Sound Off: Kory Cook's Chat With Drummer Butch Miles
Texas-based drummer, bandleader and instructor Butch Miles was born in Ironton, Ohio but considers himself a West Virginia mountaineer. Miles held down the drum throne in the Count Basie Orchestra from 1975 to 1979, then from 1997 to 2007. He's also performed with legendary artists Mel Torme, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra to name a few. Currently, Miles is a professor in the School of Music at Texas State University-San Marcos, and when not in the classroom he is on the road with his own Jazz Express.
Butch Miles took time out of his busy day of classes and rehearsals to talk a bit about his experience growing up hearing jazz, his multiple stints with Count Basie and his impression of the Lone Star State.
KC: When did you start thinking that you wanted to be a drummer?
BM: The high school band in West Virginia practiced during the afternoon at the school and marched through town down to the ball field. They would have impromptu parades and I would find myself following the band. I was drawn to the drum section for some reason ... I had to play. Soon, I got in with a friend of mine who had a set of drums in his basement and he invited me over to flail and beat up on a drum set. And I got to liking it, so I begged my mother for a set and she bought me a wonderful starter kit. I worked myself up into a little school rock band but back in those days the rock 'n' roll was kind of boring, especially rhythmically. It was just a big backbeat and that was it. And for some unknown reason I found myself wanting to find out more about the music. So I began taking lessons from a wonderful teacher in Charleston, South Carolina named Frank Thompson. And at the same time there was a guy named Hugh McPherson who had a late night radio show where he played jazz. I started to listen and I also began calling in. We became good friends, and he'd invite me down to the studios to partake in an adventure in jazz.
KC: I read that your big break came with (vocalist/bandleader) Mel Torme.
BM: Yeah, after one show with Torme, he offered me the job, and off I went. And that's been it ever since. It seems like I've been on the road since 1971.
KC: Why did you decide to leave the Count Basie band in '79?
BM: To tell you the absolute bottom truth, is I wanted to play something different - and as great as it was night after night, of "April in Paris," "Shiny Stockings" and "Corner Pocket." It was a dream, until you play the same tunes night after night after night for a couple years and you start thinking, 'wait a minute. I'm looking for a little bit of something different.' It was nothing bad about the music. It was the sameness that was getting to me. And I wanted to go somewhere and experiment [laughs]. So experiment I did and joined the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
KC: What inspired the move to Texas in 2001?
BM: I met someone from Texas and we became very close, very quickly. I picked up lock stock and barrel and moved from New Mexico to Texas to get married.
KC: Now that you've been performing, recording and teaching in Texas for over a decade, what are some of your impressions of the state's diverse music and its relationship to jazz?
BM: You got your country swing thing. But the thing about it is that the musicians in Texas encompass a huge spectrum of the music. Musicians don't just play one thing here, like where you might only play these three chords and rock out, or play only these Loretta Lynn covers. Or all you're going to play is some heavyweight jazz that only five people are going to want to listen to. It's really ... all of it! All of the musicians I know here play everything and they play it great! So you never know what we're going to be doing. In Texas, the music always swings. You could be playing jazz in a club, or out in a field on a ranch in the middle of nowhere surrounded by cattle and strumming a guitar, and it's going to swing. No snooty affectations here either. Especially in south central Texas.
Basie once described his music as 'pat-yer-foot,' Which means that if the music gets to you, the beat gets you, the whole thing begins to, you know, give you something you relate to, you can react to it, tap your foot, pat in time, snap your fingers, tilt your head, hit your knee, get up and dance, yahoo, whatever. And I love that so much about Texas. [The interview ends with Butch laughing wholeheartedly].