Ron Miles, whose brilliant and generously understated cornet playing made him one of contemporary jazz’s most rewarding but also easily overlooked bandleaders, died Tuesday at his Denver home. He was 58 years old.
His label, Blue Note Records, said in an announcement that the cause was complications from a rare blood disorder.
Mr. Miles had only recently gained the wider attention he had long deserved, and his death proved as heartbreaking as it was unexpected for a jazz world already reeling from a cavalcade of untimely deaths for the coronavirus pandemic.
Pianist Jason Moran paid tribute to Mr Miles in a Facebook post, praising the spirit he put into both his compositions and his contributions to other people’s bands. “He would make a painting with so much soul and simplicity,” Mr. Moran wrote. “And it would imbue any other song with that soul as well. Every turn was original.
For decades Mr. Miles enjoyed the admiration of insiders and fellow musicians and was known as a magnificent educator and standard bearer on the Denver scene. But his withdrawn personality and relative absence from New York conspired with his game’s resolute dullness to keep him out of the brighter spotlight. In his groups, the accompanists were often more famous than the leader.
It wasn’t until the 2017 release of “I Am a Man,” a collection of seven inspirational originals performed by an all-star quintet, that the breadth of his creativity was more widely recognized. Three years later, Blue Note released the quintet’s second album, “Rainbow Sign”, a set of languid and poignant melodies he had written while caring for his ailing father, who died in 2018.
The title had several levels of meaning for Mr. Miles, all linked. Referring to a passage in the Book of Revelation, when Christ perceives his skin to be multicolored, Mr Miles said the rainbow was a symbol of the unity of humanity. “The idea of a rainbow is that it’s this thing that takes us out of our expectations and out of our limits of what we can see,” he told the Westword-based publication. Denver.
During his mourning, Mr Miles had also been drawn to the mythology that sees rainbows as a gateway connecting the living to their ancestors. “Those who left us can come back when we see a rainbow and visit us,” he said, “and we can interact with them through that rainbow.”
Ronald Glen Miles was born in Indianapolis on May 9, 1963 to Jane and Fay Dooney Miles. When he was 11, his parents moved with the family to Denver, hoping the high climate would help Ron cope with his asthma. they took jobs there as civil servants.
Ron started playing the trumpet in middle school, as part of a summer music program, and dedicated himself to the instrument as a student at East High School. He played in the school jazz band alongside future actor Don Cheadle, who played saxophone, and soon began an apprenticeship with respected Denver saxophonist Fred Hess.
Mr. Miles and Mr. Hess would become collaborators, making a number of recordings together and both serving on the faculty of Metropolitan State University in Denver, where Mr. Miles eventually became director of jazz studies.
After graduating from high school, he enrolled as an engineering student at the University of Denver, but soon transferred to the University of Colorado at Boulder to study music. He continued his graduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music; this was the only period he spent living outside of Denver, where he would spend the rest of his career mentoring a generation of musicians – both on the live stage and in the classrooms of Metropolitan State.
On his debut album, “Distance for Safety,” released in 1987, Mr. Miles led a trumpet-bass-drums trio infused with equal doses of rock and free jazz. He then released a series of consistently unorthodox albums on various small labels, conforming to no preferred format or style; they included “Witness,” a 1989 quintet date, and “Heaven,” a 2002 duet record with guitarist Bill Frisell.
As Mr. Miles’ career progressed, an expansive Rocky Mountain sound seeped more and more indelibly into his compositions and playing, which was rough around the edges but balanced and controlled at the base. In the 2000s, he switched completely from the trumpet to the cornet, a less glamorous instrument which seemed to suit him.
Unlike a typical East Coast trumpeter, he rarely fluttered or glided over the instrument. He approached the notes as if to disarm them, sometimes allowing the tones to gradually fill in, becoming broad and full and bright. The melodies he traced seemed designed to be followed, even when they went devilishly wrong.
By his mid-fifties, Mr. Miles had become the leading horn player in what can now be considered a legitimate subgenre of jazz: the blending of American folk, blues and country with cool jazz and influences spiritual. One of its initiators was Mr. Frisell, a Denver native 12 years older than Mr. Miles. In the 1990s and 2000s, drummer Brian Blade and his Fellowship Band were its greatest exponents. Mr. Miles worked closely with both musicians.
He began collaborating with Mr. Frisell in the 1990s, first playing in the guitarist’s unusual quartet (joined by trombone and violin); they continued to appear in a variety of sets on each other. Mr Blade joined them in a trio led by Mr Miles who recorded a pair of gripping albums, ‘Quiver’ (2012) and ‘Circuit Rider’ (2014), before becoming a quintet.
With Mr. Moran added on piano and Thomas Morgan on bass, Mr. Miles composed for the band with each musician in mind. And he gave his supporting musicians full scores, rather than individual parts, so they could see how all their voices would move together.
The group became a darling of the jazz world, and “I Am a Man”, released on Enja/Yellowbird Records, was widely acclaimed. Mr Miles made his first appearance as a frontman at the Village Vanguard last year, playing the week the legendary club reopened after being closed for a year and a half due to coronavirus.
Mr. Miles is survived by his wife, Kari Miles; his daughter, Judge Miles; his son, Honor; his mother; his brother, Johnathan; his sisters, Shari Miles-Cohen and Kelly West; and his half-sister, Vicki M. Brown.
Mr. Miles was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame in 2017; that same year, he joined saxophonist Joshua Redman to record “Still Dreaming”, a tribute to the group Old and New Dreams, with Mr. Miles in place of trumpeter Don Cherry. The album earned him his only Grammy nomination.
Mr. Miles had also been a member of pianist Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret, an acclaimed avant-garde quintet; violinist Jenny Scheinman’s groups; and blues musician Otis Taylor’s backing band.
A decade before Mr. Miles put together his quintet, New York Times critic Nate Chinen, reviewing a performance with a sextet, noted how selflessly he led his band. “Mr. Miles, who wrote most of the material for the group, seemed downright indifferent to solo heroism; he was more determined to immerse himself in a sound,” Mr. Chinen wrote. interior monologues in open spaces: cautious and contemplative but free.”