Max Miller (musician)

Max Miller (musician)

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Chicago Pianist/Vibraphonist Max Miller (Nov. 17, 1911 - Nov. 13, 1985).
Studs Terkel called him "The Angry Man of Jazz", saying that he demanded rather than coaxed certain sounds from his instruments. The legendary John H. Hammond called him an "Astonishing artist, second only to Lionel Hampton in proficiency". Paul Edward Miller, (no relation) former music critic, writer and editor of Esquire Jazz Books called Max Miller "A Champion of Good Jazz". The Who's Who of Jazz by John Chilton listed him as one of the leading figures on the Chicago jazz scene for many years. Famed jazz critic George Hoefer wrote in 1946: "There is no doubt that Max Miller is creating something new in jazz. Keep an ear cocked towards Max Miller at the piano."

Max Miller had a history of playing jazz with originality, artistry, integrity, virtuosity and an attitude toward his music and performances that accepted no substitute for quality. His career is well documented in jazz books, magazine articles from Downbeat, Esquire, Time and Metronome and by music critics from the Chicago Tribune, Sun Times, and the Chicago Daily News. Though it covered 40 years from 1930 to 1970, the peak came in the 1940s and 50's. Many of his own compositions utilized extended chord harmonies, polyphony, polytonality and were influenced by Stravinsky, Bartok and Hindemith.

Early career

He learned banjo at an early age and played that in the East Chicago, Indiana high school band. He started playing professionally when he joined the Musicians Union at age 16. In 1927, he switched to guitar and played with numerous local bands in the Indiana/Michigan area, playing primarily dixieland jazz. He moved to Chicago in the early 1930s and worked gigs as a drummer and string bassist and it was at this time that he started experimenting with the vibraphone. From this time on he worked with numerous bands around Chicago playing guitar, piano and vibes, Including gigs as guitarist in a group with a constantly changing lineup that included Frank Melrose and Dave Tough. Before long he was touring as guitarist and featured vibraphonist with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra, with Betty Hutton as vocalist. It was during this period of traveling the big band circuit that he decided to concentrate on the vibes and piano. He made his greatest impact as a musician when he switched to those two instruments. In 1937, at age 26, he left Lopez to become musical director at WIND radio, where he stayed for two years, performing 21 live shows a week, most of it original compositions. A direct quote from the Chicago Times in June 1938 stated: "To stimulate interest in our national pastime, P.K. Wrigley sponsors a quarter hour six nights a week at 9:30 p.m. over WIND. Featuring the talents of Max Miller on vibes and Bill Funkey on tenor."

Work With Anita O'Day

In 1939 he headlined at Carl Cons' Off Beat Club, with Anita O'Day as vocalist. He is credited as hiring O'Day for her first singing job. This is also written about in High Times/Hard Times, the autobiography of Anita O'Day. They worked together again in 1948 for a number of appearances including the "Rag Doll" in Chicago, the "Continental" in Milwaukee and the "Flame" in St. Paul and again in 1949 in Chicago. He worked with Anita O'Day for a number of club dates in the 1950s as well and is recalled fondly by her in her book. In a 1958 interview she was asked about Max and she replied: "My musical co-worker since 1939. To me, Max Miller is the swingin' end. I'd love to do an album with Max."

1940's - First Work With Sidney Bechet

In 1940, Downbeat magazine has him listed at number 20 in the nation in the "Small Combos" category, and indeed he appears in at least 39 issues of that magazine, from the late 30's to the early 50's. His quintet headlined at the famous "Three Deuces" club in 1940 until it burned down that year. Alto sax star Johnny Bothwell was a member of the group. Also in 1940 he became musical director for the Boyd Raeburn Band. In 1943 he co-led a quartet with trumpet star Shorty Cherock. His first recording sessions with Sidney Bechet were in 1944 and included Tony Parenti on clarinet and Zilner Randolph on trumpet. Bill Funkey added alto and tenor sax and Ken Smith the drums. Bechet's powerful solo on Max's song "Liberty Street Stomp" is a standout of those sessions. These recordings are part of the Max Miller Archive and are still unreleased. Billboard Magazines' December 15 1945 issue featured a favorable review of Max Millers' concert performing with Bechet and Parenti. He first met Bechet in the summer of 1944 when he and Ken Smith went with Paul Edward Miller from Chicago to Springfield, Illinois to hear him in a club there and ended up sitting in for the rest of the night. They hit it off and played and recorded together as often as they could. His quartet in the mid 40's also included Jimmy Raney on guitar. 1944 saw his first mention in Esquire's Jazz Book, being compared to Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo as a vibes player.

