Tom Miles

Tom Miles

Jazz Is A Language

Having toured for many years with the Ice Capades and the bands of Tommy Dorsey and Woody Herman, Tom Miles has also played lead trumpet for giants like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. Over some Rito's Mexican food, he talked about touring and what it takes to be a commercial trumpet player.

Sadly, this beloved friend and wonderful musician left us too soon on April 10, 2011. If you would like to read tributes from those who knew and loved him, check out Tom's memorial page.


You'd Better Play Some Lead
(mp3, 960k)

Jazz is a Language
(mp3, 600k)


JK: What was your experience like with Woody Herman?

TM: I played briefly for seven weeks with Woody. I was in a long line of jazz players that Woody didn't like, including Tim Hagans—I was right after him, I think. I lasted about seven weeks. The first night I made a good impression, I thought I was going to be on the band forever, and then a few other times I was so scared to death I played very piggy solos and I really fired myself. That was in the summer of '78. In '75 I did a tour for seven months with the Tommy Dorsey ghost band, and after my first tour with the ice show I went back and did another month with the Dorsey band before returning to the ice show again. I kind of went back and forth a bit. A lot of road experience-basically 1975 through 1987.

JK: How did the experience differ from what you thought it would be like before going out?

TM: Well, I had always wanted to go on the road when I was a kid, so I was excited to go out. The first few months of one-nighters I couldn't believe how lucky I was to be getting up and playing every day. Then within six or seven months I was crying, it was so miserable living on a band bus: enjoying all the smells of the morning, living on a bus, eating in truck stops, never staying in a place more than a day. My last seven weeks of my Tommy Dorsey experience, we played seven nights a week. That's rough.

JK: How far apart were the gigs?

TM: Anywhere from 200 to 500 miles. We flew to some, we usually bussed. It's a rough life. Some guys do it for years; I don't see how they do it, but they do. It's not unusual to see guys get on a band and stay for a couple of years, but I don't know how. Anyway, moving from that to the ice show was like heaven, because you had a week or two in each town and generally flew everywhere. Five nights a week, get home at 10:00, much better living conditions, twice the money, it's all better.

JK: How many guys toured with the Ice Capades?

TM: Me, a conductor, a drummer, and a bass player. For a while we had a pianist who would act as an assistant conductor, conducting the matinees and the extra shows. And then after a while they dropped the piano player, hired a bass player, and made me the assistant conductor. So I was conducting about 100 shows a year. It was a good experience.

JK: How did you like that?

TM: Nerve-racking at first, but after I settled into it, it was fun.

JK: Did you play while you were conducting?

TM: Yeah. It wasn't that difficult though, and I usually had a good split-lead trumpet player that could play anything. The book wasn't really written for two lead players, but we played a lot of small towns, so they wanted someone who could carry them if they were in Butte, Montana or somewhere like that.

JK: Were you also responsible for trying to find musicians when you would pull into a town?

TM: No, a local contractor would do that. Management would hire a local contractor in every city. Over the years I got to know a lot of cats. We did a four-month tour of Japan, sixteen cities in fourteen weeks. And I played with some of the better players around the country when we played Vegas or Reno or California, some really outstanding guys. Although, not more outstanding than right here in Phoenix; some of the best cats I've ever played with are living right here.

JK: Having played jazz with Woody's band, was it a little intimidating taking the lead chair on the ice show, or had you done enough of that already to where it wasn't a big deal?

TM: On the Dorsey band I played split lead and jazz, so my chops were pretty good. And the book wasn't written for a screamer. I think it went up to an F. I might have to play a hundred Ds in a chart, but it didn't go over that.

JK: Did you feel any more pressure than usual on that gig? Because all the cues have to be timed perfectly, I imagine, with all the skaters.

TM: Well, that's what I found out as a conductor is that a lot of that stuff is on a click track to keep up with the taped voices. When a skater would stop spinning or a clown yells, you'd stop and start up again. But after I got comfortable with it, I kind of liked it because then things would stop when I wanted them to stop. The piano would play as fast as I wanted them to play. I could make a skater fall down if I wanted; it's kind of cool.

