I first heard Hal Miller's name last November, soon after I opened the book of Louis Armstrong. Given my dearth of jazz knowledge, I needed ear and eye knowledge to complement my book learning. The first musician I turned to told me to talk with Hal Miller. “Miller knows most all there is to know about jazz history. He’s built an enormous collection of DVDs slowly converted from Betamax tapes of live performances, TV talk shows, and films. All the valuable jazz visual evidence is right there in his living room.” I was tempted but intimidated. I wrote down his phone number, then put it aside.
In late January planning for Stoptime took off. The Planning Committee favored a festival as best way to engage the Saratoga community in celebrating Louis Armstrong's life, music and influence. with Downtown Saratoga the location. The buzz of town and tourist town activity is not confined to racing season. It begins early summer and lasts through Labor Day. Our original idea was to request the CDTA permit musicians and artists to perform on buses and invite the audience to ride along. Do I have to detail why that idea did not fly?
Stoptime Planning Committee approached Skidmore's Special Programs to partner with the Skidmore Summer Jazz Institute. The Institute, founded in 1987, has a venerable history in jazz education. Don McCormack of Skidmore, originally a faculty member, by then was directing Special Programs. He hired Gerald Zaffuts to head the new Summer Jazz Institute. Together they created the annual two-week summer program for high school jazz students. Zaffuts was the Jazz Institute’s Director for the ensuing 20 years.
In partnering with SSJI, Stoptime wanted to extend a portion of the Institute’s program for young musicians to the greater Saratoga audience. This time we got a big thumbs up. Working with Maria McColl in Special Programs, we chose July 6, Louis Armstrong’s death day. McColl recommended that Hal Miller give a visual presentation on Louis Armstrong. Miller has taught at the Skidmore Summer Jazz Institute for over a decade. Each year he gives a series of eight visual presentations, each concentrating on a particular instrument. Students learn from and love this footage; it gives them an understanding of instrumentation, especially as experienced through the dynamic of performance in various formats, live, TV, in films.
Miller’s presentation on Louis Armstrong will offer footage of Armstrong that even veteran fans will see for the first time. This historical view will also provide essential grounding for the other events of Stoptime Festival that will examine Armstrong’s legacy today through a number of media from dance to workshops. These events begin after Hal Miller’s presentation at 5 PM in Congress Park and surrounding areas in downtown Saratoga.
McColl’s admiration for Hal Miller is the result of many years observing him teach at the Institute. She told me a story that I have since heard from many others, “When Ken Burns decided to make his Jazz series, he went to Miller for much of his footage.” She presented him in such friendly light that I overcame my stage fright and called him. This was late February. Miller was on his way to join Carlos Santana on tour. April 12 was the earliest I could meet him and see his treasure house.
This long delay was a good thing. I listened to, read about and watched jazz solidly all month. I took the big step away from Louis Only Louis. This was already happening, as it is impossible to study Louis Armstrong in a vacuum. I began to appreciate and enjoy music I'd shied away from. As well, I hoped I’d learned enough to more fully appreciate what I would hear from Hal Miller.
April 12 was a fine day, a rare thing this winter and spring. The drive to Albany was warm and fine. People were out on the streets enjoying the air. The first time around the block I drove right by the enormous brick school building built in the early 1990s off Pearl Street. The awning said Schuyler Apartments, but this had not registered as I’d pictured a row house to hold his commodious collection.
I circled again. This time I paid attention to the address: 69 Trinity Place. The place is palatial, floors of apartments. I hadn’t noted the apartment number on my Google map; there were hundreds of apartments and I despaired of finding Miller. But there on the large band of mailboxes I found his name and the apartment number. I buzzed. A buzz back, no voice. The place felt more like a hotel than an apartment building except there was no desk, no attendant. I found the stairs, the second floor and finally a door open a few inches. I knocked timidly and, after a moment, Hal opened the door wider and invited me in.
We walked past the kitchen. At least I think we did, all I could see floor to ceiling were shelves full of DVDs. Seeing all these small boxes was startling; I was still stuck with the idea that library had to be stacks of books. The old schoolhouse has high ceilings; the renovators had the good sense not to drop them. Sunlight filtered through the curtains. A clear sense of order pervaded the apartment. I sat on a sink-into sofa that faced a large flat screen. Billie Holliday performances and films unfurled one after another. When I arrived New Orleans was playing. We talked about it briefly. Hal sat in a chair to my right.
