover Washington, Jr. and Bill Withers to “Power of Love” with Luther Vandross. A member of Miles Davis’ comeback band in 1981, Miller developed a close personal and professional relationship with the trumpeter, and produced some of his most successful albums, including Tutu and Amandla. He has produced many other artists, ranging from Wayne Shorter to David Sanborn. For the last 20+ years, Miller has been a prolific bandleader and touring artist, and has released nearly a dozen albums under his own name, including his Afrodeezia and, most recently Laid Black on Blue Note. He’s also scored numerous films and TV specials. In addition to his work as a producer and bandleader, Miller has served as musical director and host for the various jazz cruises produced by Entertainment Cruise Productions. He talked with Lee Mergner in 2017 about his role with those cruises and what he enjoys most about the experience.
Lee Mergner: How did you first start working with Entertainment Cruise Productions and the various jazz cruises?
Marcus Miller: Michael Lazaroff had already been doing smooth jazz cruises and by the time I met him he was doing one with Dave Koz and one with Wayman Tisdale. Wayman is my son’s godfather, we were very close. Michael told Wayman that he would like to see if he could make an attempt to get into the European market. And he said, “Which musician do you think I could go to who could help me make my first steps into that market?” And Wayman suggested me. So that’s how I met Michael. He came and asked me if I’d be interested in cruises, and all I could think of was The Love Boat! So I was like, “I don’t know, man. I don’t think so.” But he said, “Do me a favor, come on one of the cruises with me, just as a guest so you can see what it is.” And it was a smooth jazz cruise, but the people, the audience, they were so into it. It blew my mind how into it they were. And very nice.
Michael said, “Look, I would like to do a cruise with you in Europe.” And I said, “Look, I’m not really that in tune with the smooth jazz scene. I know sometimes people connect me with it, but I don’t really know the whole ins and outs of it.” He said, “No. I want you to get the musicians that you want.” I said, “Really?” and he said, “Yeah.” It was called the North Sea Jazz Cruise. Michael said, “Call who you want.” So I had Herbie, McCoy, John Scofield, Roy Hargrove, even my man Frank Morgan was on the ship. This is like 2007. North Sea was a great musical cruise—Europeans were like, “Why would I ever want a cruise from Copenhagen to Rotterdam?” For them it’s like going from Jersey to North Carolina or something like that. And what we did with the ship was that we ended in Rotterdam and the people on the ship got a free pass into the North Sea Jazz Festival, which was cool. And I think if we had stayed with it, it probably would have developed into something cool. But Michael was like, “Uh, I don’t know. That’s a big investment.” So we rested on that and we tried the Playboy Jazz Cruise a couple of years later. And it had the same type of musicians, the same caliber of musicians, and it was great. But a lot of people who don’t live in California don’t really know the connection between Playboy and jazz, you know what I mean? A lot of people would think, “Oh, man, are there gonna be bunnies on the ship?” People in L.A., because of the jazz festival that they have here, and of course the people who know the history of jazz know that Playboy has had a beautiful, respectful relationship with jazz for years. But not everybody knew that. So we were still trying to figure out exactly the angle that I was going to work with Michael. And then unfortunately, tragically, Wayman passed due to cancer. And so Michael said, “Look, man. Can you do me a favor? I know you’re not exactly a smooth jazz-er, but I would love it if you would host these cruises. You know, just to fill in for Wayman.” So that’s how I got in on the smooth jazz cruise. And, like I was saying before, the people who come to that music and to those cruises, they love the music so much and it’s so cool. And for me, it’s like hanging out with my aunts and uncles. And I had such a good time.
Then I just took it upon myself to maybe try to hip ‘em to some other music that they might not have heard if they were listening only to playlists that were constructed by Broadcast Architecture. I’d be like, “Hey, you might want to check out this cat.” We had people like Keb Mo and Raúl Midón. Because they love music, so they’re going to love what they’re exposed to. I took it upon myself to do that. And we did that for a few years and had some really, really good success, with people really, really into it. And then Michael said, “I’d like to expand.” Because he felt like there was a whole segment of jazz that’s not represented in this cruise thing. We had the straight-ahead cruise—which I became a part of also—which kind of addressed really traditional jazz. And we had the smooth jazz, which represented that segment. But the meat of the jazz, the jazz that you would hear at most of the European festivals, or even a lot of the festivals here in the U.S., wasn’t being addressed. That’s the genesis of the Blue Note at Sea cruise.
