Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Lloyd Miller, A Sufi of Jazz

Lloyd Miller with Oud (known in Farsi as Barbat)

In 1957, a family of wealthy Americans, after leaving Los Angeles for Japan, and traveling through Far East countries, finally landed in Tehran. The father was an educated man, and a professional musician, and one of his main reasons for bringing his nineteen year-old son to this trip was to keep away this young jazz aficionado from problems with police which apparently were caused by "drug habits" of his fellow musicians. This young cat, named Lloyd, was searching for something beyond the values and frames of mind of his upper class family of southern California. He was looking for a new musical language that he had found partially in traditional jazz, and also the modern movement known as Bop, but still those were not adequate responses to his spiritual quest.

When Lloyd out of curiosity, in his hotel room in Tehran, turned the radio on and heard someone playing a Tar (a skin-covered Persian instrument that is a combination of a guitar and lute), he understood that he has find what he was looking for; an indescribable pleasure that he hadn't experienced in the jazz clubs of L.A.

This small incident was the beginning of his life-long association with Persian music and Persian culture that led him to one of the first fusions of jazz with Middle Eastern music.

From California to Tehran

"It is all the same musical system. For me to pick up an instrument in a teahouse in Herat, or play in an Indo-Afghan jam session in Kabul, or jam in a music shop on the Black Sea in Turkey, was almost the same as jamming in the Red Feather or Purple Onion during the 1950s, back in Los Angeles. The same spirit, the same feeling. the same notes and some of the same melodic patterns and repetitive and mirroring phrases." -- Lloyd Miller

Born in 1938, Glendale, California, Lloyd started to learn various instruments and immersing himself in New Orleans jazz, through teachings of his father, who was a professional clarinet player. Miller was imitating the style of George Lewis, Johnny Dodds and Jimmy Giuffre and cut his first Dixieland jazz 78 rpm record in 1950. He learned to play various instruments, including cornet, trombone, accordion, banjo, clarinet, bass and saxophones.

In 1957 his father, a professor at the University of Southern California, was invited to Iran, in order to oversee the creation of a school of  business at the University of Tehran.

After the trip to Iran and the mentioned "incident", he stayed in that country for a year and that helped him to learn a few Persian instruments. His restless soul forced him to leave Iran for Germany, where he performed at Domicile du Jazz in Frankfurt with Peter Trunk and Albert Mangelsdorf. "One night at the jazz keller in Mainz (Germany) in 1958 where I was the house pianist," remembers Lloyd, "Don Ellis and Eddie Harris with a Turkish trumpet man called Maffy Falay dropped in with other members of the US army Jazz Three band. After the jam, Don and Eddie read through some of my Eastern inspired charts and Don affirmed that he would continue along that line in his jazz career."

After Germany, Lloyd went to Switzerland and then Stockholm where in 1960 he worked with Sweden’s top jazz musicians, including Bernt Rosengren, Lars Färnlöf, and Lennart Jansson. The next stop was Paris, where he played at the Camillion with Jef Gilson band and occasionally visiting Blue Note cafe, where Miller would be asked by jazz legend Bud Powell to sit in a set or two with drummer Kenny Clark.

Lloyd had many other recorded or unrecorded sessions in Europe, among them playing along with sadly forgotten saxophone player Jaques Pelzer (who has some very fine recordings with Chet Baker), and later on, with an adventurous musician like himself, Mr Tony Scott.

Being a Mormon, on his way back to US, Lloyd entered the Brigham Young University. In his first year, for participating in a jazz contest, Lloyd gave the idea of fusing jazz with Eastern music to his fellow musicians in the university. Under Lloyd's supervision they made a harmonically daring blend of Persian  instruments with a cool-jazz oriented sound, and Lloyd, always a visionary, called that Oriental Jazz. The name later appeared as the title of his first LP. 

Unlike anything else presented at the jazz festival, the Oriental Jazz Quartet (Lloyd and Preston Kies on piano) took the first prize, and their recording turned out to be one of the most impressive takes on West-meets-East concepts in music. 

