S2E7: Marcus Miller: A Legend of Jazz, and UNESCO Artist for Peace

February 15, 2023
Join IFC's Makhtar Diop and the legendary bassist as they discuss the relevance of his music to Black History Month.

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This special episode of Creative Development with IFC brings together Makhtar Diop and legendary American bassist Marcus Miller. Against the backdrop of Black History Month the two discuss Miller’s journey with Miles Davis, the power of music and the song that inspired UNESCO to elect Miller spokesperson of the Slave Route Project.



Makhtar Diop: Hello and welcome to Creative Development with IFC. My name is Makhtar Diop, and I am the Managing Director of the International Finance Corporation. Today, I have the great pleasure to welcome Mr. Marcus Miller to the show. Marcus Miller is a renowned American jazz bass player, composer and producer. He is a two-time GRAMMY Award winner, and a UNESCO Artist For Peace. In addition to a very successful solo career, he has collaborated with legends of jazz and soul music from Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock, Luther Vandross and other renowned artists. He has been referred to as one of the most significant bass players in jazz, R&B, fusion and soul.

Makhtar: I must say that today’s podcast is very special to me. I have been listening to his music for I don't know how many decades, because it will tell you my age. But it’s been a long time that I have been listening to his music. And he has been a great inspiration.

Marcus: Oh thank you, wow that’s awesome, thank you so much.

Makhtar: Let's talk a little bit about Black History Month. And Marcus has been doing a lot of things in that space. He has two important songs that makes a big difference in that space. “Tutu”, “Goree” – from my own country Senegal. And Marcus tell us what these songs mean for you?

Marcus: After my initial phase of trying to be a musician, in my young years, I was just about the notes, just about playing music. And that was incredible. It was an incredible feeling to be able to produce sounds that I imagined, to make people, you know, bring some joy to people. But after a while you start looking to see what else you can do with your music, especially when you begin to see how many times music has played an important part in society in terms of protest music or music to bring across change.

So I really got into, in the 80s, the situation of South Africa. You know, I was watching Mandela, I was watching my buddy Jonathan Butler, a very good friend of mine, who's a South African musician. He lives here in the states now. But hearing his stories, I really, you know, felt like, what can I do?

And I'd been working with Miles Davis for a few years as his bass player. I left for a couple of years to try to develop more as a composer and then I came back to Miles. And when I came back, I came back as a composer also. And I presented Miles with this song that was a tribute to a Bishop Desmond Tutu. Bishop Tutu, of course, everyone knows he's an Anglican bishop. My grandfather was an Anglo Anglican bishop also. He was a compatriot, he was a very dear friend of Marcus Garvey - here in the States in the 1920s. Marcus Garvey started a church, the African Orthodox Episcopal Church, and my grandfather was one of the first ministers of that church.

Anyway, um, you know, I decided that I had a connection with Desmond Tutu, because of my grandfather being an Anglican bishop. And, you know, Bishop Tutu, I decided to write a, you know, a tribute to him. And I presented it to Miles. And you know, I don't know what Miles, at that time, I don't know what he feels about music and politics. But I decided to present it to him anyway. And then he said, I like the music, what is it called? And I said, I’d like to call it Tutu, Desmond Tutu. He said, Absolutely, of course. And not only did he accept the song and the name of the song, but he also named the entire album Tutu. And what was really beautiful is, you know, that album came out, it was a very successful album for Miles. The next time we did an album for Miles, he decided he wanted to call the album Amandla. Which was really beautiful, because that means he fully embraced this cause, along with me, and I was very, very proud of that. So that's the story of Tutu.

We didn't know whether people in South Africa would really hear this music. Because what we had heard was that, you know, there's a lot of censorship, there was a lot of censorship in South Africa at the time, and maybe a piece of music dedicated to Desmond Tutu might not get to the ears of the South Africans. So I was very, very surprised when I began to talk to South Africans later on, and they told me how important that piece of music was to them. That was pretty awesome. And that's when I realized it confirmed for me how important music is and how far, how far music can go. You know, people you don't know, are hearing your music, people who live in countries where you don't even really know where that country is. They're hearing your music. People in South Africa are hearing this music. So that was the beginning.

Then, as you said, you know, I visited Senegal, maybe 12 years ago now. And you know, it was just a beautiful experience.

We did a concert there right onto that beautiful statue. What is the name? Is there a specific name of the statue? Rennaisance. Yeah, I have an album by the same name. But the day before, the promoter took us for, you know, the boat ride to Goree. And, you know, I heard the story. And I've heard the story before. But it's a totally different experience when you're standing in - it's a museum now - but it was a slave house where they stockpiled captive Africans.

And the guy there was just telling us, and he was so descriptive in terms of what it was like, and I could really see it, I could really feel it. And these are my ancestors, you know, this was a very moving, very deep experience. And so I wrote this piece of music, Goree.

