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Ron Miles, cornetist who imbued modern jazz with heart and soul, dies at 58

The cornetist, composer, and bandleader Ron Miles combined a distinctly American harmonic palette with an openhearted emotional clarity uncommon in modern jazz.
Johnathan Chimene
The cornetist, composer, and bandleader Ron Miles combined a distinctly American harmonic palette with an openhearted emotional clarity uncommon in modern jazz.

Ron Miles, a cornetist, composer, and bandleader who stood quietly within the first rank of jazz artists in this century, died on Tuesday at his home in Denver. He was 58.

The cause was complications from Polycythemia vera, a rare blood disorder, Hans Wendl, his longtime manager, tells NPR.

Miles had a warm and perfectly centered sound on cornet, with barely a trace of ferocity or flash. Through his playing, he could create the sensation of something both sturdy and precious — especially in the context of his own compositions, which combined a distinctly American harmonic palette with an openhearted emotional clarity uncommon in modern jazz.

"If you played a Ron Miles song right, in the best of moods you'd be crying," pianist Jason Moran tells NPR. "Because the songs were full. I equate it to the way John Coltrane made 'Lonnie's Lament.' He knew how to find the joy in a melody, and he knew where the heart was in it. Even just in the moment of playing them, it would just rush over you. A lot of music we play doesn't have that, it just doesn't."

That gentle yet self-assured musical temperament made Miles an ideal collaborator for guitarist Bill Frisell, in an association spanning nearly three decades, and drummer Brian Blade, in a range of combo settings. Miles led a trio with Frisell and Blade for several years, making a pair of exquisitely balanced albums. Miles and Blade also made up one-half of Still Dreaming, joining saxophonist Joshua Redman and bassist Scott Colley in a free-spirited tribute to the band Old and New Dreams, which featured Redman's father, Dewey Redman.

Miles can be heard on a handful of albums by Frisell, going as far back as Quartet in 1996; on two releases by pianist Myra Melford's avant-garde chamber group Snowy Egret, including the standout The Other Side Of Air; and on a succession of albums by tenor saxophonist Fred Hess, a colleague in Denver until his death in 2018. Among Miles' other longtime sideman affiliations was one with Chicago-turned-Denver bluesman Otis Taylor, with whom he began recording in the early 2000s.

On his own most recent releases — I Am a Man in 2017 and Rainbow Sign in 2020, each the subject of considerable acclaim — Miles marshaled a quintet with Frisell, Moran and Blade alongside bassist Thomas Morgan. In fall of 2021, they became the first group to play for an audience at the Village Vanguard after a pandemic closure of 18 months. The sound of the band in that room, under those circumstances, felt like a harbinger of restoration and renewal.

Ronald Glen Miles was born in Indianapolis, Ind., on May 9, 1963, to Fay Downey Miles and Jane Miles. He moved to Denver at age 11, in part because his parents suspected the mountain climate would help soothe his asthma. In Denver, where both his parents became federal employees, he picked up his first trumpet during a summer music program; his primary musical influences at the time weren't jazz artists but rather the likes of the Bee Gees and the Jackson 5.

Jazz became a more serious preoccupation for Miles at East High School in Denver, where Frisell had preceded him by a dozen years. He went on to study music first at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo. and then at the Manhattan School of Music, before returning to Denver, where he began teaching and became an anchor of the local scene. His career in music education culminated in an appointment as Director of Jazz Studies at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Miles' rooted presence in Denver, far from the jazz industry's nerve center in New York, surely had some slowing effect on his solo career, compounding his aversion to self-promotion. But over the last 20 years, and especially within the last decade, he achieved an unmistakable prominence. I Am a Man was included in NPR Music's 50 Best Albums of 2017, and Rainbow Sign made the Top 10 in the 2020 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll.

Among his collaborators, including Moran and guitarist Mary Halvorson, Miles had a reputation for steadfastness. "His sound is so pretty that it's easy to forget how much strength is in it," observes Frisell in Michelle Mercer's liner notes for I Am a Man. "There's just this incredible power and clarity in what he does. It's coming from the inside, from the center of where everything comes from. When I play with him it's really easy to just grab a hold of his sound, or lean on it — and because it can be flexible, I can even move through it."

In the same liner notes, Miles reflects on the primary motivation in his music. "Love fuels my work the most," he says. "My love for my fellow musicians. My love for my audience. My love for the tradition that I'm a part of."

That feeling manifests throughout Miles' recorded career, no less on his 1989 album Witness than on Rainbow Sign. (Among his many beautifully crafted compositions are a radiant waltz titled "Unconditional" and a country blues song called "Just Married.") The generosity of spirit that Miles brought to the practice of music-making is fully evident in the results, which came about through careful intention. "I just wanted to be a musician that other musicians wanted to play with, and that was it, not to be a star," he told Ian Patterson of All About Jazz in 2020. "Just when I played with other musicians, that the music sounded better. That's the highest compliment."

Miles had been planning to appear at the 2022 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn. later this month, until his health issues led him to cancel. The other members of his quintet will now perform in his honor. "We always intended to play something for Ron," says Moran. "So we will still do that, and it's going to be very heavy."

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