Oriental Jazz LP (a combination of the Oriental Jazz Quartet, or the Press Keys Quartet, and Miller's own trio) opens with haunting piece called Gol-e Gandom, which in Farsi means "flower of the wheat." Francis Gooding writes about this particular recording: "with its mesmeric combination of Miller's shimmering santur [a Persian instrument], Kies's deftly driving piano solo and the rock-solid responsive swing of the bass and drums, by Don West and Dick Beeson respectively, is an unforgettable piece of music that sweeps the listener along in its wake."

Gol-e Gandom broadcast by KBYU, 1965, with Preston Keys on piano

Managers thought that Lloyd's "bizarre" sound would be something provocative for the taste of new hippies, and their interest in the Eastern music, so in 1969 they invited Lloyd to play at now legendary Woodstock music festival. It wasn't Lloyd's taghdir [destiny]. Due to the weather conditions and the impossiblity of flying down there he missed the chance of playing his Oriental Jazz at the Woodstock, though he was paid a $ 150 check in spite of cancellation! Joni Mitchell couldn't get to the festival area, too, but she was clever enough to go back to her apartment in New York City and write down the Woodstock song which became the anthem of the festival. Lloyd, following the teachings of Daravish, went to a totally different direction, and headed for Iran again.

In 1969, Lloyd was awarded a Fulbright scholarship through the University of Utah Middle East Center to do a research on Persian and related music in the Middle East. So with a clear plan in mind he returned to Iran, and during the ensuing 7 years, Miller traveled throughout the Middle East from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Lebanon and Turkey spending most of his time in Tehran. Lloyd mastered Persian music as well as Iranian folk music genres under the supervision of masters Dr. Daryush Safvat and Mahmoud Karimi. Later, as his doctoral thesis, Lloyd wrote a book on Persian music, called Music and Song in Persia: The Art of Avaz. During that seven-year period, Lloyd performed at traditional music festivals, visited sacred shrines, attended wild Sufi ceremonies, and met many people from different ethnic groups in one of the world's most multicultural countries.

Lloyd with then Queen of Iran (left), Farah.
In Iran, Miller became a key art writer for the English publications in Tehran and Beirut. He was even lucky to be given the chance to run his own TV show at Iranian National TV. In the 1970s Lloyd became a well-known TV personality under the Persian pseudonym Kourosh Ali Khan, hosting his own prime-time weekly jazz and ethnic music show entitled Kourosh Ali Khan and friends. Incredibly, his show ran for seven years. He also produced and directed a weekly documentary series on history of jazz, as well as a special program in English focusing on Persian arts and culture. 

Lloyd in Tehran, playing Autumn Leaves with bassist Roger Hererra in 1975. The clip continues with a 2003 take on the same tune, in Utah.

In 1977 Miller returned to Utah. Gooding points that during the 1970s, a decade which saw sustained Western interest in the music and religions of the East, Miller was not only ahead of that particular curve, but had left it behind entirely. Lloyd resumed his teachings that had been started since mid 1960s. Soon he was invited to countless events to perform Eastern music or jazz of various styles. Lloyd Miller's life, since then, is been dedicated to keeping the flame of traditional jazz burning, as well as introducing the music of the East. Recently he has helped Utah Symphony conductor Chris Wilkins for transcription and reconstruction arrangements of Bunk Johnson, Joe King Oliver and Bix Beidebecke to be played by Utah Symphony. Lloyd's many guest appearances and collaborations with international artists is presented in a video on Youtube

 Spiritual Jazz

Mondomix website describes Lloyd Miller as a musician that was "never given the acclaim he deserved." Someone "working outside the mainstream. His complete immersion in the music of the East set him apart from other modal jazz voyagers, and it is perhaps this dedication to his art that has left Miller in the shadows." Music critic Francis Gooding calls him "an intense echo in an unfamiliar key." Lloyd himself, explains this key, as something rooted in Iran. He believes that blues is based on the Persian Segah modal scale in the section opposite at the end of the mode. He traces back this musical heritage to the time when the Arabs took it (and every other idea of any value including the Azan) from Persia and called is Sikah and it ended up in North Africa then New Orleans and beyond. So in his view, and his teachings, jazz is an outgrowth of traditional old Persian music

Dr Lloyd Miller is capable of playing nearly 100 instruments, especially jazz instruments and Eastern instruments. Here, in a montage of various footage from 1965 to 2000s, he plays 38 different instruments!

