Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Michael Miller Interview ~ the L.A. Story of a Mentored Mentor

Michael Miller ~ the L.A. Story of a Mentored Mentor


He who bends himself to a joy
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

~ William Blake

I made a new friend recently, someone after my own heart, a true giver.  Michael Miller has breathed life into several musical careers and we are now just beginning to see the result of those years of loving care.  I was seated next to 'Mickle' front and center at the jazz club called Birdland in Berkeley, California (Birdland is an article of its own).  I was there to see my high-school son, Logan, play upright bass with a band of college students assembled during Christmas Break.  I knew a little about Michael, as he had visited SFJAZZ earlier that week, but I was in for a treat when he agreed to let me interview him.  He sees himself as a mentor to one very special trumpet player in the band—the very talented, Josh Shpak.

The student interview with Josh may be seen by clicking here, 5 Q's for Josh Shpak
or at: (

Josh’s amazing success (countless national performance and composition awards, and 4 full-tuition college scholarships!) has prompted many parents to ask Michael for advice on music college application preparation, how to implement his long-term plans designed to take music students through the finish line in grand style.  In fact, Josh is paying it forward himself.  Onstage at a recent SFJAZZ ‘Discover Jazz’ workshop, one of Logan’s best friends, Edward Evans, told the story of his own inspiration: he began playing jazz trumpet and even transferred schools in order to go to school with Josh and take advantage of the superior opportunities for jazz education, a decision that has served him well.  It is rare to hear of such an impact made by a virtual peer, and a very young one at that, further testament to the magnetism and synergy that Josh and Michael project.  But, before Michael was a mentor, he was a student and his own story is seriously interesting, a vignette of a super-successful music director in Los Angeles throughout the mid-1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s.  

Michael begins the interview by saying he was initially compelled to help Josh because of his own experience with mentors.  At Ygnacio Valley High in Concord, California, Michael got, "the bug to write music."  He started by transcribing Buddy Rich big band charts and bringing them in for his school jazz band to play.  The band leader, Bill Burke, was instrumental in introducing the students to well-known professional musicians by inviting one or two each year to play with them at performances.  One year it was Clark Terry (now aged 93), one of only four trumpet players to win a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and the record-holder for playing trumpet on the most jazz albums to date (~943, far more than the other winners of this award: Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong & Dizzy Gillespie).  Michael remembers those few days spent with Clark during junior year in high school as being worth more than a lifetime of music lessons.  Clark’s inspired musical artistry and unbridled enthusiasm were never forgotten by Michael, and he was absolutely thrilled when, a year later, as a member of the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Star High School Jazz Band (now called “The Next Generation Jazz Orchestra”), Clark was their guest artist.  During Michael’s senior year in high school, the guest artist was Bud Brisbois, one of the top trumpet-players in Los Angeles and Henry Mancini's first call for recording sessions.  Michael had written an arrangement of "Jesus Christ Superstar" for Bud to play with the band; Bud showed it to "Hank" (Mancini's nickname), who immediately offered to mentor Michael if he went to college in Los Angeles, which he did at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).  

Flying into Los Angeles, Michael recalls a memory: looking down on the endless mass of humanity, he imagined most people thinking, "How am I going to stand out in all this?" Anyone who has flown into LAX or Burbank, can surely relate.  With LAX, and a coastal approach, first you observe the ocean as far as the eye can see, abutting the endless grid of streets and buildings, as far as the eye can see.  But Michael imagined it as a huge Monopoly board, with UCLA as the 'Go Square', the launch-pad, the place where you play the game based on skill and chance.  He still sees it this way, though chance had little to do with it. Michael was motivated.  He talks about his ability at the time (mid-1970’s) to sneak in to recording sessions in Hollywood, observe the composers and producers at work, be inspired and meet people.  Of course, this probably couldn't happen in the same way today due to increased security, but it sure worked well for Michael back in the day.

