Sammy Miller and the Congregation. Have you heard of them? You should have by now. On a mission to play joyful jazz music, the collective is headed up by Miller, who himself is a Grammy Award-winning drummer. In his current project, however, he mans the skins as well as the pipes, stepping forth to take care of lead-singer duties, which you can see Saturday night when the band takes the Weinberg Center stage. We recently caught up with him to talk about how he could never give up the drums, Willie The Lion Smith and the value in bringing people together.
First, what’s the story of how did the band first got together?
I formed the congregation just after graduating Juilliard. I wanted to present American music, jazz music, in an accessible way. The conservatory seemed so far away from where the folks and listeners were in the rest of the world and I wanted to bridge the gap — joyful jazz seemed like the answer. Music that’s accessible, feels good, uplifts your soul. I met David Linard, Alphonso horne, Sam Crittenden, John Snow and Ben Flocks at different times, but all in New York City. We all had similar sensibilities about using our time on stage to uplift communities.
You’re the drummer — but also frontman — of this band. Have you ever wanted to step out from behind the drums for good? How has that duty as both singer and drummer treated you through the years?
Never wanna leave the drums. These are my babies! Always wanna be inclusive. Drums, sing, dance, whatever I can do to help the show.
Along those same lines, when did you start playing drums? And are drums still a passion of yours? Who were some of your drumming influences?
I started the drums when I was 5 years old, playing in a family band with my four siblings. For drums, my influences were Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Jay Bellerose, Jeff Hamilton and Brian Blade.
As a singer, who influenced you the most and why?
Willie The Lion Smith. He is a storyteller first and foremost. We must put our heart and soul into the ideas of a song.
Your website site says, “Sammy Miller and the Congregation are on a mission to put the generosity back into jazz and bring art back to the people.” At what point did generosity leave jazz, do you think, and why is that a goal of yours to put it back into the music?
It didn’t happen overnight, but the gradual divide between audiences and artists has widened and that hasn’t ever made sense to me. Jazz was popular, it was the people’s music in the 1930s. We are in an age of bringing folks together — Facebook, farm-to-table cooking — jazz has the same quality of community. We should lean into that.
Have you been to the Frederick/D.C./Baltimore area before? If so, what are some of your memories of touring this area? If not, what are you looking forward to the most about coming here?
We’ve been through before and had super fond memories.
What do you think is the best music city in the world and why?
No best cities. I’m interested in people — south, north, east, west, and what their unique experiences are. The band has a ball getting to know different communities.
I read that you list home as New York, but you seem to have such a New Orleans feel to your music. What can you say about that city and the influence it’s had on the band?
About New Orleans? Jazz was New Orleans music before it was American so you can’t play jazz without understanding New Orleans culture. The richness, the diversity, the energy.
What do you think is the greatest song ever written and why?
I have favorite composers. Duke Ellington, Randy Newman, Irving Berlin, Tom Waits — these geniuses are fearless, in form, melody, spirit. I admire them so much.
And finally, what can we expect from your set here at the Weinberg Center?
Lots of new Music from the band! We are developing a brand new theatre show in New York City, so some of that material, plus lots from the American canon — James P. Johnson, Scott Joplin, Stephen Foster and more.