The main part there was having total, constant eye-contact with the drummer—he was my right-hand man. He wouldn't let anything too bad happen.

We'd have a couple of rehearsals. It was a funny gig: They'd bring me out two weeks early where I wouldn't do anything, and then the last week I'd have maybe two rehearsals. As different stars would come in and out of different shows—like Peggy Flemming would come in for a few weeks—we'd change a few things for her, maybe rehearse a different chart now and then. A minimum of rehearsals. Basically just rehearsing the band every week was a drag, because you've got the book memorized and these other guys are scuffling—it goes kind of slow.

How was your taco?

Tom Miles

JK: Oh, man, it was great. The shell was real crispy, not heavy. Sometimes you get a heavy shell that you really have to crunch through, you know? The meat's good, too.

TM: One of the best things about being on the road for me was the food. I'd never really been outside of Arizona before, but going to places like the South, where the food is different, or New York City, where you could get whatever food you want—no good Mexican food—but just a lot of different regional things. I was never very good at geography because I always found that to be a dry subject, but having seen the country, now I can name the places on a map and know something about them, a little bit of the culture.

It made me like people a lot more. I'd grown up thinking that people in New York were going to be real cold, and actually they were some of the friendliest people I ever met. As different a culture as Japan is, people are pretty much the same, they just want to be treated decently and want to get through the day.

We had a band out of Tokyo that wasn't very good, but they were all friendly. They didn't speak any English, so we just kind of like grunted at each other and pointed and got along with them fine. Me and a friend would go into a restaurant or a bar, they'd see that we were Americans a lot of times I'd find my bill had already been paid. They just liked Americans. I went there with a skater once at a bar in Hiroshima, and the people at the bar couldn't believe that we weren't movie stars, they wouldn't let us pay for anything.

Also, as a musician, they like Western musicians. If me and a couple of the guys in the band would stop through a joint on the way home to eat, oftentimes they'd notice our instruments and they'd ask us to play with their group or play for them, and all of the sudden, dinner and drinks. They'd have us sign their wall, I mean we just got treated with so much respect and love. It was very nice.

As a matter of fact, I was so knocked out with it that a few years later, I was at a hotel in California, and in the lounge there was about eight or nine Japanese businessmen having their little conference. The bartender was a friend of mine and I comp'd their round just because I felt so good about what happened to me a few years previous. It was nice to do a turnaround.

JK: Was that Japanese tour primarily in Tokyo?

TM: It's been so long ago that I can't remember all the places: we did two weeks in Tokyo, I think a couple of weeks in Hiroshima, we did the place with all the shrines—not Nara, but I'll remember it—it wasn't bombed in WWII because of all the beautiful statues and gardens and everything—Saporo, for the beer festival, Fuji. We took trains, planes, boats, stayed in some traditional hotel rooms where you sleep on a mat on the floor, where you take your shoes off.

The plumbing there is interesting. A lot of times they didn't have modern, Western plumbing, so they'd have just a Boy Scout-style hole in the ground, and you'd squat over it.

JK: That'd be kind of different the first time.

TM: Yeah. There was this one restaurant in Tokyo, for a woman to get to the woman's room, she had to walk through the men's room. So they'd come in there and see Americans in there at the urinals and laugh.

The food was nice, the people were nice, the culture was great, and they really loved jazz. This is before CDs were out, everything was on wax. You couldn't get Blue Note stuff here in the country, you couldn't steal, you couldn't buy it. All these coffee shops and record stores in Japan were run by these beatnik-type guys, and you'd buy coffee and listen to Eric Dolphy, you could buy all the wax. It was incredible, stuff I'd never seen in the States. Of course, after the CDs hit, it changed all that, and now you can get everything. It was a good run, I feel real lucky.

JK: When you were in New York, did you guys stay in the city?

