Bass Players To Know: John Miller
Any professional musician will tell you that getting a gig is the result of connecting the dots — drawing a line between the people you meet, the gigs you play, and the phone calls, you answer. Relationships turn into recommendations, recommendations turn into work, work turns into reputation. No one knows this better than John Miller, our latest bass player to know. Miller’s success as a professional musician isn’t surprising — comfortable on upright, electric, and fretless, he excels at sight-reading, improvising, and maneuvering the musical landscape of New York City. What is surprising is that in addition to being a sought-after player, he’s often hired as the person who makes the phone calls — the music contractor. Since the early 1980s, Miller has been tasked with contracting players for some of Broadway’s biggest shows, including The Producers, Hairspray, Oklahoma, Beauty and The Beast, Les Miserables, and countless others. As a session musician, he’s played with everyone from Frank Sinatra to James Brown to Leonard Cohen, and has produced a solo record, Stage Door Johnny, to showcase his skills as a multi-instrumentalist. The bass player that anyone would want to know, Miller has had a successful career-driven by work ethic, versatility, and making the right calls.
Who Is John Miller?
A life-long New Yorker, Miller has flourished as a bass player and music coordinator in one of the most unique cities in the world. After gravitating toward the bass as a teenager and graduating from the University of Michigan, he returned to New York to build a career as a session player. With many club dates under his belt already, he would bounce from gig to session with a fearless attitude, always wanting to work and prepared to play any style.
By the mid-1970s, Miller had racked up recording credits with Leonard Cohen, Al Kooper, Todd Rundgren, Bill Watrous, Janis Ian, and Bette Midler, among many others. After working with jazz pianist and composer Cy Coleman, he was recommended for a musical titled, I Love My Wife. The show required four musicians to act, sing, and dance on stage; Miller landed the part of the bass player and was asked to be the music director. Following this initial foray into the world of Broadway, Coleman persuaded Miller to contract musicians for his other shows.
As more opportunities began to arise for Miller as a music coordinator, he found himself hiring players for film, television, and the top Broadway productions. By 2020, his resume included over 140 shows — everything from classics like The King and I, 42nd Street, and The Music Man, to Mel Brooks’ hit comedy, The Producers, to pop music productions, The Who’s Tommy, Jersey Boys, and Ain’t Too Proud.
In addition to contracting, Miller has continued to gig as a session player and performer. He has worked with everyone from James Brown to B.B. King, Madonna to Michael Jackson, Carly Simon to Ornette Coleman, and is regularly called to perform in string ensembles. In 2008, Miller released a solo project titled Stage Door Johnny, featuring him as the bassist, vocalist, guitarist, and producer. If there’s one person who has “made it” in New York — or for that matter, anywhere — it’s John Miller.
Let’s Talk Style
When people talk about “having chops,” it usually refers to superior technical ability — a blazing plucking hand, lightning-fast fingers, or slap skills that shock and amaze. Not to diminish these superhuman strengths, but they may not be appropriate in most gigging situations. What is appropriate in all situations are professional chops — everything from technical playing, reading, and improvising to etiquette, networking, and communicating. Miller exhibits all of these qualities on and off the bandstand, resulting in a modus operandi that any professional can admire.
Miller’s playing style — and career in general — is steeped in accuracy, accountability, and amicability. He excels at understanding his instruments inside and out, allowing him to bring the right tone and feel to any gig or session. Very much a musical chameleon, he considers how to adapt to his surroundings by cultivating the right mindset and attitude for the music that is to be made on a particular day. This allows him to jump from playing double bass in a large ensemble, to backing up a singer-songwriter, to adding slap to 70s-style funk. Whether he’s reading or improvising, he plays with the precision of someone who knows that execution — and habitually flawless execution — is the mark of an exceptional player.
Knowing that Miller holds himself to high standards means that he expects the same from those he’s responsible for hiring. As an active member of the New York scene, he knows how many fantastic musicians are available for work and he’s particularly skilled at matching deserving players with the right gig. Artists, producers, conductors, and orchestrators trust him to coordinate these musicians for a production; they know that he recognizes the talent, work ethic, and personality needed for a particular show. This level of trust and accountability, combined with clear communication and the willingness to accept feedback, is one of the many attributes that have contributed to his successful career as both a player and music coordinator.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Secret Love” (John Miller: Stage Door Johnny: John Miller Takes on Broadway)
Featuring Miller as the vocalist and bassist, the final track on his solo album provides listeners with a snapshot of what it means to be a versatile musician. Juxtaposing a bright and articulate slap groove with a walking bass line on the upright, he goes from laying down funk to driving an elaborate big band. He executes a tricky unison part to usher in the ensemble, ultimately weaving together an arrangement that is whimsical and theatrical in the best of ways. He clearly excels at playing with the precision of an academically trained musician and the feel of someone who regularly works the scene.
“I Must Have Been Blind” (Tim Buckley: Blue Afternoon)
Beginning with a high register opening theme, Miller’s sense of melody and movement provides a contrast to Buckley’s vocals and acoustic guitar. He favors the major third and major seventh, defining the harmony with wide chord voicings. By playing a 10th and hitting the low root note, the bass part sounds lofty and open, enhanced by the cinematic percussion. Serving as the primary pulse of the song, he exemplifies the sense of freedom and creativity unique to folk records of the late 1960s.
“There’s A Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute” (Cy Coleman: Barnum)
Featuring an exciting and enthusiastic walking line, Miller drives the band with sophisticated voice leading and directionality. He executes a chromatic descending line with octaves, alternating the point at which he shifts down the neck. Listen closely and you’ll hear audacity in his playing — exactly the kind of attitude that makes theatrical music effective and alluring. His assertive tone and confident style support the lyrical content and makes you believe every word.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with John Miller?
Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!