In 1945 he became the first jazz musician to perform at Chicago's Orchestra Hall, primarily presenting original compositions, with trumpet/cornet star Muggsy Spanier performing as part of Miller's group. Also in 1945 he placed number 2 in Esquires All American Band, New Stars category for Vibraharp. He led his own groups for many club dates and in 1946 he placed in the Top Ten among pianists in Esquire's All-American Jazz Band, listed 7th, right under Erroll Garner and placing above Count Basie, James P. Johnson and Jay McShann. Also named as favorite new star in the Esquire New Star Poll by eminent jazz musicians Earl Hines and Red Norvo. He also placed in the Top Ten of the "Other Instruments" category for his vibes playing. This is all listed in the 1946 Esquire Jazz Book. Also on Oct. 13, 1946 he performed in a concert presented by Green Recordings at the Civic Opera House as pianist for the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, the Sidney Bechet Sextet and his own trio as well. The concert also featured Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland and George Barnes. During Bechet's visit to Chicago, Max booked time in Bachman Studios on Carmen Avenue and again recorded private sessions with Bechet. In 1947 he spent a year and a half gigging in California with engagements at the Swanee Inn, the Red Feather, Angelino's, the Haig and others. 1948 saw him back in Chicago with his trio at the Blue Note, Hi-Note, Rag Doll, Lyon & Healy Hall for a concert and gigs in Milwaukee and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

1950's - Columbia release and reunion with Sidney Bechet

In 1950, he did a long stint at Rossi's New Apex Club in Chicago. In the fall of 1950 he recorded six songs for Life Record Company, most of which were original material that had been performed at the Orchestra Hall concert, including "Heartbeat Blues" (rhythm guitar by Andy Nelson, who later worked as a clinician for Gibson and Epiphone), "Sunny Disposition", "Fantasia of the Unconscious" and "Lumbar Ganglion Jump". In 1951 Columbia released an album of Max playing jazz standards as part of its "Piano Moods" series and this is the album that most often turns up when searching for his recorded work. He was backed by Earl Backus on guitar, Bill Holyoke on Bass and Remo Belli (of Remo Drum heads fame) on drums. This release was noted for his fine artistry in the Jazz section of the American Peoples Encyclopedia Yearbook, covering 1951. He also recorded for Gold Seal Records in the 1950s and he was signed to a 5 year contract with MCA in 1951 but ended up buying his way out of it when he found out that if he recorded his own compositions, which was his main interest, then MCA would own all rights to the material.

In 1953 he again performed with Sidney Bechet. One of their concerts took place at Chicago's Kimball Hall and featured Max Miller on piano, Sidney Bechet on soprano sax, Bill Harris on trombone, and Big Sid Catlett on drums. The 1954 American Peoples Encyclopedia Yearbook, covering 1953 in the Jazz category cited the reunion of Max Miller and Sidney Bechet as the highlight of the year. Once again, they took advantage of the reunion to make some private recordings together.

He continued to record in his own studios, which were outfitted by the top recording equipment companies of the day, due to his writing a column in Downbeat Magazine titled "The Audio Workshop" by Max Miller, which ran in 1953. Many top musicians from Chicago, and that came through Chicago, recorded with him, including Bill Harris and Chubby Jackson, who enjoyed a break from Woody Herman's Herd to play and record some small combo jazz with Max. He also compiled a large amount of live recordings from various club dates and concerts.

Benny Goodman chose Max as vibe man for the group he put together for the "Pace of Chicago" television show on the history of Chicago music filmed at the Garrick Theater in April 1952. Also in 52 he shared the bill of the Paris Club Revue with jazz singer Joe Williams and trumpeter King Kolax.

