David Miller: A career in law, a life in music
By Rick McLay ’89
Picture the classic urban piano bar. Lights are low, the mood is one of sophistication and elegance. There is live music, but it is quiet, understated. “Sophisticated Lady,” “Mood Indigo,” and “Misty” will each take their turn. The music doesn’t fill the room as much as permeate it. It is simply part of an atmosphere in which if you want to have an intimate conversation you can. If not, you can just be carried away by the sounds.
In a corner there is a person at a keyboard seamlessly blending one recognizable jazz standard into another. If you understand music, you hear an astonishing range of musical references, an impressive series of key changes, and an incredible sense of timing and technique...all of which are done in a style so relaxed it belies the complexity of just how much talent it requires. If you don’t know, but love, music, you know that the pianist is bringing magic to the evening. And if that pianist happens to be in the San Francisco Bay area, you could be listening to David Miller.
David Miller, AU class of 1966, has a most impressive résumé. For over four decades he has practiced public agency law at the West Coast firm of Hanson Bridgett, and his personal client list includes the Golden Gate Bridge Authority, for whom he has served as general counsel since 1976, advising on all aspects of Bridge District legal issues. He also serves as general counsel to several transportation agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area. The list of accomplishments and professional affiliations is extensive, and you can find it on the Hanson Bridgett website. In addition, David has served as a very active member of the Alfred University Board of Trustees since 1988. He and his wife, Bebes (Elizabeth) ’65 are long-time benefactors of AU. They created an endowed fund for Performing Arts, with proceeds from the fund used to bring guest performers, lecturers and performance ensembles to campus.
However, there is another impressive legacy of Miller’s that will not be found on his résumé: a life personally dedicated to music. As much as his career has been defined by the decision to practice law, he has also spent countless hours performing live, building a repertoire of hundreds of jazz standards and original compositions, and recording six CDs.
He says this passion for music started early: “My mother’s mother, Esther Singer – we called her ‘Mimi’ – was a classically trained pianist. I remember sitting on her lap in her home in Great Neck (NY), connecting with the wonderful sounds while she played her Steinway, a piano that I still have, by the way.”
With Mimi’s strong influence upon him, Miller began playing piano by ear and at age nine began taking classical lessons. Despite having considerable talent and a true passion for music, he eventually began to evaluate what role that was going to take in his life.
Miller’s teen-age years in the late ’50s and early ’60s were a time of dynamic changes in the music world. The traditional war and post-war swing era had given way to smaller combos, with a greater emphasis on experimentation. Musicians such as Bill Evans, George Shearing, and Nat King Cole led piano/bass/drum trios that have come to be considered the quintessential small jazz ensemble. This allowed for greater opportunities to improvise and to abandon the restrictions of Big Band arrangements. To young, creative musicians such as Miller it was an exciting time. His living in Great Neck, not far from where some of the greatest jazz in the world was being played, undoubtedly had an influence.
“In my late teens I realized I didn’t want to continue the rigors of a classical music path. It was great training but I found that in many ways it was preparing me for what really clicked for me: jazz,” he recalled. “Jazz is incredibly complex, and is about opening doors, and creating something fresh each time you play the songs. My mother located a great jazz instructor for me, Broadway accompanist Milton Krauss. It turns out that the rigors of learning jazz with him were pretty daunting as well. But that was fine with me.... I just connected with it.”
When it came time to select a college, one could argue that what interested Miller about jazz could apply to Alfred University in 1962. He was interested in being an English major, and was more interested in a rural setting than the metropolitan New York area to conduct his studies. Somehow, like jazz, Alfred just clicked.
“It was so small, but so diverse. It really was the best place for me,” he said fondly. Such great professors like Mel Bernstein, David Ohara, and Ernest Finch... it was a wonderful experience having them as mentors and teachers.”