TM: Usually because it was just fun for the band, if we were in the New York area, New Jersey or Philly, we'd try to base ourselves in New York for a week or two at a time. We stayed in Times Square; they got a rate on rooms and they'd score a room for us. We stayed at the Century Paramount, where a lot of bands stayed. Oftentimes I'd run into players on other bands. Jack [Radavich] and I stayed there one time while doing a gig for Katarina Valente, and her drummer was Mel Lewis at the time. We did a concert in Montreal with him and were doing one the next week in New York and said, "Why don't you bring Jon down, Jon Faddis?" And sure enough, man, we're doing the gig in New York, and our lead player took a back seat, and Jon came in and played the rehearsal and the show and I got to play 2nd.

JK: That must have been fun.

TM: Yeah, he read comic books through the rehearsal. He couldn't have been nicer on the gig. It was a hard gig, a lot of notes, a lot of key changes every bar, just nailed everything. Absolutely perfect. He was probably 22 or 23.

JK: Was Mel Lewis playing with the Dorsey band?

TM: No, he was just the drummer for that singer. We did a lot of stuff, played for a lot of different acts. I remember we did a show in New York for Rodney Dangerfield.

JK: So the band would sub out?

TM: Yeah, we did cruise ships for other singers. Right after I left the band, they did a TV show with Frank Sinatra. They did good things, just not when I was with them. I had a lot fun, met a lot of good cats, and some of us are still friends.

JK: What about playing trumpet? If a kid has designs about being a lead or jazz player, what advice do you have?

TM: When I was coming up, you could be known as a jazz player, or a lead player, or even be known as a good 4th player. I wasn't playing correctly and didn't have good chops, but I had good ears and was introduced to records early, so I concentrated on my jazz playing. As the years have gone by, I have found that if you want to do any kind of work at all, you'd better play some lead. Now, I'm not talking about high notes, but lead-there's a difference. You can be the 3rd trumpet player and be the scream guy. But if you can lay down a good D, E, F or G, and phrase and read, and lead the section and play in a way that guys know you're going to play that way next time and the next time, I think that's important to do.

Also, I don't think you can be just a lead player. I think you better be a good 2nd player, it would help if you could play some jazz. You know, you do everything, Denny [Monce] can do everything. Big Jim [Henry] is a marvelous jazz player but can turn around and play a nice lead part. I think to be viable in today's market, which is getting smaller and smaller, the more things you can do, the better, including some legit stuff. I don't have a C trumpet, and am not a trained classical player, but I listen to a couple hours of classical every day and try to have that sound in my head if I need it. I switch off on a couple mouthpieces: I've got a real shallow Reeve's that real good for commercial and lead stuff, however I also have a Bach 3C that plays nice jazz and ballads and church gigs. And I try to practice enough on both of them to where I can switch without going nuts on one or the other.

I'd say today, if I was going be a commercial trumpet player, I'd try to aim at being a jack-of-all-trades. One of my heroes in Los Angeles is Warren Leuning. Now there's a guy who won't call himself a lead player, but he plays great lead; and he won't call himself a jazz player, but he plays great jazz and he plays legit and can do a lot of everything.

I even understand that there's a popular player out there named Larry Hall, who does a lot of 2nd and 3rd trumpet stuff. He came into town with Charlie Davis. He always playing 2nd or 3rd, but I understand he's a great lead player and plays very tasty jazz—he's just a back seat player. The last thing I read about him was on a Web site of popular trumpet players in Los Angeles: they say he's on a million dates and it seems the trumpet section always sounds better by the fact that he's in it.

So you want to be able to do everything. It's great if you're a killer lead player or a killer jazz player, but if you can go in and the contractor knows that you can play 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th part and do your best—bring some music to the table—I'm thinking that's where that's at.

JK: When you're young and starting out, playing jazz seems like a great mystery, but after you've been playing for 10-15 years, you ought to be able to play a blues solo. It's not rocket science.

TM: No, it's not.

JK: If nothing else, you can just memorize a blues chorus and pull that out whenever you needed to play something. It's really not that hard to play something acceptable.

TM: I was blessed with a high school teacher that got me into music early. When I was a sophomore in high school, I already had a couple of Miles albums and a Diz album, I knew who Freddy Hubbard and Art Farmer were—I had heard Quincy Jones' big band—so I had an idea of what those things sounded like. And it was all Greek to me. I'd listen to a Dizzy thing and think, "Well, I'll never do that." You know what? After you listen to it every night, the same thing for a few years, some of that stuff happens to you by accident.

