Montreux Jazz Festival: Marcus Miller Workshop

Fairmont Le Montreux Palace, Montreux Jazz Festival

Words By Karen Dugan (
Photos By Josh Raskin & Karen Dugan

Walking up to the GORGEOUS Fairmont Le Montreux Palace, I couldn’t help but smile. This was my favorite structure along the entire lake. The yellow awnings and its ornate classical design were simply stunning amongst the green background of The Alps. No matter where you walked along the water, the striking building made itself known amongst the grey and less-colorful buildings.

I arrived (with Josh) in time to walk right in with Marcus Miller on my left. He was clicking beats with his tongue softly, wearing his signature hat and a vest. I smiled and said “Hi.” He nodded and smiled with his eyes. He was genuine, I could feel it immediately.

As we entered the Hotel, we were directed up a grand staircase into an elegant space with pink and peach toned walls. Cherubs and damsels carrying vines of flowers were carved into the grand windows and arches. There were about 200+ chairs set up in front of a tall stage but they were all full of fans. I got a bit sad at the thought of having to stand in the back but within a second Josh had grabbed me by the hand and seated us on the floor directly in front of the people seated in their comfortable wooden chairs.  Within a few seconds there were two rows of fans that followed suit.  (Shout out to my Front Row Hoes Posse!)

Marcus Miller walked on stage after a few minutes. His drummer, Sean Rickman of Garaj Mahal, immediately went into it with funk. I was immediately reminded of Victor Wooten and my mind drifted to the Stanley Clark, Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller project called S.M.V. I had forced Josh to listen to their CD just weeks earlier and it was a project Marcus would touch on later in the workshop.

After the rhythm duo finished playing there was some banter. Miller joked about how “this wasn’t a workshop but by the looks of things, it appeared to be a concert.” 

The space was bursting and the unlucky late arrivals were spilling into the hallways.

Miller explained how these workshops were for us, the audience, and the hungry learner. He could stand up there the whole time and play licks or he could field questions, which were welcomed at that time.

One of the greatest parts of the entire experience was hearing how each question was fielded by someone from Germany, Austria, France, America, Jordan or Spain. Each questions yielded a different accent and I just found that part totally intoxicating on its own merit.

Question #1: “How do you decide to use a fretted or non-fretted bass?"

Here is a little background info on frets:

The metal strips running across a guitars neck are called frets. Now, here's what might be confusing: the word has two different meanings when used by guitarists. It can be used to describe:

1. The actual piece of metal wire

2. The space between the metal strips

Both of these are referred to as frets by guitarists. The space between the frets or metal wires is the place where you should put your finger to make notes. You do not put your fingers directly on the metal strips. So, the area of the neck between the nut and the first strip of metal is referred to as the first fret. The area on the neck between the first and second strip of metal is referred to as the second fret, etc...

Miller explained about frets and how they help one stay in tune. "When you don’t use frets, it’s like you are playing a violin or cello.  Without the frets, you can use vibration to create a singing quality which I love because of the more natural sound that is made."

Question #2: “Are you doing a tour with this show?”

"Yes, 9 shows! Not a lot but it’s really very special to honor the 20 years since Miles Davis’s death."

Miller spoke of producing Miles’s album TuTu Revisited and how he really didn't know if he wanted to jump right back into a Miles Davis session for another couple of years. However, the 20th anniversary of his death is so special and so Miller took his idea to Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and vowed that if they wouldn't be part of the project then it wasn't meant to be.  The two jazz legends were immediately on board and so the project came to life.

Question #3: “Who were a few of your influences growing up?”

(This was Josh’s question and it provided for great content for this article!)

“I grew up in the 70s, the golden years of bass playing. I had musicians in my head like Larry Graham, who taught us the importance of the E-string.”

With that, he broke into Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)”

“Before Larry Graham, there was James Jameson, a Mowtown session artist who played on so many tracks that you might recognize."

With that Miller broke into The Temptations's “My Girl” Here is Jameson's bass line:

"James Jameson was a very inventive man and yet he could keep it really simple and make a statement.”

Then he broke into The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Want You Back.” Here is the bass line:

“Then I got into Jazz with the acoustic bass players like Paul Chambers and Ron Carter."

With that, Miller broke into “So What” from Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue CD. The intro for this song is something that Paul Chambers is extremely famous for! Listen to the intro here:

"When Stanley Clark came on the scene, I was so excited. He was the first one that made the bass an instrument that was allowed to be in the front of the stage. As a bass player, to see that was liberating. Jaco Pastorious was a continuation...

And then one day, I stopped listening to everything. I was in high school and my roommate told me to stop listening because I had to find my own voice, my own style. We needed to get rid of the negative of not having our own style. I really respected this guy and so I stopped listening.

Now, it’s very difficult to stop listening to your heroes when you are a young person. After a few years, I felt I developed a personality. Then Miles Davis called and said ‘Be at such-and-such studio in 1 hour,’ and he hung up.