1: Michael's 1st recording session

During his freshman year at UCLA, he was asked to write a Mancini-style version of “Happy Birthday” for Mancini's 50th Birthday.  Mancini liked it so much, he invited Michael to his birthday lunch, where he met Hank’s twin daughters, one of whom, Monica, still tours the world performing her Dad's music.  Soon after the birthday lunch, Michael saw a sign advertising a UCLA summer production of South Pacific, with Peter Matz as music director. Matz was the producer of Barbra Streisand's albums in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and music director of the Carol Burnett Show.  Michael has always felt that school breaks are the best times for students to find their own breaks.  So, Michael stayed in Los Angeles that summer to play trumpet in the production and, soon after, Matz offered him the opportunity to ghost-orchestrate for the Carol Burnett Show, which hosted one great artist after another. Offers for additional arranging & orchestrating work for other CBS shows: Donny & Marie, Sonny & Cher, Tony Orlando and Mac Davis, soon followed.  Davis, a Country Western singer, who had success on the Pop charts as well, invited Michael to co-write a song with him, which ended up on a hugely successful album and earned Michael his first Gold Record (as a junior at UCLA!).

2: Henry Mancini & Michael at Mancini's 50th Birthday Concert 

Michael's success with and love of pop music did not always earn him the respect of certain Music Composition teachers at UCLA at the time, whom he saw as very avant-garde and were horrified at his wish to compose what they called "music for the masses."  He heard staff-written compositions for piccolo & brick, or John Cage-inspired productions, which incorporated fish tanks and fish movement-initiated playing.  (In the mid-1980’s, John Cage was a guest lecturer in residence at UCSD when I was minoring in music; I remember an eye-opening concert I attended where the rhythm section was comprised of four musicians, hand-scooping water in time from onstage fish tanks.  Avant-garde, indeed, and unforgettable).  In fact, one instructor took his disdain for Michael’s music all the way to the transcript, by awarding Michael a "D" grade.  Feeling this was undeserved, he successfully contested the grade, which was changed to an "A."

While constantly fighting this attitude at UCLA, there, thankfully, was some recognition available at the school for those attracted to pop music.  Frank Sinatra hosted a yearly award show where he presented the "Frank Sinatra Award" and cash to promising musicians, $2000 for first place.  Every year, auditions were held for Best Pop Singer, Best Pop Instrumentalist, Best Classical Singer, Best Classical Instrumentalist, and others.  Michael was always brought in to arrange the music and conduct the orchestra for these shows. After his third year at this job, as a junior in college, Sinatra told him he was creating a new award for Best Arranger/Composer for the following year.  Ironically, Sinatra happened to be out sick that next year, so the MC and presenter job was taken on by "a friend of his, a guy named Gene Kelly," who awarded Michael the first ever "Frank Sinatra Best Composer/Arranger" award.  Soon after, Sinatra called to say he apologized for missing the award show, but offered Michael a job arranging a medley of Sinatra songs for him to perform at another show at the Century City Hotel, where Sinatra was to receive an award (ca. 1978).  

3: Frank Sinatra & Michael, on right

4: Gene Kelly presenting The Sinatra Award to Michael, in lieu of Sinatra

5: Frank Sinatra's letter of apology to 'Mike Miller'

Following graduation from UCLA, Michael continued to find arranging/composing work in various places.  Working on an Ice Follies show for Disney, Michael met a choreographer who was looking for a musical director for a new Paramount TV show set to air, to be called Solid Gold.  Submitted with the resumes of two established arrangers, Michael's resume caught the eye of the producer, Brad Lachman, creator of Solid Gold.  The final decision was to be made by the show’s star, Dionne Warwick, so after Lachman sent her the demo tapes for the three possible musical directors, Michael answered the phone at home one afternoon and recognized the voice immediately: Dionne Warwick was calling to say she loved his recordings and she would very much like to meet him in person.  As she opened her front door, she happened to be on the phone with Peter Matz (the Carol Burnett Show musical director), who gave him a glowing recommendation.  After some discussion, she turned around and said, "I have found my musical director!" and proceeded to call the producer with the good news.  Michael was also asked to write the theme for the show.  He decided to enlist the help of a lyricist with whom he'd just worked, Dean Pitchford (who had just won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the movie FAME).  He says it is common for a producer to make you think you are the only one being asked, when in fact they tend to ask many composers for theme demos, and they may not even be the one making the final decision.  To avoid all of this, Michael, after a half-hour's work and armed with Pitchford's lyrics, went back to Warwick's house to play the theme for her on her piano.  Dionne loved it, effectively enabling Michael to jump to the head of the line.  In fact, that was all it took for his theme song to be used for nearly 10 years - the entire run of the show.