And the song became almost like my flagship song, you know, played it a couple of timesI didn't get the emotional response I was looking for. So I decided to tell the story before I played it, you know, I had a little intro and I explained to people, what I experienced, visiting the island of Goree, and that changed everything. People understood, people felt it, to a level that I hadn't experienced before. I played it for maybe five years. And I couldn't do a concert without performing the song and I played it all over the world. And I played with people who weren't really familiar with the story of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but everybody, it resonated for everyone.

I put it away for about after about five years of playing the song, I put it away, and then found myself recently needing to bring it back. Because there's so much craziness going on, you know, we've got wars, we got pandemics. And that human spirit that got my ancestors through those 400 years of slavery, I think we're going to have to draw upon that same human spirit to make it through these crazy times.

Makhtar: When you start Goree with this nice baritone sax intro, and you see after the tempo change at some point, and the big change - I was hearing you saying that it was showing the sufferering of people, the journey in the boat, and how, after, the culture - African American culture - has been managed to emerge from here with all these trends - this joy, and so forth. I don't know if I got it properly, but I thought I heard that in your music.

Marcus: Yes, that's absolutely it. That's exactly what it is. And when we change the tempo, you can see the transcendence, you know, you can see that we can't let the history completely dominate us. We have to rise up. And that's what the music is trying to express.

Makhtar: One thing which is like all the great musicians; you just hear a note of Marcus, you know that this is Marcus - be it “Tutu” or be it “Jean Pierre”, the first note, you know its Marcus. This unique voice that you're able to build in your music - how do you think that the singularity of the black population in the US and in the world is, if you just want to make a parallel between your voice, your uniqueness of your voice, and the uniqueness of the suffering, but also the journey that that group of people had throughout history?

Marcus: Well, you know, when I first started playing, I had no idea how I would ever develop a voice, you know, when people say, a voice on a bass guitar, but it sounds weird. But you know, it's the sound, a recognizable sound, and an identity on an instrument - that's your voice, you know. And I used to ask people, musicians who were older than me, Man, how do I get my own sound, it was actually very important to me. But I had no idea how to get it. And the great drummer, Lenny White, who had played with Chic Corea for many years, he's a very good friend of mine, like an older brother, and he said,’ you really can't manufacture it. You just take all of your experiences. And at some point, they're going to come together. Because you have a unique set of experiences. At some point, they're going to come together. And one day, you're going to hear a recording. And you're gonna go, wow, I don't think anybody else would sound like that, because that's truly me . You know, that happened when I played with Miles. The first recording I did with Miles. We were playing and you know, everybody's nervous. And Miles is very cryptic with his instructions, you know? So, because he's not giving you a lot of information, you gotta just play from your heart, you know. So what's going to happen to me is you're going to hear, you're going to hear Brooklyn, New York, you're going to hear the Caribbean, you're going to hear Trinidad. You know, you're going to hear the African bands that I played with in New York, when I was very young, you're going to hear all of my experiences. And the parallel is that, you know, with black music, I remember when Duke Ellington - I read that Duke Ellington played in the UK, years ago, maybe the 1930s, when the people in the UK and the people in Europe weren't really familiar with American culture. The only things they heard from America sounded very much like European music, right. And the writers they wrote, when they heard Duke Ellington's jazz, they said, this music could only come from America, because of the unique environment in America where you had African former slaves, with people from Europe, people from the Caribbean, with Native people all coming together. That particular mix could only happen in the US. And that's really what kind of gave the US it’s sounds. I think jazz was probably America's first cultural calling card.

Makhtar: Marcus you always telling a story in your music - And this is the way I hear it myself. Even the way you build your improvisation is a story. One of them I like very much is Cousin John for instance how you built your solo. And the name of your album by themselves are telling a story; “Sun Don't Lie,” “M2”, “Renaissance” and the big one that is telling a story is “Tales”. But tell us a little bit about the stories that you would like us today in this time of, of COVID or this time of of hardship that we have been going through? If you need to add another another piece on your album “Tales” what would it be saying?

Marcus: Well, you know, I would put, if I could, I would put Goree on the Tales album. You know what I mean? Because clearly, that tells a story. But with other pieces of music what's beautiful is because I play primarily instrumental music, I just give it a name; “The Sun Dont Lie”, right. And sometimes I leave it to people to, to interpret that the way it makes sense for them. To draw on their stories to draw on their life, to say that resonates for me.