The music scene in Alfred was active, and Miller began finding opportunities in his freshman year as accompanist for the AU Choir, solo gigs, and in a trio with classmates Michael “Mickey” Kaplan ’64 on drums, and Walt Goller ’65 on bass. Though Walt left the group early on and was followed by a succession of bass players, Mickey and Miller were the core of the trio for over three years, playing at Alfred functions and at area “establishments.”
Miller was an English major and a music minor at AU, and by challenging some of the courses, he was able to take advanced music classes for the entire four years. Interestingly, the class that may have had the most impact in his life was the very first one he took at Alfred. Yet, it was not memorable for the reasons one may assume. Even though Melvin LeMon’s music theory class was challenging, something else made it special. Miller fondly recalled, “That is where I met Bebes, the woman who would become my wife.”
After his Alfred years, Miller attended law school and essentially put his active musical sideline on hold for nearly four years. He was fortunate enough to land a position at Hanson Bridgett after completing his New York and California bar exams, and it wasn’t long before the music returned.
Over the last four decades he has performed in a wide variety of venues in the Bay area, and he has always made sure that his gig schedule was relaxed and occasional. It has always been for the love of the music, and making sure that the experience never ceases to be enjoyable. Finding the right musicians to accompany him has been an essential part of that.
“I’ve had the great fortune to connect with two incredibly talented instrumentalists: Bill Belasco (drums), and Mario Suraci (bass).” Miller added, “Billl has been with me for 30 years and Mario for last 10. The chemistry is just fantastic; both of them have played extensively in the jazz circuit and bring a tremendous breadth of experience. In particular, Mario has either played behind, toured or recorded with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Benny Goodman, and even Elvis Presley.” The trio’s latest release, “Rapture,” issued on the Summit Records label in 2010, reached No. 14 on the national jazz charts for radio air play.
The concept of a musical legacy is as important to Miller as a legacy in one’s professional life. So for another very personal reason, he also considers himself incredibly fortunate with the latest addition to the David Miller Trio: his daughter Rebecca DuMaine.
“She began singing with us steadily over two years ago,” Miller says fondly. “So I guess we no longer can be called a trio. Rebecca does a great job, and I am so proud to be able to share the musical experience with family.” Miller’s other daughter, Stephanie, is also a musician, who plays piano and guitar. In addition, Miller says, “I can see some musical things happening with my 6-year-old grandson Jackson. The signs are there already.”
Miller’s spirit is one that is steeped in generosity. He has shared his passion for music with his family, but also with the Alfred community, and in particular, students.
As part of his AU trusteeship that began in 1988, Miller has made a twice-yearly trip back to Alfred to attend meetings and participate in the high level decision-making that is an essential part of overseeing the institution’s mission. Yet for the past several years he has made time to connect with students and faculty members during his visits.
Typically, after a very busy schedule, and the final formal dinner, Miller steals away to a find a Steinway and do some jamming. The jam sessions started many years ago with vocal professor Luanne Crosby at a small after hours party, but soon developed into an open session that featured student vocalists and instrumentalists, as well as some faculty sit-ins.
“These kids here are great,” Miller said with absolute sincerity. “AU’s performing arts program has attracted some incredibly talented students, and it’s wonderful to get them on stage and into the spotlight. I love having the chance to work with them, and provide them a platform to improvise and take risks.”
Miller is retiring from the AU Board of Trustees this May, and will be giving a farewell performance in the Marlin Miller (no relation) Performing Arts Center. Accompanying him as vocalist for the evening will be, of course, his daughter Rebecca.
When asked about coming back to visit Alfred and possibly conducting some jazz workshops or clinics, Miller said emphatically, “If they will have me, then absolutely. I have to say that Alfred basically bestowed a gift upon me, and I love the opportunity to give back. I want to share experiences with students that will endure their entire lives, just like what Alfred provided to me.”
See David's rendition of the AU Alma Mater on YouTube.
For more information on the David Miller Trio visit: davemillerjazz.com