Mitch Miller: Jazz Friend or Foe?

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Few figures in jazz history were more enigmatic than Mitch Miller. While news of his passing on July 31 in New York at age 99 marked the end of an era, the coverage served as a reminder of just how baffling many of his decisions were in the 1950s and how jazz fared in their wake. Though most Miller tributes yesterday and today note that his vision and taste as a Columbia record producer and performer appealed most to those who were alienated by rock and roll, I would argue that these writers have it backward.

In truth, rock and roll was a direct reaction to Miller and the kind of bland music he championed. Miller once said, “In three seconds I can tell a talent." But his undimmed ardor for sticky pop music to boost revenue at Columbia Records alienated kids just as they were gaining access to portable phonographs. While much praise has been bestowed on Miller for having an unrivaled mainstream ear and golden mass-market gut, his Sherman-like crusade in the 1950s on behalf of banality always seemed odd considering his formal musical training and performance work on earlier great jazz recordings. Many of Miller's decisions fostered lazy listening habits and inadvertently helped doom jazz's chances for greater acceptance.

Between 1950 and 1955, Miler's music choices as the all-powerful head of Columbia Records A&R department drove teens to regional r&b and eventually rock and roll. Many of the records Miller produced were alien to growing numbers of young people who were culturally allergic to the calendar images Miller set to music. To them, much of what Miller produced lacked feeling, sexuality or vitality.

By the mid-1950s, the rise of the vinyl 45-rpm, expansion of independent radio, proliferation of car radios and ever-larger jukeboxes created a sub-rosa market for new music. The target audience of this renegade effort was teens whose tastes and desires were all but ignored by Miller and his industry peers. Regional radio and new record-pressing and distribution channels meant rural artists no longer had to beg intermediaries to reach out to top executives at major record labels. By the mid-1950s, these towering powers could be bypassed—much in the way the Internet 50 years later would bypass traditional publishing.

The rise of r&b, country and blues in the early 1950s is a direct result of independent labels and the music they chose to produce. By 1954 and 1955, virtually anyone could have a hit record, and for the first time in history, anyone did. Hits were only possible if listeners were willing to feed the jukeboxes and buy the records. And teens were more than ready.

It's hardly a surprise, therefore, that rock and roll's biggest hits recorded in 1955 were produced not by Columbia but by  independent labels. Chuck Berry's Maybellene and Bo Diddley's [pictured] Bo Diddley were on Chess, Little Richard's Tutti Frutti was on Specialty and Carl Perkins' Blue Suede Shoes was on Sun. Teens were openly rebelling against Mitch Miller and the music he produced. Their parents were just collateral punching bag for this rage and resentment.

For every Tony Bennett produced by Miller on Columbia, there were dozens of others who were cloy and insipid. Even Bennett bristled under Miller's vision and commercial hectoring. In his 1998 autobiography, “The Good Life," Bennett spoke of Miller's addiction to novelty numbers. “As much as we liked each other," Bennett said, “there was always tension between us. I wanted to sing the great songs, songs that I felt really mattered to people."

To be fair, Miller's job was to make money, and make money he did. But at what cost to jazz, especially as rock and roll flooded the marketplace in the mid and late 1950s? Miller did appear on oboe and English horn on Charlie Parker with Strings in 1949 and he did produce several terrific Dinah Washington sessions for Mercury in the late 1940s. He also recorded with Mildred Bailey, Stuff Smith and Elliott Lawrence in the mid-1940s. And he signed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to Columbia in the 1950s, recorded pianist Erroll Garner and was a supporter of singer Leslie Uggams. [Pictured: Charlie Parker with studio orchestra in 1949; Mitch Miller is fourth from the right]

But Miller never quite forgave rock and its ability to skirt the system and pull the rug out from under him. Said Miller in 1996 about rock: “I can't get interested in people who can only sing songs with three chords in them." That comment echoes, since it would include the blues and at the same time ignores an entire generation's desires [Pictured: Fats Domino]

Miller's reign at Columbia in the early and mid-1950s gave birth to rock and roll, which instantly won over teens who craved music with a feel. During this creative feud between established and independent pop and rock music forces, jazz increasingly found itself with the short straw and much less influential culturally. Eventually, Miller lost the battle of attrition with rock, but by then jazz was much less meaningful to record buyers.

Ultimately, one can't come down too hard on Miller's taste or his desire to succeed and give audiences what they wanted. It's just a shame that he became as powerful as he did and didn't see an equally important place for jazz in mainstream America.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved.

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