So, I ran to the studio and during that session, I really tried to find my own voice. I didn’t want to walk away without leaving my own signature. I didn’t want people, years from now, looking back and saying, ‘Hey, you sounded like [insert name of famous bass player here] during this track.’ I wanted my OWN voice. It was during that Miles session that I feel as though I found my own sound. I didn’t know if I liked it, but it was all mine."

Miller breaks into “Power of Soul” by Jimmy Hendrix, the reflection of his bass was shining on the walls and off the faces of the multiples smiles in the room.

Question #4: "I would like to know why you chose and how you developed 'Time After Time' for this tour."

Miles was playing [Time After Time] towards the end of his life. He was always seeing the beauty in songs that other artists were unable to see. He would choose songs you never thought he’d play like the Broadway tune “If I Were a Bell.” He’d show you the beauty in the songs other thought were cheesy.

Marcus produced the Miles Davis Tribute and how he thought by choosing Time After Time he could explain that concept of finding the "beauty in the cheese" musically.

"We needed to expect the unexpected. During rehearsals, Wayne Shorter would suggest taking the song to a C-Sharp, something none of us would have ever thought of  When they did it, it was like the sun came out.  It just evolved..."

He then somehow got to speaking about his discovering Samba and how hard it is to discover new music these days. He spoke about record stores and radio stations the beauty they used to entail.

"Remember old record stores? The owners were true music lovers. I used to frequent the type of stores where you would walk into the store and just ask, "what 'cha got?" The owner would put on the latest find and many times we would walk out with as many as we could afford. It was the same with radio DJs. They used to play what they loved. They were the ones who were discovering music back then. It’s very hard today.

People call musicians masters. When I think of masters I think of athletes. I do not believe that musicians can master music. That is not something that can be achieved as a musician. As a musician, you are constantly evolving, constantly learning, constantly absorbing. I like to refer to them as endless searchers. Wayne Shorter is an endless searcher, always finding new things."

Question #5: "How do you find your personality? How much technique vs. feelings is needed?"

Miller answered with the greatest answers ever delivered after this question.
"You are not allowed to choose," he said. "When you need it, you can reach for your technique and it's great to have that. However, you need your feeling all the time. Best is when you have the head and the heart working together."

Miller then breaks into The Staple Singers's "I'll Take You There." Just listen to that bass line:

"I come from an R&B background and it makes you have to stay doing the same thing over and over again in a song. But I try to add something that makes it different."

He proceeded to play the bass line of "I'll Take You There" in its simplest form. And then as he continued to play the measures repeatedly, he would throw in a few extra notes and colored outside the lines of the measures.

Question #6: "How did you choose the two Seans?"

"Just so you know both of their middle names are Christopher. These are things that happen when you have Wayne Shorter involved in a project. Sean Christopher Jones was on TuTu Revisited and Sean Christopher Rickman had a video on Youtube that I showed Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter]."

Here is the video that got Sean Rickman the job, his work with Dapp Theory at Montreux in 2003:

Question #7: "Over the past 20 years, I have heard Quincey Jones state that the electric bass changed live music. Please explain."

"Before the electric bass, live performances didn't have the low-end because you couldn't mic an electric bass properly enough to fill the low end sound. The electric bass allowed for Rock N Roll to develop and evolve and for the music to be FULL. [Plugging in] changes the music and makes you play differently. Take it from me; I know how it feels to not be heard while playing vs. hitting one note and changing the entire landscape. The art of amplification is what truly changed live music.  Once the bass was properly amplified."

Question #8: "Will you be producing a CD from this tour?"

"Perhaps. We have had 9 shows and we have recorded all the shows with great outcome. Perhaps I can get everyone on board so we can pull together a DVD."

Question #9: In a thick German accent: "Back in your youth, you were part of slapping competitions in school and it helped you with the ladies. Can you please show us some good slapping to get girls?"

Everyone broke into laughter, including Miller who then spoke of Thunder Claps and competitions and how "you only want to do competitions when you are young."

Miller ended the set playing Larry Graham's "The Jam." One of our FAVORITE songs. One of the greatest bass lines to open a song EVER!!! Here is Larry performing it:

And now with Marcus Miller:

"The Jam" a song that we would hear so many times over the next four days I would wager that "The Jam" was, by far, the most played song at the festival.


The workshop ended with Miller walking off the stage into a puddle of fans wanting to just pass him a smile. I had enjoyed my tiny moment with him walking in and so I went to find Josh who had skirted around the venue trying to take pictures with his fancy camera. The staff was constantly asking others to shut off their cameras. Thank God Josh is sneaky because we wouldn't have had much visual content for this article!

Turns out, Josh had found himself just on the other side of the wall in the room where they would eventually bring Miller seconds after he got off stage. When Josh saw him, he said: “Marcus, when you spoke of attending a performing arts school in NYC did you mean La Guardia High School?”

Miller: “Yes, you live there?”

Josh: “Yes, I teach in a middle school that tests the most students into La Guardia.”

Miller: “Where do you teach?”

Josh: “Booker T. Washington Middle School.”

Miller: “NO WAY! I know that school…”

And so it continued for a few more minutes of talking school, music and Manhattan. My lucky Josh had gotten the final interview of the session even though Marcus Miller ended up getting in the last question!


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