In 1956 he opened his own club, "Max Miller's Scene" in the 2100 block on N. Clark St. in Chicago at the site of the 1929 Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. The 1950s also included a duo he formed with violinist Eddie South and gigs with violinist Stuff Smith. He shared billing with Mel Torme and then with Oscar Pettiford and played intermission piano opposite the Woody Herman Band, all at Chicago's famed Blue Note club. He worked with Coleman Hawkins at the Panther Room in Chicago as members of Paul Jordan's band. Highlights from 1959 include a two week engagement as pianist for trumpet star Bobby Hackett at Chicago's London House.


Max Miller was a strong component of the Chicago jazz scene for nearly 30 years. As a player, arranger, composer and sideman who appeared solo as well as the leader of various small groups, he earned his place as a mainstay of Chicago night life. A number of the musicians who came through his groups went on to make their own names in jazz. Although he wrote 115 songs, the most notable compositions from the peak of his career include "Heartbeat Blues" which he performed on the Dave Garroway Show and which Studs Terkel called "loaded with excitement and power". "Solar Plexus Blues", "Lumbar Ganglion Jump" and "Fantasia of the Unconscious", were all reviewed favorably by Claudia Cassidy, noted critic for the Chicago Tribune. "Fantasia of the Unconscious" was performed in concert by classical pianist Howard Legare.

He was never happy with the situation of recording contracts at that time period and refused to record his original material for record companies when it meant the loss of ownership. Had he continued to record for record companies and left a larger body of released albums for all those interested in jazz to listen and judge, then his name might have become much bigger than it is. Although not a famous name now, Max's pioneering work with small jazz groups is arguably as important as many who are better known today.


Max died in Shawnee, Oklahoma in 1985, 4 days before his 74th birthday, after a long fight with congestive heart failure, leaving a large personal archive of unreleased live and studio recordings which includes musicians listed as among the "Giants of Jazz", including Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman, Anita O'Day and Bill Harris. He was survived by his wife, the artist Juanita S. (Nita) Miller, the daughter of actor Glenn Strange, best known as "Sam the Bartender" on the long running western series "Gunsmoke" and his work in over 300 movies and television shows. She completed cataloging Max's work before her death in 1995.


"Heartbeat Blues" - Single, 1950, Life Records
"Sunny Disposition" - Single, 1950, Life Records
"Fantasia of the Unconscious", part 1 - Single, 1950, Life Records
"Fantasia of the Unconscious", part 2 - Single, 1950, Life Records
"Lumbar Ganglion Jump" - Single, 1950, Life Records
"Piano Moods", Max Miller" - LP, 1951, Columbia Records


*"Who's Who of Jazz" - by John Chilton, 1972, pages 43, 223, 246
*"Sidney Bechet the Wizard of Jazz" by John Chilton (Macmillan 1987), pages 157, 158, 189
*"The Encyclopedia of Jazz", by Leonard Feather, pages 333, 334, 370, 381, 392
*"The Complete Encyclopedia Of Popular Music and Jazz 1900-1950", by Roger D. Kinkle, pages 609, 1611, 1528, 1742
*"1944 Esquire Jazz Book", page 117
*"1945 Esquire Jazz Book", pages 65, 68, 69, 74, 75, 106
*"1946 Esquire Jazz Book", reprinted 1979 Da Capo Press, pages 37, 38, 59, 60, 64, 65, 80, 82, 91, 98, 99, 126, 127, 132, 134, 141, 190,
*"Jazz; new perspectives on the history of jazz by twelve of the world's foremost jazz critics and scholars", by Nat Hentoff & Albert MaCarthy, 1975 Da Capo Press, pages 146,161,163,166,167
*"High Times/Hard Times", Anita O'Day, pages 70-74 and 136 and 166-170
*"American Peoples Encyclopedia Yearbook" for 1951, page 650
*"American Peoples Encyclopedia Yearbook" for 1953, page 542
*"Chicago Sun Times", 7-21-1951, "Hot Plate" column by Studs Terkel
*"Downbeat Magazine", October 1938, "Hammond Says" column by John H. Hammond
*"Downbeat Magazine", Jan 1, 1940, Under heading "Small Combos"
*"Metronome Magazine", Dec 1946, Article by George Hoefer

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