With the first cruise we had Gregory Porter, Dianne Reeves, Lalah Hathaway, Robert Glasper—great musicians. And now the trick is just to let people know that this thing exists and what the difference is between smooth jazz and contemporary jazz, because these labels will just kill you. You can’t avoid them because we’re human beings and we need labels to just kind of grab ahold of things, but they can get in the way, especially when you’re trying to describe stuff. The people who were on the Blue Note cruise get it now, and they really enjoyed themselves last year. We’re just trying to continue.
I think any music fan can figure out the difference between the cruises just by looking at the lineup.
Right, that’s what Michael does. You say, “What’s the difference between the Smooth Jazz Cruise and the Blue Note at Sea contemporary jazz cruise?” And he says, “Well, here are the artists who play on this one, here are the artists who play on that one.” That way you can describe it to yourself—you know the music, however it works for you.
How would you describe the difference between the audiences for the different jazz cruises?
Smooth Jazz [Cruise] is more of a party. The thing that will get a smooth jazz audience going is if it’ll feel more like a pop concert. What happens is people are just there to party, they are having a good time. And we have parties on the deck and in the pool, and people are just having a good time. It’s not straight R&B because it’s primarily instrumental and people appreciate the musicianship. But that’s where it’s at.
The Jazz Cruise audience is there to listen. They’re very much more subdued, not in terms of how much they’re enjoying it but because they’re concentrating. They really appreciate the musicianship on a level where it would get in the way if they were more vocal. And then Blue Note at Sea is kind of right down there in the middle. There’s a huge respect for the musicianship and people still want to have a good time. So we have them all covered, now I think we just have to let people know. Or let people decide, rather, what flavor is right for them.
I love the hang on the Jazz Cruise.
The thing that makes the cruises so cool is that you get to hang with the musicians, you get to talk with them, you get to interact with them. We had George Benson, right? And we said, “Look, George, we’d like you to perform on this cruise.” And he said, “Man, I’m not a big fan of boats.” And Michael said, “Why don’t you come on while we’re docked”—and I forget which island we were on—“You can come on, do your thing, and we’ll stay docked, and then when you’re finished with your band you can jump off. We promise we won’t move.” And so that’s what we did. But when we were finished, when George was finished and everyone was going on to the next party, George looked around and was like, “Man, I feel like I’m missing out!” So a couple of years later, we had George and George said, “Uh, by the way, this time I’m staying.” And we had a great time. So some of it—in addition to getting the audience in tune to what’s going on—getting these artists in tune is also part of what we’ve got to do.
Michael told us the story of Pat Metheny saying next time he does it that he’ll be on for the whole cruise.
Yeah, and Herbie came on and he said, “Oh, damn, when is the next one? My wife wants to know when the next cruise is!” Because everybody is having a good time and lots of times the musicians don’t know how to relax. If you’re a musician and you sit around for too long, you start itching. But this is perfect; you can continue to be a musician but you can be in a situation that’s more relaxed and be in a nice atmosphere as well.
It is true because as a musician it’s not like you get paid vacation.
No, you don’t get paid vacation. But like any entrepreneur, you’ve got to stop and take this vacation. Yet your mind is still on this business. Or for a musician, your mind is on your music. But this is great and the musicians end up loving it. Because—can you imagine—I’m on the ship and I’m hanging out with John Clayton, with Christian McBride, you know what I mean? And with Buster Williams? Come on, man. And this wasn’t at an airport going, “Hey, man, good to see you, where are you going?” This wasn’t in the lobby of one of the jazz festivals. This is a whole week. And so people are starting to collaborate, based on having the opportunity to talk to each other and really get to know each other. So it’s pretty cool.
You do a lot the interviews with the artists. Do you prepare a lot or just say, “Let’s have a conversation?”
