The longtime rising star of the drums in critics' polls has become a bona fide, go-to drum maestro who’s in the midst of a creative bonanza of music. The leader of her adventurous ten-year-old ensemble, Boom Tic Boom, Allison Miller doesn’t flinch at the assessment. “We’re jazz people,” she says. “We’re in the moment.”
The Brooklyn-based artist has taken a bold stand as one of the visionaries of the genre’s evolutionary new sound. “Compositionally my sonic palette has become so diverse which creates my jazz language,” Miller says during a late November afternoon conversation at her Park Slope neighborhood café Up and later, in a conference call with professor Bob Danziger at Cal State Monterey Bay. “Diverse describes every aspect of my life. It’s my personality type. I’m drawn to so many different kinds of things, and I’m totally open-minded. I’m never too happy in one place. I’m always moving around so many different types of music as long as human beings are playing or singing. I’m not that into digital music, but I still go out dancing sometimes.”
Tell me about Boom Tic Boom — ten years, five recordings, a great drummer name with a terrific band including Myra Melford on piano and Todd Sickafoose on bass.
The name just came to me in my mid-20s. I was really into Max Roach and his band M’Boom. I didn’t know what those three words meant to me, but I knew they related to playing rhythmically on the drums. The drums speak the best, they speak powerfully. I can play quietly and really loud. There are a lot of dynamics, and the range of the instrument is so wide. If you can tune into it, the world is your oyster. When I formed Boom Tic Boom, I played with Jenny, Ben Goldberg on the clarinets and Kurt Knuffke on cornet. They’re not wailers, so I have to be the drums behind because I love the blend they create.
The new recording Glitter Wolf is full of cinematic arrangements with changes that go off into all different zones.
The songs just poured out of me one summer. They were simple and somewhat straight-ahead, but I flipped them upside down. This is my band, and I want the tunes to be vehicles for everyone to improvise. As the band has progressed, my writing has changed. I’m hearing more voices, so I let myself go without any borders once I started hearing more transitions, juxtapositions. Why can’t something go from rockabilly to melodic jazz? It’s like the song “The Ride,” which starts out crazy with an almost ska-reggae feel then goes into chamber jazz. It’s about a road trip my family took. Being a parent with two kids can be like that — insane one moment, so sweet the next.”
Give me a thumbnail sketch of your background.
I was born in Texarkana, Texas, but grew up outside of D.C. My mom was a pianist so that’s how I started: piano and vocals. My mom wanted me to learn how to play the piano, so I started the drums at ten at the Timber Mountain Music Camp!
How did you break out?
By twelve, I began studying with Walter Salb, who lived nearby in Maryland. People told me, you may not like him, but he’s the guy. He turned out to be the most inappropriately verbal and ornery man I’ve ever met. Everyone has stories to tell about him. But he was like a grandfather and best friend. He was a special man. He always had The New York Times in front of him and he had strong political opinions. His house was the space where all the kids would come to get away from the feeling of living in the Maryland suburbs. You’d walk into his house and be able to grab a cigarette from a fancy cigarette holder, and he had a hookah on his table. So, we‘d go to listen to old jazz records by Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, smoke cigarettes and talk about politics. The TV was never on.
What did he teach you?
Walter was a swing drummer, and he had a band he called the Time Was Orchestra that would rehearse every Tuesday night in his basement. That’s how I learned to play. He was my introduction to the jazz scene. When I got good, he let me take over his drum chair while he conducted.
What else did he bring to you?
Walter was my first introduction to the importance of community and a kind of chosen family. I followed that social model the rest of my life really because Walter was the center of a community. As much as he drove everybody crazy, he brought together community and there was no discrimination against age or sex or color. He brought everybody together. Everybody had equality from him as far as how much he insulted them and degraded them, but somehow we all kept coming back for more by accepting our role in his community.
When did you come to New York?
I moved here when I was twenty one, and instead of going to a conservatory, I just started working, learning on the bandstand. Walter would call me once a week to check up on me. He would leave messages like, “What the fuck are you doing with your life?” if he heard I was playing with someone he didn’t like. When he died eleven years ago, he willed me his drums and his piano and all his big band charts. They were all handwritten in pencil. I need to hire a copyist to convert them, and maybe someday I’ll do a big band record. I’ve developed a scholarship fund in his honor. [Then she proudly rolled up the sleeve of her blouse to show off a tattoo that depicted smoke and the words Time Was.]
Parlour Game put on such a great show at Joe’s Pub. I remember talking to Jenny last summer at your Boom Tic Boom show at the North Sea Jazz Festival, and she told me the two of you were thinking of making an album together. How did that come to fruition?
The idea started on a Boom Tic Boom tour. Neither Myra or Todd were available, so I got Tony on bass and got Carmen to sub on piano. The new band was Jenny’s idea, and we agreed to do it as a collaboration — and not getting it confused with Boom Tic Boom. In my band, I make all the decisions. It’s my baby that I’ve very carefully nurtured to be more adventurous so that every member gets a chance to shine. With Parlour Game, it’s more about the songs — crafting them incisively and getting back to our roots. It’s a little swing with a nice pocket of groove — nothing too intellectual or heady or experimental. If Boom Tic Boom is idiosyncratic, then Parlour Game smooths that out.
Carmen has such a great presence in the band. How did you get to know her?
Todd told me about her. I had tried some people out as a sub, but I needed someone super dynamic who understood swing and avant-garde and everything else in between. She would have to play all the genres in Boom Tic Boom and still be herself. I called her to play with us at the Reykjavik Jazz Festival, and I fell in love with her playing — any style and never doing it the same each night. Later we decided to collaborate on a project for a month, which came out to be Science Fair. It’s my most jazz record that I’ve done in years. Doing it made me realize that I still really like jazz, and I’m good at it. I love collaborating with super talented, powerful women. That’s why I like playing with Carmen as well as the band Artemis [Renee Rosnes, piano, musical director; Cécile McLorin Salvant, vocals; Anat Cohen, clarinet; Melissa Aldana, tenor sax; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Noriko Ueda, bass].
As a drummer for your bands, are you the leader, the power?
Yes. I take the role of holding it all down with Parlour Game. I hold the groove and support everyone in the band. With Boom Tic Boom, I’m the instigator. Todd holds it down on bass, and I take a lot of drum solos. They are wonderful gifts to a drummer — the dynamics, the space, the tonality. I’m flabbergasted by people who don’t think drummers can play melodies. The drums are completely melodic.
You are so committed to teaching with years at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, becoming the artistic director of the Jazz Camp West program and this coming year as an Artist in Residence at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
The best way to know your instrument is to teach it. And, it’s another way of being an improviser. I don’t plan anything out. With 35 years of experience, I’m prepared and open. You never know what the climate of a room is going to be — maybe what I prepare would be beginner or too advanced, so I just go with it. I love Jazz Camp West, which is like family to me. It’s my community. That’s where I got to know John Santos who is the percussionist on the last track of the new Boom Tic Boom track, “Valley of the Giants.” I don’t even play drums on it.
Then there’s the Monterey Jazz Festival.
This year will also be the first time I’ve played there as a leader, with Boom Tic Boom and Parlour Game. I’m honored, surprised, excited. I’m thinking about what another one of my great jazz teachers, Michael Carvin, said. He played with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, did Motown sessions, and has a free drumming duo with Andrew Cyrille. His big concept for a teacher is to develop who you are as a player and then pass it on. The jazz genre is all about passing on the tradition. The only way to be a master musician is to pass on. That’s become my motto.
Allison Miller, Glitter Wolf (Royal Potato Family)