6: Michael on the set of Solid Gold

Solid Gold was the first television show that had Michael, as Musical Director, completely in charge of the music.  He wrote the Opening Theme and the Closing Theme, both entitled "Solid Gold Theme."  [Solid Gold is an American syndicated music television series that debuted on September 13, 1980.  Like many other shows of its genre, such as American Bandstand, Solid Gold featured musical performances and other elements such as music videos.  What set Solid Gold apart was a group of dancers who performed various dances to the top ten hits of the week.  The series ran until July 23, 1988 and was usually broadcast on Saturdays in the early evening.]  About nine years later, taping the last season of Solid Gold at Paramount Studios, Sinatra was hired to co-host the show with Dionne Warwick. They were to sing a duet, a difficult overlapping medley of his hits, that Michael was to arrange.  At this time, the process was to record the band tracks ahead of time, then record the singers live on-stage, and mix their voices in with the tracks later.  Unfortunately, Sinatra's first take on-camera was unusable: he missed every other line and was out of tune. Michael diplomatically tried to say, "Okay, we now have the microphone levels all set and that was a great run-through, so let's do the real take."  But, when Sinatra replied, “No, I saw the red light, and I only do one take, and that one was fine,” the Producer asked Michael if he could fix it.  Fortunately, Michael happened to know that one of his background singers, Christopher "Kipp" Lennon* (the youngest of 11 children, whose oldest sisters were The Lennon Sisters, popular in the 1950’s - 1960’s), was a crack vocal impersonator & voice-over actor.  Kipp was game to try to replace Sinatra's parts and sang them line by line in a recording studio with Michael until they had it all.  With six cameras working, the director could cut to audience shots for the lines that Sinatra forgot to sing, so no one would know the difference.  In fact, after the show aired, Michael received a telephone message from Sinatra, saying, "See, I told you it was fine."  I'm not sure whether it's Sinatra's fallibility and/or false confidence or Michael's tactful sensitivity, but that story just makes me smile. And appreciate live performance for its delicacy even more.  When Solid Gold first started, Michael thought the show wouldn't last more than 6 weeks, but after 48 shows/year and specials, nearly 10 years had passed.  This took Michael off the path he'd envisioned, the "Mancini" path, but he loved the work, experience and was able to do a few other things during its production.

7: Dionne Warwick, Host & Michael Miller, Musical Director of Solid Gold

His song that won the "Sinatra Award" was titled "Just a Dream Away."  Written in college (with lyrics by Monica Riordan), the tune was about reaching goals.  In 1983, one of Michael's high school friends, then working for Olympic Committee Chairman, Peter Ueberroth, and President of ABC Sports, Roone Arledge, heard the song at UCLA, had never forgotten it, and recommended it for use at the upcoming Olympic Games.  It became the Opening Theme, which Michael first recorded with John Denver and a full orchestra in Los Angeles, and then Denver ceremoniously sang it in the snow of Sarajevo, at the opening the 1984 Winter Olympics.  You may view the video of this performance on You Tube by clicking here: John Denver 1984 Winter Olympics Opening Theme or by copying this address into your browser (  Having admired John Denver for a long time, this remains one of Michael's favorite projects.  After the Olympic broadcast, Denver's friend, opera singer, Placido Domingo, also wanted to record the song.  Michael was contracted to arrange and conduct the orchestra for Domingo, and they recorded it at 20th Century Fox Studios for Domingo’s album, “Save Your Nights for Me.”  In fact, Domingo liked the song so much that he also put it on his greatest hits CD, “The Domingo Collection.”  Additionally, Dionne Warwick recorded it as the theme for a United Way promotional film.  

In 1987, Disney produced a television special honoring the 50th Anniversary of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with Michael as the music director.  Dick Van Dyke hosted with Linda Ronstadt co-hosting.  As Michael wrote the music, he was sure to include the onomatopoeic "whoops" sound utilized comically as Van Dyke tripped over an ottoman in the opening of his eponymous show, The Dick Van Dyke Show (with Carl Reiner and Mary Tyler Moore).  Van Dyke was charmed and humored by this gesture.