You know, I never really pursued books or a teacher as much as I did just coming home and putting a few albums on the stereo and going to sleep to 'em; listening to music all my waking hours, and pretty much ignoring (laughs) all the other aspects of my life except for listening to music that I loved. I think some of that stuff happens by osmosis. I mean, you can't listen to that stuff all the time and not have it creep in somehow. A lot of kids that don't ever get it, well they've never really listened to it. Jazz is a language, and if you don't listen to it and know what it's supposed to sound like, reading all the books isn't going to help.

JK: I think that applies to a lot of different disciplines or subjects you're studying. To think you can learn it, or learn it well, without immersing yourself in it is unrealistic. So aside from listening and immersing yourself in the sounds, any other thoughts about trumpet playing, in general?

TM: You know, as I was coming up, I started at 10 and took right to it. I was kind of talented and didn't have to work that hard, except I played incorrectly, so I always had issues with range and endurance.

I got to the point, just playing all the time, that I got good endurance, but I just couldn't make that leap over a D. Actually, the high stuff didn't start happening for me until I was almost in my 40s. And what happened was, after I got off the road and had to compete with you and Fred [Forney] and Russ [Capri], I started practicing. I'd never really been a practicer, I was always working, didn't need to practice, didn't feel the need, and wasn't really industrious enough to sit down and hammer things out. However, when I got here and started free-lancing, I start practicing regularly. I had a few good lessons on the road, started using those and applied myself to some books that I like. I still don't have killer range, but I've usually got a G when I need it and I can squeak out an A if I have to, which is phenomenal compared to where I was when I was 25.


JK: That's about all you need for 99% of the work.

TM: And there's always a high note player around to play the other stuff.

I'm just glad to still be a part of it. You know, I'm going to be 55 in a minute, and I feel really blessed to have been playing trumpet in sort of the big leagues since I was 22. For three years before that I was working all the time. When I was 19, I was working all the resorts, three to four nights a week. So, I'm 54 and still at it. I feel really, really lucky.

If anything, I have more passion now than when I was in my 30s. There's nothing I like better than playing trumpet. I like trumpet better than music, almost. I like pressing the valves down, I like the way the horn looks, I've always loved the sound. And knowing what goes into being a trumpet player gives me an affinity for other trumpet players. Knowing how you play and some of my other friends play, not only do I love you guys for who you are, but I love you guys for being good trumpet players, because I know how hard it was for me to become a good trumpet player.

JK: How long did it take for you to realize that you are a good trumpet player? Casting aside all issues about ego or humility, there's a point at which you feel, "Ok, I know what I'm doing." When did that happen for you?

TM: There was a time before I left town, when I was about 22, it happened gradually, but all the sudden, it wasn't if it happens but when it's going to happen.

You know, for years I had wanted to be a player—well, I had never taken that seriously until I went to college. And then I thought, "I'd really like to do this," and had some good inspiration from Grant [Wolf] and Don [Bothwell], and they said "You could do this if you want." So I started to focus it that way, but then I started thinking, "How do I do it, when do I do it, when will it happen, where do I go?" And then all of the sudden, it was like, "Well, it's gonna happen, you just gotta wait for it and try to be ready." Because you can get your shot, and if you're not ready, nothing's going to happen.

I was really lucky when I got my shot. Grant Wolf called me one night—I was doing my Acoustics homework for the 2nd time, 'cause I has just flunked it—and he said, "Don Rader called and wants to know what you're doing, do you want to go to the Caribbean with the Dorsey band?" I threw my books in the garbage and didn't look back. And I was ready, so I went and did the job and they all loved me.

JK: Was Don Rader on the band?