A little bit of both, because I obviously am coming at it from a different angle. My thing is, what can I ask you as a musician that somebody else might not know to ask or might not see from that perspective? I’m always approaching it from that perspective. I know generally where I want to go, but I also just want to stay enthusiastic and get people to really see what the process is. There are so many things that you don’t even realize that people don’t know. For example, I’ll get emails, “Man, how come you never come to Australia? Do you not like Australia?” They actually think that you sit around and just go, “You know, I think this tour, I’m going to go to Australia.” You know, they don’t know that you’ve got to wait until somebody invites you. It’s such a basic piece of knowledge if you’re a musician, but it’s not that obvious to other people. I’m just trying to show people what goes into it. Or, like I’ll ask a female singer, “How do you deal with wardrobe on the road?” You know what I mean? it’s the age-old thing where the guy puts on the suit and just looks presentable, but if you’re a female performer, just based on what people are expecting to see, you’ve got to have your wardrobe thing tight; you’ve got to figure out how to travel and have all that. And that’s something that people might not think about, but it’s very real.
I remember the interview with John Clayton and you got into the physical aspect of playing the bass.
That’s my job, just because I’ve always been able to look at what we do from an everyman’s perspective as well as from the artist’s perspective. And I think that if I can kind of make that translation for people, that’s valuable.
You’ve become good friends with the comedian Alonzo Bodden, who does the jazz-oriented cruises, as well as the 80s cruise. Now that you know his creative process, have you taken anything away from that?
I have a tremendous amount of appreciation for what he does. I’ve always felt like comedians were the first artists. If you want to describe art to somebody, describe a comedian and say, “Look, the guy goes through life the same way you do, he gets on stage, and he describes what you’ve been experiencing in a way that you never thought about before.” And it just shines a light on your life, it makes your life more special because you had an artist who can talk about things in an artistic way and talk about your life in an artistic way. And when we play music, we kind of do the same thing but it’s more subtle because it’s notes and it’s emotions. But when Miles played a certain note, man, it resonates because there’s something about it that makes a connection. So for me, comedians were always like the primary artists. I’m sure that back in medieval times, when that comedian, that court jester had to make the king laugh or else he got beheaded. That’s art right there. You’d better make a connection. I’ve done movies for Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx…I’ve always had a connection with these guys. But then hanging with Alonzo—not even just on the ship, we hang out all the time—it’s made me appreciate just how you observe life, how you filter it through your own kind of personal experience, and how you put it back out at people in a different way. It’s really affecting me. And then, in terms of straight up just delivery in between the songs. Even though I’m not trying to be a comedian, just making sure that you make your point clearly and that you can communicate with people—I’ve really benefitted from that, too.
Comedians talk about the beats in their material, allowing the right spaces for the delivery.
That’s so important, just like in music. Of course, Miles knew it. As a musician, if you play anything with the blues, you’ve got to leave space for drunk people to yell at you and to answer what you say. And I remember, man, seeing my uncles late at night at the parties on the weekend playing a Miles Davis record, and they would be having a conversation with Miles. And Miles just left that space for them to communicate with him. He’d go, “Da, da, da,” and they’d go, “That’s right, Miles!” and my uncle would have his bourbon in his hand. So comedians know that—take a beat, they know there’s going to be a reaction and they take that into consideration. So there are a lot of similarities.
And he does crowd work, which is kind of like improvising a solo.
You’re out there on the edge when you’re going to abandon your script and you’re going to talk to people in the audience and see what you can get from them. And I’ve seen him, man, find a theme with one person that he asks questions to, and then carry that theme and relate it to the fourth person that he talks to, and when it resonates—what’s it called, the “callback”? When he does that callback, man, it’s like listening to Monk finish his solos with the same phrase that he started with. This guy is thinking so far ahead. I said to Alonzo, “Man, you’re thinking 16 bars ahead of where you are, aren’t you?” He said, “Well, I’m not sure what a bar is but I think I know what you’re saying.” So he’s growing, I’m growing, it’s really cool.
How do you deal with four weeks with the family, four weeks without the usual plugged-in life we’re now leading?
The first thing is that these cruises happen at the beginning of the year, which is usually a pretty slow period for musicians; everybody’s waiting for the spring, when people are ready to kind of get out and hear music. So it was kind of a cool thing to do. I’ve been doing it for a number of years now, and our kids have graduated—my wife and I, our four kids—and they’re all out of college. So Brenda can come with me on the cruises now, which is very cool. And we’ve got a crew of friends, so it’s not really being disconnected, it’s being re-connected because everybody needs a break from their phones…It’s just the nature of machines. When technology gives you something new, it’s so exciting that it takes over for a while until people say, “Okay, you know what? We’ve digested it, let’s bring it back to more of a kind of a reasonable amount.” Everything in the 80s was kind of a [making an electronic drum sound], every beat was like that. And then you got to the 90s, and they said, “Well, okay, maybe we got a little bit overboard with all that stuff.” It happens with every piece of technology, so it’s just normal.