On my last album, there's a song called Preacher’s Kid, right. And this was a dedication to my dad. My dad was born in Brooklyn. And he was an organist. And he went to organ Academy. I mean, he was a great musician. He played at everybody's wedding in our neighborhood, he played at all the church services. But what happened was at a certain point in his life, early on, he had aspirations to be a musician on a bigger scale, maybe tour or play for different churches around the country. But he got married, he fell in love with my mom. And soon after that they had myself and then my younger brother, so he had to make a decision. You know, he had to decide whether to stay at home and be a father figure for his kids, or, you know, or not. And he, thankfully, from my perspective, he stayed home. And he was an incredible Dad, you know, and he for you forwent his musical aspirations. Now, he played all the time he played it, like I said, he played at weddings, he played at dances, he played anytime you needed music in our community - he was there to play. But he left it there, he kept it there, you know. And so I didn't know the story when I was young. You know, why would he tell me that? You know, all I got was support, love, guidance. But as I got older, I said Whoa… You know, what made it worse was that his cousin, played jazz. His cousin played with Miles Davis, his cousin's name was Wynton Kelly. That's my father's cousin. So, you know, Wynton played with Miles, he played with Wes Montgomery, he played with everybody. He was a fantastic jazz piano player. Wynton and my dad used to alternate Sundays to play at my grandfather's service - My grandfather was the minister. And Wynton was supposed to play one Sunday and then my dad was supposed to play the other Sunday. But you know, Wynton had gigs on Saturday nights. So sometimes, you know, my father would get a call early Sunday morning; “Hey, man, I need you to fill in for me”, you know. But my dad made that decision. And I felt like once I knew that story, as I got older, I realized that my, my purpose was to carry on his dream, you know. And so, Preacher's Kid is, is a is a celebration of my opportunity to, to continue my dad's story.

Makhtar: But you know, is interesting, because there is something also that you have been doing - is the slave route with, with UNESCO, where you have been really talking about what is happening in the world. And I think that I like very much what you have done in the Brazilian music, because it's also a part of the black community in the world, which is not very spoken about. The afro Latinos have been making such a big impact on music throughout the world. It's amazing how you got the groove of the samba in your music. So what is that experience of the Slave Route? What did you take from this experience?

Marcus: Well, the first thing I took was surprise at how many young people are not very familiar with the story that I thought everyone was familiar with, you know. And that's the purpose of the Slave Route Project. I played Goree in Paris, and Madame Bokova, she was the Chairman of UNESCO at the time, and she was at the concert. And she heard the whole story. She said she was very moved she came backstage and didn't ask, she demanded that I do this work for UNESCO, which I was honored to do.

Herbie Hancock, had been appointed as an Artist For Peace, maybe a year earlier. And he had introduced me to everyone, which is why they were at my concert. But after the show, she said please do this. And she said, not just an Artist for Peace, but I’d like you to be the Spokesperson for our Slave Route Project. And then she let me know that it's, its goal was to raise awareness of the story of slavery, particularly the transatlantic slave trade, and how it affected the world in so many different ways. And, of course, I was honored to do it. And you know, I didn't want to just say I'm the spokesperson and make a couple of speeches at the UN or something like that. I decided to basically dedicate my next album, which was Afrodeezia - I dedicated that to trying to tell the story in a musical way. So my my goal was to collaborate with musicians, each of who came from a place that was on the slave route. So I collaborated with West African musicians from Mali, from Senegal from, from, also from North Africa, I played with some of Gnawa musicians. Then across on the, on the other side of the Atlantic, I collaborated with some my Brazilian friends and, of course, my Caribbean friends. And then I collaborated with musicians from New Orleans, and then Detroit. So I basically followed the slave route by collaborating with musicians who in my mind represented each one of those places. So that was a great thing for me to be able to do and to learn even more about the African and African American experience.

Makhtar: Marcus,we are financing the private sector, And I want to do more for creative industries. That's something that I'm passionate about. Because I think that it has a big developmental impact. And also it carry messages which are important because development for me is more than just income. It’s also self-esteem, self-identity, understanding your role in history. So you've been collaborating with African musicians, you’ve be collaborating with musicians from all around the world. What advice would you give me if I wanted to push my team to do more on creative industry?

Marcus: Well, the hardest thing for any artist is, well, a couple of things. One is to survive; to be able to make enough money to continue to do what you feel like you were born to do. And that's difficult. The other thing is, once you've been able to create this beautiful music, the second challenge is to get everybody to hear it, right? And I've been fortunate, like you said, to be able to travel around the world, and play, you know, in Africa, Asia, South America, Europe, you know, China. But it's very difficult, it's very expensive. And you have to be committed to doing it. So, if there's any support that could be given to making touring easier, you know what I mean. Because especially now, for example, for me to do my tour, now, it's very difficult because we couldn't find a tour bus. Right, because unfortunately, a lot of the tour bus companies during the pandemic, they went out of business. And so there's a few of them left, but they're even more expensive than they were before. And then you know, how the airlines are in the last couple of years, you know. We're always terrified that our instruments won't show up on the you know, the baggage claim, when you go to get your, your instruments, please, just one base, please show up. So any support that could be given with that, you know, what I mean, woluld be welcomed for these musicians. And I'll think about more stuff, and contact you if I get any great ideas.

Makhtar: But Marcus, it's really to tell you a huge pleasure talking to you. It has been a huge pleasure. And you have been for aspirant bassists, for professional bassits, more accomplish basis – have been an inspiration.

Marcus: Well, I heard you, you played a couple of licks for me before we started that podcast, and you're not an amateur, I heard you, man, you know. So I encourage you to, you know, keep playing..

Makhtar: Can you play for me please Cousin John

Marcus: [Playing bass]

Makhtar: Thank you very much for blessing us with your music. You have touched a lot of people.

Marcus: Thank you, man. It's a pleasure to meet you.