He recently wrote to me about "spiritual Sufi beauty of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue", and that music of "Stan Getz, Bill Evans or Brubeck makes a person feel God's goodness and confirms the existence of God just like hearing the Azan does. For me it is all the same beauty," he said.
Lloyd despises pop music and when some years ago a producer asked him if he can use Gol-e-Gandom in a compilation CD of weird psychedelic fusion music, he simply refused:

"I just can't be anywhere near the thing I am fighting full-time, like an African-American that won't be affiliated in any way with the Ku Klux Klan. Once someone has become a zombie for the 8/8 inhuman electronic thumping, there is no way they will totally return to the swingin' 6/8 jazz groove of the 50s or the celestial sound of the coming post-apocalyptic Millennium. Maybe after World War III when 1/3 of the world's population has been grimly destroyed, then hopefully the ugly thumping will be stopped forever."

Lloyd, culturally influenced by Islamic/Iranian concepts of music, writes in Music and Song in Persia that the "Correct performance is 'interior', whereas as commercialized (Motrebi) performance is 'exterior'." A strict vegetarian for over 40 years, Lloyd shares this beautiful dream with us: " [someday when younger people] drink wheat grass, and praise the Lord and [are] not a part of corporate entities that are quick to sell them junk. And they'd gravitate toward beautiful dreamy music like Ravi Shankar and Japanese cultural music, and maybe, just maybe, they’d discover an old LP from Lloyd Miller, and say that this idiot was trying to do it a very long time ago and he was ahead of the curve."

I'll keep writing about Lloyd Miller, his spiritual/oriental jazz, and his contribution to the music of 20th and 21th century in upcoming weeks. Also stay tuned for a radio programme, dedicated to Lloyd's music on Saturday, 11 February 2012. More details will be posted here.

A documentary film about Lloyd Miller's life and music is under preparation, but like any other culture-related projects in recent years, it NEEDS FUNDING. Anyone with any interest in this project who can help me to make it possible, please send an email to esatchmo(at)yahoo(dot)com.

Lloyd Miller's website, including a wide range of materials, from a free to download autobiography, to audio samples and numerous video clips and photos can be accessed here.


  1. Thank you for this excellent piece on an unworthy unknown musician who just wants to contribute to maybe helping assure that a bit of beauty and sensibility as well as sensitivity persists in this last few years of the world's history before it becomes reinvented by a huge spiritual and physical shakeup. Jazz and its Eastern musical relatives gives us a beacon of peace in a time of turmoil. Dr. Lloyd Miller (Kurosh Ali Khan)

    1. Beautiful work! As an anthropologist who has lived in Iran (post-revolution), and as a musician who is working to incorporate some of the Persian sounds in my own music, I really appreciate this fusion: the bridging of music and the bridging of cultures. Diane Tober.

  2. Wow. Cool stuff. Thanks for the great article with all the fabulous photos and videos. Will be sharing with friends and family, and if we come up with any ideas for funding or some $$$ somehow, we'll let you know. Nice. Thanks.

  3. I deleted an anonymous comment because: a) it was off-topic b) it was slightly out of line c) I really don't dig "anonymous" comments, though I leave it to you dear readers to put your name on the comment, or not, but anonymous stuff is mostly from people who can not stand for their thoughts.

    If the same person, again, leave a comment here with the same content, but with a real name, I won't allow myself to delete it.

  4. Fascinating post, many thanks!

    First stumbled over Miller's music via Jef Gilson, another most interesting musician, a few years older and similarly adventurous...

    1. Thanks for reading Ubu. Yes, Lloyd is amazing and I really hope I can make this documentary! I know things are not so good with blogging world these days, but still looking forward to a new, comprehensive ubi roi!