Do you have any favorite shore destinations?
For me there are a lot of interesting connections, a lot of musical connections. We try to hit these islands, maybe go beyond the little tourist towns that are close to the ports and go beyond that and try to hear some music. And it’s just amazing. The idea that I can go sit in with a calypso band, or that I can go sit in with a Cuban band, just shows you that the roots and the connections are so strong with all these different types of music. A lot of it had to do with the slave trade and the same beats coming from West Africa and then just kind of going through different filters. But it’s really, really interesting for me. I like Jamaica of course. I like St. Thomas too, it just feels really cool. And we’re going to do some ports in New Orleans, which is really cool because Taj Mahal once told me, “Man, New Orleans ain’t nothing but the most Northern-most point of the Caribbean,” and I was just like, “Man, I never thought about it that way.” But it’s true, it’s all connected. So the fact that we’ve been doing these Caribbean cruises and now all of a sudden we’re going to hit New Orleans, everything is coming full circle, so I’m excited about that.
Do you have any memorable moments?
Yeah, we’ve had quite a few. I remember David Sanborn, Bob James, and I had a late night session, a late night show, where we played all the music from an album called Double Vision, and it was a pretty cool album, and it was very popular in the 80s. And I wrote a song called “Maputo” that was very popular and Al Jarreau sang “Since I Fell For You” on that album, which was really beautiful. Anyway, we performed it and I wasn’t ready for the audience to have such an emotional response to the performance. “Oh yeah, we’re going to play the album from top to bottom.” You’ve heard people do that before. But they said, “You don’t know what this music means to us.” And it was really a beautiful moment.
Another moment that was fantastic was Joe Sample, who’s playing on the smooth cruise and he’s using the house band. With the house band on the smooth cruises we have rehearsal for about a week before everybody gets on the boat, so Joe had rehearsed with these guys. I was just the host. I just said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Joe Sample.” And it was Jay Williams on the drums, and I think Nate Phillips on the bass. Anyway, Joe stops the song in the middle of a performance in front of the audience, and he goes, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but when I [count off] a specific tempo, I need these motherfuckers to play the tempo that I count off!” And I’m sitting there going, “Oh, no, he’s not going here!” The audience is looking at each other like, is this part of the act, you know? And I realized that the ginger ale on Joe’s piano might not have been ginger ale. So I was due to sit in with Joe with this group, like the fifth number. So I got up there on stage and I’m looking at the drummer, and he says, “Man, he’s counting off one tempo with his hand, and stomping off another tempo with his feet—I don’t know which way he’s going!” And I’m cracking up. But he just wailed on the band. So at the end I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sure you realize that Joe Sample is a national treasure, and these musicians are going to have a story for the rest of their lives on how Joe Sample cussed them out on stage.” And I tried to cool it down.
The next night, Joe Sample, David Sanborn and I are playing, and song number one was supposed to be this, song number two was supposed to be “Put It Where You Want It,” and song number three was supposed to be a Beatles song. Anyway, right after song number one, Joe goes into the Beatles song—he skips a song. And David Sanborn said, “Ladies and gentlemen, hold on! When we count off a specific playlist, okay? We need—“ [laughs]
There you go, that’s the callback!
David Sanborn is the only one who’s old enough to put it back on Joe, everybody else has too much respect for him. And so it was a beautiful moment. And Joe said, “Sanborn, you better keep your life vest on at all times—you never know when I’m coming after you.” Keep your vest on at all times. Alonzo and I, we were just dying. That was the most hilarious moment ever.
Michael told us about the Super Bowl party that you guys had this past year on the Blue Note at Sea cruise. That sounded like a memorable moment.
People were really enjoying it. We had one act playing then—Robert Glasper—because not everybody feels like they have to observe it as a holy day. You know what I liked about it? Music was intertwined with life. As opposed to setting aside hours just for music.