TM: He was just leaving it. He had just done a cruise. But, because the other guys knew that Don got me on the band, they all treated me like royalty for a week or two, until they realized that I was just one of them. It was cool, because they all loved Don, so they figured I was a heavy. Then the first week I was in the band, some guy was reading Down Beat and a local writer here had put in the Phoenix section of the magazine that I was out on the road with him, so they thought I was a heavy for a minute, until I screwed up like everyone else. So I had a good week with them.

I stayed seven months. The last seven weeks of that was seven nights a week, often two jobs a day. Then I went right from that to the ice show where I did seven straight months, and then right from that to four straight months in Japan. When I came home, I wasn't fit for man nor beast. I had circles all over my eyes, I was tired and worn out and angry, I didn't want to talk to anybody, a pretty ugly guy for a month.

JK: What was your experience like on the boat?

TM: Actually, they hired me to do just an eight-day cruise. Don figured I would do the eight days and then come back home and go to school, but I just stayed out. But it was great. We weren't like regular cruise guys. We had our run of the ship, I dressed for dinner every night, had caviar and stuff for dinner, and out of the eight-day cruise, we performed 8-9:30 three nights. The rest of the time we were guests.

JK: That's a little different existence than the usual cruise ship musicians.

TM: Oh, yeah, I didn't even see any of the other musicians, and I didn't care. (laughs) It was beautiful. Like I said, I'd never traveled before, I saw how poor people are in Haiti, went to the Bahamas, saw Puerto Rico and St. Thomas. I was really most taken with the poverty that I saw. I mean, you haven't seen poor people until you've seen people in Haiti, man. Those guys, they eat dirt.

All in all, looking back on it, as tired and pissed off as I was from traveling all the time, I look back on it now and all I remember now are the good things, the friendships.

JK: Well, I imagine all that makes you a better person.

TM: I doesn't hurt. I am certainly always open to anybody's way of thinking or living or whatever, because there's just so much stuff out there, I'd feel really hypocritical to say I'm right and everybody else is wrong.

—Februrary 2007

Artist Info



▸ My main setup is a Bach 37 silver plate, with a shallow Bob Reeves V-cup mouthpiece. I also have a Bach 3C mouthpiece that I use for jazz or classical.
▸ I also have a reverse leadpipe Bach, which is a lightweight body with a regular weight bell, a 37. I don't use it much, just keep it in the background.
▸ A nice '69 Burbank Benge which is good for high notes, rock and roll and what-not.
▸ A beautiful old '55 Mt. Vernon Bach that I started with when I was 14. I got it for $200 and my bicycle.
▸ A Yamaha short model piccolo trumpet that has only made money once, with Wes Marshall.


I'm playing a Couesnon flugelhorn from the early 1960s with the original mouthpiece.


▸ An all-time high for me was playing choruses on Caldonia at six seconds per chorus with Woody's band. And basically, anytime I play music with my pals, that's as good as it gets.
▸ Oh, and "Steve and Eydie" rocks my clock.


▸ From the time I heard him when I was 18 I've always been a big Jack Sheldon fan. I was introduced to Chet Baker very early, I've always loved his playing. I love Diz, Miles, you know, all the usual suspects. I'm crazy about Blue Mitchell. Tom Harrell is one of my favorite living guys, Tim Hagans, Nicholas Payton comes to mind.
▸ Who's the young kid from Iowa, I like him a lot...oh, Ryan Kisor!
▸ One of my very favorite that I've been listening to a lot lately is Joe Magnarelli from New York, I think he's just a fantastic young guy.
▸ And all the cats in Phoenix!


▸ For the Jack Sheldon stuff, any old, good Art Pepper album: Art Pepper plus 11 comes to mind, Smack Up, that he did with Pete Jolly and Jack Sheldon. Some of the more recent things he's done on his own label, Jack's Back, California Cool, any of the later Tom Kubis stuff.
▸ With Miles, just about anything. I grew up with Kind of Blue and Straight, No Chaser, which are incredible albums.
▸ For Diz, anything in the 50s, also his big band in the 40s, but anything he did ever. I think he's like the Mother Superior of jazz trumpet players.
▸ As for Tom Harrell, anything he's on.
▸ I can't talk about it without leaving too many guys out. There's just so many of them out there, all wonderful.

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