‘I’m an Albertan’: Jazz legend Big Miller left swinging legacy in his adopted home

EDMONTON – “They call me Big,” he said. And in almost every way, he was.

There was the outsized physique, large enough to fill a telephone booth. There was the powerful, blues-shouting voice honed in jazz clubs and lounges across the continent.

But the biggest thing about Clarence (Big) Miller may have been the legacy he left in Edmonton, his adopted home.

“Big’s legacy is there,” said Edmonton musician and educator Charlie Austin, who often gigged with Miller. “It’s priceless beyond words, beyond any understanding — the power, the feel, the spirit.”

Clarence Horatius Miller was born in 1922 and grew up in Topeka, Kan. The son of a preacher, he was raised in the gospel tradition.

“I sang in church and played the tambourine,” Miller told jazz scholar Leonard Feather in 1960.

But something else was going on as well.

In the 1930s, Kansas was the nucleus of an upbeat new sound, a swinging kind of jump blues that came to be known as the Kansas City sound. Miller was in the midst of it, soaking up shows by Count Basie, Lester Young and Herschel Evans.

He studied piano, played trombone in the school band and began singing one night on the bandstand when his group needed someone who could croon “Stardust.” At the same time, he was attending a different kind of school.

“The railroads would come in and they had guys with harmonicas and guitars and I’d sit around the coal chute listening to these guys sing these old blues songs,” he told Feather.

By the early 1940s, he was on the road himself, playing trombone in bands and singing ballads in lounges. But for a three-year stint in the army, those travels would continue for almost three decades.

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Miller played and sang with jazz royalty such as Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. He recorded four albums, including one with lyrics by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. He toured with Jon Hendricks’ show The Evolution of the Blues, a show that eventually brought him to Canada.

During a 1967 stop in Vancouver, the show folded, leaving Miller stranded. He began gigging around Western Canada and liked what he saw, especially the easier racial climate. He decided to settle in Edmonton.

“(I said), I have to get myself together and find me a little stick so I don’t go down,” he told a 1980 National Film Board documentary. “That stick became Edmonton.

“I found myself a niche. I can be happy here. I can relax here. I can become my own man.”

That he did, taking advantage of Edmonton’s thriving 1970s music scene.

“There were tons of gigs — live bands in about a dozen rooms all along Jasper (Avenue),” said Dave Babcock, a saxophonist who often shared the stage with Miller.

Miller sang everywhere, with a voice smooth as bourbon and powerful as a locomotive. He performed with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the Tommy Banks Big Band (with which he won a Juno), and small-group shows in places such as Mayerthorpe, Alta., where he was happy to country up his sound if that’s what people wanted.

“He’d take on any kind of song,” Babcock recalls. “It didn’t matter what key, what song.”

Babcock, now a bandleader in his own right, described his relationship with Miller as “master-apprentice.”

“He was supportive, approachable, funny. He didn’t sit me down and tell me what to do. But any time we’d be talking, he’d make suggestions and talk about the music.”

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It was invaluable, Babcock said.

“You’re getting it from the source. You’re not listening to a record, you’re not hearing from a professor. You’re talking to a living person who’s done that.”

Holger Petersen, owner of Stony Plain Records and host of CBC Radio’s Saturday Night Blues, said Miller linked Edmonton — and all Canada — to a blues tradition rooted in gospel and filtered through a lifetime.

“He really educated people and had a great influence on them. He was the real thing.”

Every musician who worked with Miller imbibedsome of that, said Austin, who taught jazz for 30 years at Edmonton’s MacEwan University.

“He taught me a lot of things, kind of indirectly, about the music and the integrity of it. He was a profoundly powerful performer.”

Miller’s voice was so strong he barely needed amplification. Austin recalls one show where he had to use the mike after Miller. He could barely be heard. Miller had turned the volume so low it was almost off.

Nor was Miller’s presence restricted to the bandstand.

He was a frequent visitor to Edmonton music classes, waving the baton in front of high-school bands or showing a young drummer how to swing a cymbal pattern.

“He was gentle with kids,” Austin recalls. “He was trying his best to show them what to do and he had what they need.”

Miller settled in to his new home, buying a house and setting up his model railroad in the basement.

Alberta adopted him as well. He was a fixture at the Edmonton Folk Festival and the city’s jazz festival. He taught jazz at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Athabasca University gave him an honorary doctorate.

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The provincial government of the time helped fund shows in small-town Alberta and sent Miller on a promotional tour of Japan. The NFB documentary captures a meeting he had with Alberta’s then-minister of culture.

“I’m an Albertan,” he told Mary LeMessurier.

Miller died in Edmonton in 1992 of heart failure. The city named a small park in his honour, in which stands his statue — suitably — larger than life.

“He had a lot of love in this community,” said Petersen. “(Musicians) remember him fondly. A bit of him rubbed off.”

Austin struggles a bit to define what Miller left behind. Something about commitment, something about joy.

“We talked about it once. He said, ‘I’m into it from the downbeat. I’m gone.’

“My favourite memory is we’d be into a tune onstage and we’re all having fun and getting down. And he would look over at us like, ‘Hey, we’re actually here! It’s a celebration!’”

Miller himself may have laid it out best in that Feather interview.

“Everybody has soul,” he said. “Every race of people has something they call soul. We all have some type of soul and we all try to generate something.

“I think we should learn to equalize feelings and equalize understanding. And be together.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6 2024.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960


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