Ron Miles - A Personal Story

Ron Miles was a great friend and mentor to me. Recently I had gotten in touch with him to share some of my new music, but it was immediately apparent that something far more urgent was going on when he said he’d been in hospital for a long time. Tragically he died last month. Since then I’ve been revisiting memories from the years I knew him. 

Ron and I met as students at University of Colorado College of Music. During those years he and I traded a few mixtapes. It was the eighties and that’s what we did back then! Sharing a small collection of music on a cassette tape was how people like us bonded with each other. It was almost twenty years before social media, curated playlists, and Spotify. I once asked Ron to make me a tape of what he thought I should be listening to. My university trumpet teacher at that time probably would have given me a mix of jazz and classical trumpet players. Ron returned my tape with some James Brown, Siegfried’s Funeral Music by Wagner, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, and several Bad Brains songs. Trumpets were definitely on there somewhere, but Ron was surely sending me a different and wider message! 

Several times he invited me to a bar near 9th and Pearl in Boulder, either to watch groups of his own perform or with ensembles led by Fred Hess. It was a cold, damp basement space under a lively bar upstairs but the that really didn’t matter. By the time they’d played a few songs, the space was packed, hot, and hoppin’. One show I remember well was in a dark art space in Denver on Blake street near where they later built the baseball stadium. Ron’s trio was playing with Mark Simon on bass and Mark Fuller on drums. The atmosphere was like a punk show with the band in the middle of the room and the audience crowding around them on all sides. The drumset included planks of sheet metal, short lengths of rebar, and circular saw blades. The show was wild and exciting, concluding with a song called Whoring With My Pants On. Ron told me that the song’s title was about how he often felt about gigs he’d agreed to play against his better judgement. He decided to think more carefully about how he decided where to play and with whom so he could have more fun. “One night I was looking out at the room and kept thinking ‘I wouldn’t even hang out with these people!’” 

Saxophonist and composer Fred Hess was working on his doctorate at CU. He’d formed a group to perform his transcriptions of early jazz band works as part of his thesis. This group eventually grew into the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble, performing new works from the eighties up until Fred’s death in 2018. Ron’s work with Fred’s group resulted in many beautiful and sometimes even cacophonous recordings. If you like Ron's music, you would be well served to also become familiar with Fred's. In the early nineties I occasionally helped a creative jazz fan named Alexander Lemski stage concerts as part of his newly formed Creative Music Works organization, which frequently featured Ron Miles and Fred Hess groups. It was always a delight to meet new musical friends Ron had made as he performed with them at those concerts like Rudy Royston and Bill Frisell.

Over the years I’d started to think of Ron as something of a gearhead, always finding new mouthpieces, new leadpipes, and even new horns, trying to get the perfect “dark” sound. Once, after he’d made a significant new purchase, I visited him at his house. “Try this out!” he said. He handed me the heaviest and most ornately decorated hunk of trumpet I had ever seen. “It’s called a Raja. Dave Monette made it for me.” He showed me all the personal engravings and metal cuttings he’d had built into the horn. It was perfect for Ron. “It goes with your glasses,” I joked. At the time he was wearing avant garde round glasses with thick black frames that had what looked like little screws sticking out of the sides of the frames. 

After moving out of state I always made a point to visit Ron during my trips to Colorado. A few times we played duets in the studio he had built onto the back of his home. I was always proud to show off whatever new music I’d recorded. Once he gave me a recording of an early version of his album My Cruel Heart. It was edgier and noisier than the version that was ultimately released but I always cherished it more because it reminded me of the friend who had gotten me into Bad Brains years earlier. 

Over the years his music seemed to mellow as he collaborated with people like Ginger Baker and Bill Frisell, but there were always moments in whatever he played where he’d show his unique talent for coaxing a new sound out of his trumpet or going in an entirely unexpected melodic direction during a solo. He was fearless about doing things that most trumpet teachers would teach their students not to do. He taught himself how to transform trumpet playing no-nos like teeth gritting, throat growling, airstream pinching, and other things like that into ingenious techniques to bend notes, distort, or even create multiphonics. Several years ago he told me after a show he was trying to learn circular breathing. During that evening’s show he had played several solos using the technique quite convincingly, if not flawlessly. “I think you’re pretty well there,” I replied. Recently he told me he was learning “anchor tonguing” and said it was a steep learning curve. Completely overhauling his technique and facing a lengthy period of sounding really rough in order to learn a new way of playing. Yep, that’s Ron! 

I’m having a hard time adjusting to a world without Ron Miles in it. I’m sure it will always feel like something’s a little off somehow from now on, but I know I’m far better now for having known him.


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