Jason Miles, ’73, has had a successful career in the music industry by working hard and being unique. Now, he encourages aspiring musicians to do the same.
On one wall of Jason Miles’ in-home studio are more than 100 snapshots of artists he’s made music with — Luther, Vanessa, Sting.
On another wall are certificates for the Grammys he’s won and for which he has been nominated.
Gold and platinum discs honoring millions of album sales? Check. Emmy nomination? Check.
After more than 40 years in the music business, these wall hangings are all satisfying accomplishments and evidence of a successful career. But, after all these decades, what keeps this New York native still inspired in a notoriously tough business? Love.
The love for his wife, Indiana State sweetheart and sometimes lyricist partner, the former Kathy Bennett, ’72. The love of a great song’s melody, beat and groove. The love of learning, always striving for deeper understanding and the next new sound.
“Many of us musicians are very insecure about things — maybe you’re going to get fired, maybe I’m going to get this, or maybe — all the stuff that hangs on you,” said Miles, who finished his classes at State in December 1973. “For disappointments and all this stuff, and how do you get out of it? You need somebody who supports you. You need love in your life, you need somebody that’s going to stand by you no matter what and that believes in you. You’re going to need to believe in yourself, too, and you’re going to have to learn to go and pick yourself up and regroup.”
Miles’ album “A Love Affair: The Music of Ivan Lins,” featuring the Grammy-winning song “She Walks This Earth,” took eight years of rejection to get made, he said. Record exec after record exec prefaced their meetings with Miles, “Don’t pitch me that Ivan Lins project that you’re working on. I do not want to hear about it.”
Obviously, their tune changed after Miles and his team were honored by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
“We come home and all of a sudden the label president calls me, ‘Wow, congratulations! How did — I’m so surprised, Sting’s on it! How did you get Sting?!’
“‘Well, I called his place; I (asked) if he wanted to do it. And called him back the next morning, and he said ‘Yes.’”
Miles has made his career on offering something unique. After Indiana State, he moved to New York to work with renowned jazz musician Miles Davis — his idol with a talent and impact he compares to The Beatles — and after 12 years, Miles got the chance by perfecting his skills at the synthesizer, new technology in the ’80s.
“I wasn’t going to get in there competing with a keyboard player. I was going to get in there competing with nobody, ’cause I did what other people couldn’t do,” Miles said.
Today, he delivers that message to universities across the nation, telling aspiring musicians, producers and engineers to do something better than anyone else — even if it’s making a cup of coffee.
“And (the students are) looking at me like in a state of shock,” Miles said. He explains, “With the engineer going ‘I gotta have him on this session,’ and he goes ‘Why?’
“‘He makes great coffee, man.’ Everybody knows how to use the patch bay and you know how to do this and you know how to do that, but what can you do that somebody else can’t do?”
After visiting and performing at Indiana State this past November, Miles looks forward to returning to his alma mater again.
“This is a very progressive campus. It really is. They’re thinking in the future,” he said. “Indiana State has moved into a place they can be very proud of. The performing art school is terrific, the instruments they have there are great, and obviously people have been working and are committed, and now hopefully, to tie the community together with the school.”
An avid music historian, Miles says the craft has evolved from the masters mentoring the next generation — and should continue to do so.
“Quincy Jones said when we asked about Michael Jackson, ‘How come “Thriller” sold so many albums, man? What is that about?’ ‘Youth meets experience.’”
As long and as impressive as Miles’ list of collaborators is, he still has a few names on the bucket list — Dave Matthews Band and Chaka Khan (again) among them. Currently, he’s also grooming a young musical act.
“I’m looking for fresh and new and interesting and somebody that I can help mold into something that represents great music and pass it down to generations,” Miles said. “Great musicians come from other great musicians.”
And through relentlessly hard work. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell theorizes in his book “Outliers,” it takes 10,000 hours of practice to perfect a skill — a theory Miles has witnessed from some of the music greats.
“(Saxophonist) Michael Brecker … was always pushing it. And as major as a guy he was, man, he just never stopped practicing,” Miles said. “He never stopped reaching for that next place. And you gotta, you know, you always gotta do that.”
These are tough concepts for many to grasp nowadays, Miles said, as we’re in an era of melody-less music and seven pop singers who all sound the same.
“Nobody’s building on the rock foundation that was. I want to hear some freaking guitar god. They’re too impatient to become a guitar god now,” Miles said. “We’re not hearing (guitarist) Steve Cropper play; they don’t play like that anymore. As the audience gets older and the country gets older, where are we going with all of this stuff? Is it just a matter of people making music on their computers? Or is it going to be people who are also playing music that don’t have the great experience of working with masters?”
Miles’ newest album, “Kind of New,” is set to be released this spring and honors what he’s learned and loved along the way. The title itself is a nod to his music hero Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” which features a musical fluidity that still fascinates Miles today.
“Where did it happen? How did the notes change?” Miles asked famed pianist McCoy Tyner, who played with John Coltrane. “(McCoy) said to me, ‘The notes changed on the bandstand. We worked it out — every night, one-night stands here, three sets a night. There were some real Chitlin’ Circuit jazz gigs. All the clubs were open until 4 o’clock in the morning, and we played — they changed on the bandstand.’”
Miles was also inspired by Davis’ blues vibe on “The Cellar Door Sessions,” recorded by a small band over several nights at Washington, D.C., nightclub The Cellar Door in 1970.
Miles worked out the songs with Ingrid Jensen at The Falcon in Marlboro, N.Y., and other gigs. They then found the right musicians to assemble what Miles describes as “a great band.”
“It started really coming together,” he said. “We recorded live in September, because I wanted that ‘Cellar Door’ feel — I wanted to go and have people hear what a band sounds like with a small ensemble.”
A deal with a smaller label that has a number one album rounded out the process.
“We wrote about Ferguson, Mo., because it’s not — to me — about black and white. It was about seeing the big picture, and Ingrid came up with the title ‘Seeing Through the Rain’ and that’s what we call that tune,” Miles said. “The music has a lot of integrity, and it is in the spirit of Miles. And that’s where it started.”