On Wednesday, May 29, Mulgrew passed away at the age of 57. He had a stroke the week prior. Mulgrew was born in Greenwood, Mississippi on August 13, 1955. His funeral took place in Easton, PA on June 7.
After I learned that Mulgrew, or “Grew” as he was lovingly referred to, had passed I was in a state of shock.
My first reaction was to reach out to others to find out how they were feeling. But in the end, I came to the understanding that all that mattered now was how I felt. And how I was going to come to grips with the fact that Mulgrew had passed and I would never see him perform again.
Well, I have decided to remember the good times.
I fell in love with his sound the instant I listened to his MAXJAZZ album, The Sequel, with his band Wingspan from 2002.
The way Mulgrew and his bandmates Steve Nelson, Steve Wilson, Duane Eubanks, Richie Goods, and Karriem Riggins played completely captivated me. I still have Post-it notes on the CD itself that reads, “Definitely a head nodding CD,” and “Mulgrew has melody on his mind.” His sound just reminded me of sparkling champagne. Something about it made me think of my other favorite pianist Red Garland.
There is no doubt that Mulgrew’s sound is one of the most important in modern jazz.
The impact he had and continues to have on legions of musicians across generations is phenomenal. He belongs to an elite coterie of African American artists and pianists. Think Art Tatum, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Oscar Peterson, Bobby Timmons, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Drew, Tommy Flanagan, McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal, Randy Weston, Herbie Hancock, and the list goes on.
Mulgrew’s sense of musical freedom could be heard in his velvet touch. His sheer expressiveness shined especially bright during live performances. I will be forever grateful for having the Mulgrew experience a handful of times.
I will never forget the time he played at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago almost a dozen years ago. Mulgrew played a particularly beautiful and elegant version of “Skylark.” Jazz pianist Aaron Goldberg was also in attendance at the club that night. There were several times when we simply paused, then looked at each other with amazement, shook our heads, and raised our drinking glasses in the air at the same time. We knew that we were in the presence of greatness and were lucky enough to experience Mulgrew in full effect.
The lyricism in his playing, the textures, the phrasing, the melodies, the tempos, the rhythms all spoke to me. It was magical. It was soulful. It was spiritually uplifting.
Another particular time I will never forget was when Mulgrew, his manager Mark Gurley and I chilled after Mulgrew had performed at the Dakota and just rapped about music. I think Mark played music by a number of outstanding pianists and challenged Mulgrew to guess who was playing. Well, he identified every single pianist correctly.
It was then that I had the chance to tell him that he was my favorite living pianist on the planet. I also thanked him for his inspiring music.
That was the last time I spoke to him, but it wasn’t his last time at the Dakota. He returned to the Dakota to play with drummer Karriem Riggins, among other young men in his band, back in June 2009. I missed that gig somehow, and I will regret that for a long time. I still can’t believe I missed it.
Regardless of having missed the chance to hear Mulgrew play one more time, I will also always have my Mulgrew albums to remember him by. He left us so much music. He touched so many people’s lives.
I will miss him dearly.
Thank you Mulgrew for your amazing brilliance and love.
Note: Contributions to the Mulgrew Miller Memorial Scholarship Fund can be sent to: William Paterson University Foundation, Mulgrew Miller Memorial Scholarship,William Paterson University, Wayne, NJ 07470.
Robin James welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.