Ever since his graduation from UCLA, Michael lived in a beautiful guesthouse that he rented in luxurious Bel Air.  A couple of years after Solid Gold began, he purchased the three-acre property on which it stood.  Loving his guesthouse as much as he did, he decided to stay put and rent out the main house.  The gated community gave him the privacy and sanctuary he desired with the convenience of a very short commute along Sunset Boulevard into Hollywood.   Despite these measures designed to de-stress and revive, he was hit by what can only be called a life-changing experience, to say the least.  Napping outside in his Bel Air backyard one afternoon, he was inadvertently sprayed with a toxic mix of pesticides by neighboring gardeners treating trees along the fence line of the property next door.  Rushed unconscious to the ER at UCLA, he was revived, but the poisons had entered his system.  His health did not improve and at a visit to a Liver Specialist a month later, he was given the ultimate pronouncement: terminal liver cancer and 6 months to live. 

His personal life now took on an urgent theme of healing.  After seeking 2nd and 3rd opinions from Liver Specialists with the same result, he sought various treatments Eastern and Western, conventional and alternative while, amazingly enough, continuing to work for more than seven years.  Ultimately, the services of a specialist-type healer, a fruitarian diet and frequent trips to Big Sur and Maui to breathe as much clean air as possible were his modus operandi. 

When Solid Gold ended, Michael was proud not only of what he had accomplished musically, but how well he felt physically.  He decided to check back in with the so-called Western specialists who had previously given him a death sentence.  Walking back in the door was surprise enough, but his radically improved, perfect blood labs were astonishing, the stuff of divine intervention.

As a way of celebrating, Michael decided to take an extended hiatus.  His plan to rent a private island in Fiji for three years was derailed.  He stayed only three days (due to the island not being anywhere near as advertised).   Next stop, Maui, where he stayed at the Kapalua Bay Hotel for several years, enjoying the abundance of organically-grown tropical fruits and pure island air. Capitalizing on his recovery, he traveled the world, living in Greece, Switzerland and New Zealand, and enjoying his break from the spotlight.

Interspersed amongst all this travel, Michael occasionally returned to California to visit his godsons, Josh and Noah Shpak.  After hearing Michael play trumpet for years, Josh, at age eight, announced he’d like to try.  Michael says, "He was instantly really good and into it.  He really wanted to play it!"  Besides Michael returning to Northern California as often as possible to mentor Josh, he arranged for additional teachers whom he thought could help, including Mic Gillette of Tower of Power fame.  By the time Josh was in high school, he was good enough to audition for some of the national honor bands.  Michael continued coaching Josh and doing anything he possibly could to open any doors for him.  It became a beloved and "great hobby."  He even tracked down jazz legend, Clark Terry (once Michael’s high-school band's guest-artist) to see if he’d be willing to give lessons to Josh.  Terry, who has helped so many young musicians become masters said, “If you can put Josh on the phone, I’d like to talk to him to see if he has the passion that it takes to succeed.”  Five minutes later, a beautiful bond was birthed between Clark and Josh.  Michael would take Josh and Noah for week-long visits to Terry’s house in Arkansas, where the most amazing jazz wizardry lessons took place.  Soon afterward, when Terry was informed that he would be receiving the 2010 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, he invited Michael, Josh and Noah to join him at the awards show, where Clark introduced Josh to the audience as his protégé.  A few years later, when Josh – out of hundreds of trumpet applicants – became one of four finalists in the world to be selected to audition live for Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and other jazz luminaries for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz college graduate program (when Josh was only a college freshman), it was clear they had something.

Fast forward to April 2014: Michael and Josh attended the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, for the world premiere of a movie made on the life of Clark Terry, entitled "Keep on Keepin' On."  Michael was the original executive producer of the film until Quincy Jones, Clark’s lifelong friend, expressed interest in taking over the reins, which suited Michael just fine.  The movie is about the relationship Clark has with a young, blind piano player whom he has mentored for many years.  You may learn more at this link to the movie's website:  At the Tribeca premiere, all sorts of Clark's friends were in attendance (Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmy Heath, Robert DeNiro, etc.) and afterwards, Quincy Jones and Clark's wife, Gwen Terry, led a Q & A, while Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, Roy Hargroves, Justin Kauflin and others played music.  If you'd like to read about the premiere, you may visit the Tribeca site:

