Amanda Carr sits down with jazz saxophonist, Cercie Miller.
You were a trailblazer as a female jazz saxophonist back in the late 70’s early 80’s. How did you get into playing sax and playing jazz and who were your mentors?
I started out playing classical flute. Back then, little girls weren’t encouraged to play sax in school. But my father played jazz records non-stop when I was young and by high school that was the music I knew I wanted to play. I took up sax and was able to study jazz at New England Conservatory (NEC). Legendary sax teacher Joe Allard was a mentor, as well as esteemed jazz pedagogues Charlie Banacos and Jerry Bergonzi.
You were one of the musicians who co-founded Girls’ Night Out, an all-female powerhouse band that received regional (and national) notoriety. Can you speak a little about the initial impact the band had and how unique it was at the time?
Girls’ Night Out was a great experience and a real band, created to have fun and make good music. We redefined the expression “girl group”, which in the past largely meant female front people with all male rhythm sections. We were strong musicians, with great vocals, a kicking rhythm section, and (if I do say so myself) a sizzling sax section! We had a big sound and a fun concept. Audiences loved seeing an all-female group that had a group identity and absolutely no weak links.
Who are some of the people you’ve collaborated with over the years…artists who made on impact on you? Can you explain how these people have inspired you?
I’ve been honored to work with many great musicians over the years! The members of my Quartet, Tim Ray (piano), David Clark (bass) and Bob Savine (drums) are all amazing musicians and composers, so I take a collaborative approach in The Cercie Miller Quartet, featuring every member’s unique musical voice.
I’ve worked in a wide range of collaborative groups with wonderful colleagues: as a founding member of pop-rock group Girls’ Night Out and the long-standing avant garde group Your Neighborhood Saxophone Quartet. I’ve also been privileged to play for many talented artists including vocalists Patty Larkin, Lisa Thorson, Didi Stewart, Rebecca Parris, Amanda Carr, jazz harpist Deborah Henson-Conant and many more. Whether working as a leader, in a collaborative group or as a side-person, I always grow as a musician in the process.
Can you speak to young musical artists who might be reading this article? What advice can you give them that is gender specific?
I think today’s young women musicians are much less likely to need gender-specific advice! They are so confident and fearless. But, in case there are any vestiges from the “bad old days” of prejudice against women in any situation, I’d just urge young women to have faith in themselves, and be true to their own vision believing they can do anything!
Do you find women are automatically not expected to be as musically proficient as men? Does that play in our favor when we deliver the goods?
I really see that attitude as breaking down. We see women playing at a high level in every genre and more and more young women playing “non-traditional” instruments such as horns, bass and drums. There are still people who are “surprised” when they see a woman playing at a high level, but honeslty…less and less!
< One would call you a ‘dynamic’ performer. I have a personal belief that the ‘entertainment’ factor in a performance is equally as important as the musicianship. Can you describe how the art of entertaining has changed with a new generation of performers? How important is it to connect with your audience in other ways other than just playing your instrument?
First of all, thanks for calling me “dynamic”! I feel a passion for music and hopefully that translates when I play! I don’t think there is anything new about the dual nature of musical performance and entertainment. Performing is communication. One of our greatest jazz masters of the past, Louis Armstrong, was also a consummate “communicator” and an entertainer. Each musician connects with the audience in different ways, that’s what makes every performer unique!
How important is understanding the ‘business’ aspect of the music business?
Very important. You can make the greatest music of all time, but you still have to figure out how to get that music to your audience. That means understanding recording, distribution, promotion, booking, etc. All music education programs now offer Music Business courses, which was not the case when I was studying so I had to learn it all myself.
You decided to be an educator as well as a performing musician. How did this evolution begin and how does teaching fulfill you?
I started teaching as soon as I graduated from NEC, as many of my fellow students did. I learned how to teach from all the great teachers I had and after more than 35 years of teaching, I still love the process. Musicians are true “life-long learners”. Teaching is as much about learning as it is about imparting your knowledge to others.
Where and what do you teach? What are some of the key things you teach to your students?
I have taught in many Boston area institutions including Northeastern and Harvard Universities. I currently teach at Wellesley College and Berklee College. I’ve also had a private saxophone studio for many years. At Wellesley I direct the Jazz and World Music program, run the big band, teach jazz theory and jazz saxophone lessons. At Berklee I teach Ear Training, a core subject where theory meets performance! An underlying theme in all of my teaching is the importance of “going deep” into whatever you are studying. Whatever you are doing, think qualitative, not quantitative. Do you understand what you are listening to? Are you engaged? If not, why not? If my students are not engaged, then that is my failing—and I work hard to keep them interested and committed to what they are working on.
You are obviously passionate about teaching…and performing. How do you balance your teaching responsibilities with a live performance schedule?
Didn’t someone say balance was a myth? It’s very hard to do it all. I’ve found it very challenging since I have been working at both Berklee and Wellesley, to find enough time to promote my own music career as much as I would like to. But many, or even most musicians are in the same situation. Most jazz musicians are freelancers also teach, many in a number of different programs and schools. But I love playing, and that is essential to my well-being, so I find as many opportunities as I can to play!
You have seen immense change in the music industry over the past few decades, how has it improved and what you do you see falling by the wayside?
We’ve all heard that “the music industry is dead”. I’m reminded of that famous Mark Twain quote: “Reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated”. Obviously the “record companies” themselves are scrambling, but they had been irrelevant to the independent creative musician for a long time. Small labels still make a difference in the creative music market, but it’s the ability of musicians to create and market their own music that has really changed the landscape. People make their own records on their laptops using recording software, and sell it on the Internet using their laptops. Musicians are bypassing large companies, reaching people through all kinds of creative outlets. The only aspect of the past I miss is the number of clubs, the diminishing venues where LIVE music can be heard. However, there are a lot of great new festivals. It is crucial for musicians to connect with their audience in order to build a loyal fan base. I know that artists who want to succeed will find a way to make this happen!
Do you have any musical projects planned? Do you have a music bucket list at this point in your career?
Aside from the previous CD’s I’ve released entitled "Dedication" and "Blue Vistas”, I’m working on finishing a new CD of original music with the Cercie Miller Quartet. I’m re-vamping my website, which is currently “offline” while it gets a makeover. I’m also working on more fluency with music publishing software and would like to get all my charts into “publishable” form.
The term “Bucket list” sounds so final! I’m more about going from one project to another, and enjoying the process. I love to play and these days, finding time to practice is a joy. By the way, it was great fun getting to play with you, Amanda. Thanks so much for this interview!