Jazz’s Sammy Miller Goes Off The Beaten Path

By Rob LeDonne | July 10, 2020

Sammy Miller and band in action

While most artists focus their touring schedule on where their fans are, the jazz musician and singer Sammy Miller is a deft advocate for quite the opposite. “I love performing for the nonbeliever. I just like the uncertainty and challenge of turning people on.” Miller is the frontman for his eponymous jazz and swing group, Sammy Miller and the Congregation, in which Miller is the drummer and vocalist. Not only does the group relish trekking to locales where nobody knows their name, but they tend to venture where jazz itself is a distant concept. “When you believe in something, the power of something, you should be going where people are not exposed to it,” Miller says. “I’ve had more pleasure playing for people who haven’t made up their minds as to what jazz means, or maybe they even have negative connotations, so you have to change their perception. That kind of work is exciting.”

A native of Los Angeles and alumnus of the Juilliard School, Miller’s particular enjoyment of performing for fresh ears can trace its roots to the first time he enjoyed the vibrancy of music, live and in the flesh. “My brain was used to going a million miles a minute, and music was one of the first things on Earth that made me slow down and be present,” he remembers. “When I’d watch my older brother play, I noticed how good it was for me. It was medicinal to feel the music, and I wanted to share it with people.” Since launching the Congregation, Miller and his cohorts have done exactly that around New York City, where the seven-member group is based. But despite drawing a fervent regional audience, Miller was wary of staying in a proverbial bubble. “When you spend a lot of time where your audience is, like in New York, everyone has already decided what’s going to happen.”

As a result, the Congregation makes a concerted effort to hit the road, not only for their own personal fulfillment, but to also spread a distinct passion for their craft. With that in mind, Miller compares himself and his group to evangelists. “I think of it like the old medicine show traditions of the ’20s,” Miller explains. “We are a medicine show without actual medicine.” It’s that thought that has led Miller and his merry gang of jazz adherents everywhere from Fallon, Nev. (“It’s like an Old West town”), to Cheraw, S.C. (birthplace of the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie), and Opelika, Ala., to name a few. The latter spot, Miller says, is one of the hippest places he’d ever been to. “They have an incredible arts community there, so we did a concert in an abandoned school. Growing up in Los Angeles, I could have never known what a small town in Alabama is like, even if I was the most open-minded person. Some people think they are personally nonjudgemental, but when you say you’re going to Alabama it’s like, ‘Oh, Alabama bad!’ There are such preconceived notions about what other people and cultures are going to be like.”

Whether in the Deep South or the desert, Miller is conscious to play the exact same set, albeit to sometimes different results. “Some audiences don’t know what the ritual of going to a jazz concert is like, so they don’t necessarily behave like you would at one,” he says with a laugh, recalling a gig in San Antonio, Texas. “They assume they can participate, so some people want to treat it like church and talk back to me. But I like the idea of having to carve out our own rules because we don’t know them and they don’t know us.” And if there was ever a doubt that music transcended language, it was shattered when the Congregation flew out to Chelyabinsk, Russia, for its International Music Humour Festival. “People were throwing flowers at us during the show and lined up to talk to us afterward,” he says. Mind you, nobody spoke English. “But they understood everything and were sophisticated about it.”

It’s a quest that continues even now that travel and live performance are on hold due to the coronavirus outbreak. As a result, Miller and his crew have taken to digital means to both perform (a regularly updated show, “Camp Congregation,” is posted on their YouTube channel) and promote their new album, “Leaving Egypt.” “A lot of other artists are about ‘me, me, me’ or solely self-expression,” he says. “But we are all mission driven. This is about something bigger than ourselves.”

For more about the Congregation and their globetrotting quest to spread joyful jazz, visit www.sammymillercongregation.com, www.youtube.com/SMCongregation or follow their adventures on Instagram: @SMCongregation

Issue #1

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