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Ron Miles started playing music in the summer of 1974 when he was 11 years old, long before he would become an international icon.
The trumpeter, cornet player and composer went on to work with legends such as bandleader Mercer Ellington, saxophonist Fred Hess and guitarist Bill Frisell. In 1998 he joined the music faculty at MSU Denver where he is currently director of jazz studies.
“I think we have a unique way that we’re approaching music,” Miles said. “It uses what the student already has in their quiver, and then builds upon that.”
The 2014-15 school year, gateway to MSU Denver’s 50th anniversary, was the first time a student could earn a bachelor’s degree in jazz and American improvised music. And they get to learn from an impressive list of faculty that is growing under Miles’ directorship, including Shane Endsley, the young trumpeter and co-founder of the popular urban-style band Kneebody, and multi-instrumentalist and jazz mogul Don Byron from Brooklyn. Both came to the University to teach in fall of 2015.
Norman Provizer, a political science professor at MSU Denver who is a former jazz critic for the Rocky Mountain News and writes for Down Beat magazine, says Miles has “that special something” which sets him apart.
“If anyone listens to Ron, there is something about the music. They would never say, ‘well he sounds just like so-and-so.’ Ron sounds like Ron. And there is no better, bigger compliment in jazz,” Provizer said.
Miles wants to pass his special-something on to the music students at MSU Denver. “I try to give them the tools to express what they’re hearing and feeling as best they can,” he said. “And also let them know they’re part of a tradition.”
That tradition includes great masters such as Jelly Roll Morton, Charles Mingus and Billy Holiday. But Miles recognizes in order to be viable, musicians need to stay current as well. “Our students have done a lot of living. They’ve heard a lot of music and they’ve played some stuff,” he said. “Let’s build on one thing they’ve heard and see what they can do with that.”
Though Miles may be the University’s most treasured connection to the world of jazz, he credits the value of his program to the students. And it’s not their playing Miles considers when he thinks about them, but rather the type of people they are – generous and kind. “The students here are wonderful, wonderful people,” he said.
According to Provizer, that too might just be a reflection of Miles.
“The one thing anyone comes away with beyond what a great player he is – it’s that he’s a great human being,” Provizer said. “And there is a special place for that.”
That special place is the music department at MSU Denver, where even though a master has come to teach, he also remains a student.
“Every chance I get to play is a chance to learn something new from folks,” Miles said.