Hal mentioned Milt Hilton, telling me he was a founding member of the Institute's faculty. Hal knew him well and had come to teach at SSJI at Hinton’s invitation. Miller talked about Hinton, about his spirit, an inspiration to all involved with the program during his life and even after his passing. Hinton and Armstrong were neighbors in Queens. Miller told me that many times Louis would go over to Milt's house to invite Milt and Mona, his wife, over to share Lucille's home cooked red beans and rice at the Armstrongs’ house.
It was easy to talk with Miller; my nervousness fled. He didn’t reveal anything startling. He just has a good way of putting words together to give the essence of the person he is talking about—Louis Armstrong “universal cure for the doldrums.” I mentioned the anecdote on Ken Burns approaching him to for video footage for Burns’s PBS Jazz series. Miller said that Burns freely admitted that he knew very little about jazz, that his interest from the beginning was using jazz as “a convenient vehicle for telling the story of race in America.” While race dominates a major part of the narrative, I hadn’t thought about this obvious hinge.
Talking about Burns’s Jazz brought up the familiar territory of Louis Armstrong musician and entertainer, the double identity that has colored the way many see the whole of Louis Armstrong. Gerald Early, one of the commentators in the Jazz series, describes in one episode how he got Armstrong wrong when he was a young man. He saw him only as entertainer, one who perpetuated stereotypes of “’darky’ entertainers” (Ralph Ellison’s phase in “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke”). This was late 1940s, early 1950s when melodic jazz was moving into heady jazz, when Early was coming to age. This is my generation and Miller’s as well.
I asked Miller his age (given my Dead at fascination, asking age is a question I’ll put to anyone) and he replied he was born in 1941. We are the same age. We both grew up with Armstrong through a different lens. He’s black, I’m white. He grew up with bebop, jazz; I stopped with Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller. My dad played the clarinet in high school and a bit beyond, but if he had any affection for the direction jazz moved after the big bands, I never heard it. Dizzy Gillespie was someone famous who played trumpet in a way I couldn’t relate to and Thelonius Monk was a foreign country unknown in my household.
I realized even from a young age that Armstrong was a maker of faces, but I’d overlooked the racial component. He was, I thought, someone everyone loved. Miller, like Early, like many African Americans born in the 1930s and 1940s, grew up in a generation with views far different than their parents’, than Ellison’s. Ellison watched the world change and experienced derision. The rise, fall, rise of his reputation is similar to Armstrong’s. Robert O’Meally’s “Interview” in Living with Music, titled “My Strength Comes from Louis Armstrong” was new to me and inspirational.
Ellison, like Armstrong, survived the anathema of many African-American politicians, philosophers, artists in the 1960s and 1970s. He is more venerated today than when he first achieved fame with the publication of Invisible Man. Like Ken Burns, he understood jazz as a racial construct, noting the importance of accounting for growing up black in the north as markedly different from growing up black in the south in the first years of the twentieth century.
Hal Miller grew up in the Bronx. When the Billie Holliday videos were playing, Miller mentioned that his mother was a nurse in Harlem; she took care of her in 1953. Miller, like Early, found Armstrong the jazz musician in the 1920s and 30s admirable. Miller was well aware of the changing view on Armstrong in the 1950s and 1960s. However, Miller does not find a division between artist and entertainer. He said that as a young man, he did not fully take into account the time and the place Armstrong came from and how this formed him. This is similar to the above observations on Ellison. Another difficulty that Armstrong faced, Miller said, “is that if you stay around too long, you lack credibility as the audience changes since the audience cannot move outside its time. But…this is now past history, Louis Armstrong has transcended race, people everywhere have suspended their racism when they see or think of Louis Armstrong.”
Hal Miller is steeped in his knowledge of jazz; he can quote chapter and verse on anyone, then go right to the shelf and pull off the appropriate DVD. He keenly appreciated that I was there to learn. He gave me material from Armstrong’s performances I did not know existed. He doesn’t have the personality that many collectors possess. He is totally unassuming and uninterested in drawing attention to himself, in using his collection for self-validation. I thought about the film, Herb and Dorothy, that’s the type of collector he is.
A fine reminiscence that he mentioned was his trip to Japan in 1975. He had no money at the time. He’d pay his rent and everything else went to music. He’d started taping music from TV on Betamax. Someone told him about Akihabara (“Electric Town”) in central Tokyo. He bought a ticket and flew to Tokyo, went directly to Akihabara, maxed out his credit card, returned to the airport and flew back to the US laden with tapes.