8: Michael’s adventures with Clark Terry, Josh & Noah Shpak

Many have wondered how Michael could seemingly be immune to the allure of the Los Angeles music career that he left behind.  In fact, Louis J. Horvitz, director of Solid Gold, the Grammys, the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the Emmys, The Kennedy Center Honors and American Idol among many others, has urged Michael to come back into the Los Angeles fold for years.  Michael often considers it, and if he did go back it would only be for Lou who, first and foremost, continually does all he possibly can to ensure that artistry and spirit shine through everything he touches.
While a return to Los Angeles might be on the horizon for Michael, for now, he is happy putting his musical time and energy into one Josh Shpak.  Josh is a charming guy, amazing to watch play, and locally famous.  The kids really look up to him and he is supportive and kind.  His link with Michael is strong and he is grateful for it.  By association, many people would say he is lucky, but lucky just means being well-prepared when opportunity comes your way.   And, Josh has done the hard work himself.  The best guide cannot help you fake that, not in jazz.  Because of its bright spotlight on improvisation, unique in every performance, I sometime see jazz as the ‘Reality Show of Music’ ~ get a guide, there's nowhere to hide.

And in Michael Miller, Josh has a genius guide. 

*   When The Simpson's featured Michael Jackson singing on the show, Kipp Lennon is the voice you hear.  A Solid Gold story: when Boy George was to appear in a duet with Warwick of her hit, "I Say a Little Prayer," starting off with the line he requested to sing, "The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup," he had laryngitis.  Lennon's vocal impersonation gift (later utilized for Sinatra’s appearance) was a godsend on the day that Boy George was to tape Solid Gold.  Prior to the start of the show, Michael took Kipp into a recording studio to sing all of Boy George’s lines, causing Boy George to be absolutely stunned at what he heard.  On-camera, Boy George lip-synced to Kipp’s pre-recorded vocal and Dionne sang live, and no one was the wiser.  You can see the video on You Tube by clicking here: 
Boy George & Dionne Warwick sing "I Say a Little Prayer" or by copying this address into your browser (


"Dean Pitchford."  Wikipedia.  9 December 2013.  4 February 2014 <>.  

"Dionne Warwick."  Wikipedia.  30 January 2014.  5 February 2014 <>.

"Frank Sinatra."  Wikipedia.  31 January 2014.  5 February 2014 <>.

"Henry Mancini."  Wikipedia.  4 February 2014.  5 February 2014 <>.

"John Denver."  Wikipedia.  2 February 2014.  4 February 2014 <>.

"Kipp Lennon."  Wikipedia.  1 February 2014.  5 February 2014 <>.

"Louis J. Horvitz."  IMDb.  5 February 2014 <>.

"Mac Davis."  Wikipedia.  20 January 2014.  5 February 2014 <>.

"Peter Matz."  Wikipedia.  11 October 2013.  5 February 2014 <>.    

"Peter Ueberroth."  Wikipedia.  14 January 2014.  5 February 2014 <>.

"Placido Domingo."  Wikipedia.  30 January 2014.  5 February 2014 <>.

"Roone Arledge."  Wikipedia.  28 January 2014.  5 February 2014 <>.

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  1. WOW -- what a story! I loved reading about the difference one person can make and how sometimes improvisation worked better than plannin! I'm so glad to see Mr. Miller pay it forward with Josh, and will look for both of them in all things jazz moving forward!

    1. Thank you, Angela. It's true! I will never discount what basic support can do to fuel a life. Artistic expression seems a solitary enterprise, but it really is conglomerate of all the experiences and inspirations of the artist, proving there is always something new under the sun!

  2. This is a truly inspiring story and truly shows how having passion is great, but having a mentor that recognizes that passion and helps to channel it can make such a huge difference in a young person's life. What I would have given to, #1 have had that passion in my youth and, #2 to have had a mentor to help me believe in myself and go for it!

    1. The above comment is from Eden Livingood - don't know why it didn't publish my name

    2. Exactly, Eden! Sometimes it takes a voice outside your own head to allow that very brave move.

  3. posting a comment for "BOPPY":

    That was fascinating! You have a real talent for writing and telling a great & interesting story. You kept my interest all the way through and I was anxious to read on. What a life Michael has led and how interesting it is to hear a bit about how it works behind the scenes.

    There is such a big world out there for Logan and his music. It will be fun watching and seeing what happens and if his path will be like Michael and Josh's. After reading this article and your others, it is evident that Logan is not the only one with talent at your house. Good Job!!!

    I am going to pass this on to a Grandmother in our neighborhood whose grandson is going off to Berkeley School of Music this year. They will love to hear about Josh and his successes there.

  4. It's great to see how much Michael has accomplished as well as helped others. He's helped me so much and I'm so grateful!

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