Max Miller

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There might not be a large discography for this Chicago jazz artist, but by all accounts he has been what is informally known as "a playin' (censored)" all his life. His performing career stretched back…
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There might not be a large discography for this Chicago jazz artist, but by all accounts he has been what is informally known as "a playin' (censored)" all his life. His performing career stretched back to the Roaring Twenties. The 16-year-old Max Miller participated in tours involving various romping territory bands of the Midwest, playing both banjo and guitar. The subject of his instruments provides ample evidence of his ability to play, play, play. He eventually switched to a double of piano and vibraphone in the early '40s, but those in the know did not forget his previous abilities as a string plucker, not to mention legends of him taking care of business from any vantage point in the rhythm section. John Chilton's Who's Who in Jazz lists Miller as also playing bass and drums.

A record buyer excited by these accounts will indeed find Max Miller discs in the shops, but these are the work of a prolific British comedian and vaudeville entertainer whose career began just a bit later than the Chicagoan, although he was actually nearly 20 years older. An early-'50s series of 10" vinyls on Columbia featuring pianists in solo and trio settings is the major surviving documentation of Miller as Chicago jazz piano stylist. These sides were originally aimed at cool bachelors obsessed with their hi-fi systems, collectively entitled the Piano Moods Series. These were make-out discs, a fact Miller underscored by hugging standards such as "Embraceable You" for his session. The Mosaic label deemed the entire project worth reissuing in 2000. Miller is considered part of the obscure group of pianists featured in this collection. More than ten times, a dozen performances by jazz pianists were recorded for the series, also including stars such as Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, and Earl Hines.

Miller's place in the biography of the famous big-band singer Anita O'Day is hardly obscure, and better yet provides an opportunity to repeat a miserable joke about singers: How do you tell when a singer is knocking at the door? They don't know how to come in! If O'Day can possibly be pictured starring in this joke, not an unpleasant image visually, then it was Miller who taught her how to come in, as in figuring out the right moment in the instrumental introduction in which to begin singing. The singer began her career in the late '30s at the age of 19, vocalizing in front of the Max Miller Band at Chicago venues such as the Three Deuces and the Off-Beat, appropriate enough considering the musical knock-knock joke.

Miller is also mentioned in accounts of both the 1933 and 1934 World's Fair events in Chicago, where he gigged in various bands as a guitarist. Despite that kind of grandeur, Miller's main venues were the more simplified stages of nightclubs and radio stations. His involvement with broadcasting began around the time he hired O'Day, Miller playing as a staff performer for WIND in Gary, IN, and WJJD in Chicago. The pianist led most of his own groups, one exception being a 1942 outfit with Shorty Sherock, whose name sounds like the jotting of a dissatisfied building contractor. During the Second World War, Miller was out of the music business, working in a defense plant. This is in stark contrast to the British Max Miller, who had his greatest period of popularity during the war years. The pianist returned to performing in Chicago clubs in the '50s and has been going strong ever since.