You’re now recording for Blue Note Records. What’s your impression of the label and of Don Was, the label’s president?
I got a call from a guy named Don Was in the 80s. I didn’t know who he was. Don Was? I was a studio cat. He was calling me to play on a record. I finally said, “Yea, man, when do you need me?” He had me come to his studio and I laid down these bass tracks and the name of the song was “Walk the Dinosaur.” Of course, this thing became a huge hit. I ended up playing bass on Don’s first hits. So I’ve known him fora long time. When he took over Blue Note, I thought that was a great idea, just because though he’s not a jazz musician per se, he’s got a tremendous respect for it. And that’s what you want. We look on the past and [we imagine that] everything was beautiful back then. The one thing I do know that was cool about the past, the 60s and 70s, is that the record people, at least the jazz record people, weren’t in it for the money. There wasn’t a lot of money to be made. They were in it for the love of the music. They just loved this music. Don is like that. He just loves musicians and he loves giving them an outlet. But he realizes that you have to shoehorn this artistic endeavor into this business construct or environment. He does a great job with that. I think it was the best thing that could happen for Blue Note. The musicians feel very comfortable. It’s very nice.
He was a bass player, which is funny that he had you do those parts.
I see him in the airport and I say to him, “Aren’t you supposed to be in a board meeting or something?” And he’s got a bass on his back and he’s going to play with a blues guy or something like that. And he’d say, “I’ll get back on Monday to work, but I got a gig.”
He really is a musician’s musician, as well as a musicologist. And this guy is a very successful rock and pop producer with Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones, so he’s aware of commercial success, but he’s not burning for it with the jazz artists. It doesn’t rule him.
Exactly. When you listen to his records, it’s great music. Like Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” that doesn’t even need a label. It’s just a beautiful piece of music. That’s what we’re all shooting for, at least I am. The stuff that [makes] you stop forgetting about the labels.
Like you, I view him as a major figure in music, but in the jazz world he’s a kind of a new entity. The last few years I’ve seen him walking around the Monterey Jazz Festival and no one stops him because he just looks like your usual Bay area hippie, even though he’s actually from Detroit.
That’s a producer’s thing. Lots of people don’t know what Phil Ramone looks like. Or Arif Mardin. All these names. There are only a few like Quincy who became stars in their own. But Don is a true old-school producer, who just helps the artist make the best music he can make and gets out of the way. Like Tommy LiPuma, who was also that kind of guy.
That’s your lane as well. Your career as a producer is impressive too. What are you doing as a producer recently?
I just finished Alex Hahn’s record. Alex is the saxophonist in my band and he’s got a really good record that’s coming out soon. I just finished a movie score for a film called “Marshall” which is based on a young Thurgood Marshall. When he first started, he was the only lawyer for the NAACP. He was running from Alabama to Mississippi to Connecticut, defending blacks who had been unfairly accused of crimes. He was the only one. He was running. This film focuses on a particular case in Connecticut where a black chauffeur was accused of raping the wife of the couple that he was driving for. So it’s a courtroom drama. But very good. It stars Chadwick Boseman, the guy who played James Brown and Jackie Robinson, and he’s playing a young Thurgood.
He was really great as James Brown and as Jackie Robinson. That’s a tall order to play iconic figures.
He’s a great actor. He really gets into his roles. Reginald Hudlin is the director. Reggie and I did a bunch of movies together, including Eddie Murphy and Sam Jackson stuff. But this was a low budget movie, and Reggie said, “I’m calling all these people to ask them to do it.” And they all said “Yes, I want to do it, because it needs to be done.” He had the director of photography from “Iron Man” who said, “I’ll take a break from Iron Man, because I need to do this.” It’s one of those labor of love projects. It will probably be out in October.
With biopics you never know if they’ll work, because there’s so much baggage that the audience brings when watching something about iconic figures like Brown, Hendrix, Miles or Charles. But with Thurgood Marshall, maybe it’s a different thing.
Exactly, this didn’t have that baggage. People have only one picture of Thurgood Marshall for the most part and that’s the distinguished Supreme Court judge. So it’s fun to see him as a young guy who has some swagger and confidence and a real three-dimensional personality so this wasn’t so tough. It’s actually just revealing for people.