Roberto Miranda

“God gave jazz to the African American first, and I know it was God that gave it…because James says that all good things come from up above and I know jazz to be a good thing.” As Robert Nesta Marley sang, one good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain, I listen to Bob’s Afro-Caribbean brother Roberto Miranda speak of Jesus and Jazz and think man this guy packs one serious punch and yet I feel no pain. In fact it feels so sweet to be on the receiving end of his blasts of spiritual wisdom, his blows of passionate storytelling, and if you’re like me you want to hear round after round of his bass playing especially when he goes arco on you. “Peter Mercurio looked at me one day and he looked at the bow and he said, ‘This is our breath’…and I said, ‘oh yeah’.” And now we all breathe a little easier from the shared wisdom of one of Roberto’s many brilliant teachers of the bass (he also studied with Verne Martin who was one of Mingus’ early teachers, Bob Stone, Dennis Trembly, Fred Tinsley and two short and powerful stints with Ray Brown and Red Mitchell). Though we think of the bass as the bottom, it was not the beginning for Miranda…

Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Roberto’s first music teacher was his father, a professional musician himself who made and played his own percussion instruments and started Roberto out early on the conga drum. “I used to fall asleep to my father’s bands rehearsing in our house…he was really good. In the 1950’s he appeared with his own band on the Ed Sullivan show…which was a big deal.” Roberto poignantly points out that his father always had a day job too, and always instilled in his son that if he wanted to be a musician he must always support his family, “My father taught me by his example and his words, if I was going to be a musician and a family man at the same time that I needed to make absolutely certain that I was in a position where I could provide for my family and that it was not incumbent upon my wife to support my music….Now did I pay attention to him? Yes and no…” and Roberto goes on honestly to say it took a minute for him to get over his stubbornness and pride…but eventually he accomplished both of his dreams of being a working musician, composer and family man. We conducted this conversation on the campus of the middle school in the valley where Miranda not only teaches full time but instituted the first Afro Caribbean percussion courses in LA Unified School District. Roberto is so grateful for his father’s musical lessons and legacy and gives thanks to both his parents for instilling the love of Jesus in his childhood, “I literally cannot remember one day in my entire life when I didn’t know who Jesus was and I didn’t love him.” While his parents were practicing Catholics who also believed in Afro Caribbean orishas like Yemaya and Chango, Roberto considers himself a born-again Evangelical Christian and does not subscribe to the way his parents worship, though he still thanks them for introducing him to Jesus.

In terms of sacred jazz, Roberto feels a profound connection and understanding of the concept in the Christian tradition, “When I think of jazz on the sacred side, I think about the history of jazz musicians who have grown up in the church and who love Jesus Christ…now, a lot of people never think about jazz musicians in that way, right? They don’t think about this guy who’s on the band stand four or five nights a week, getting up early on Sunday morning and going to church.” He immediately mentions work like Donald Byrd’s “Cristo Redentor” or “When the Saints go Marching In”…”all of those tunes that are played at the funerals in New Orleans.” Then Roberto gets even more fired up, excited to speak on this connection… “My music is jazz music, there’s no doubt about the fact that my music is jazz music. It’s heavily influenced also by Afro-Latin music…but every single piece of music I’ve written for the past 30 years has either been for Jesus Christ, or for someone whom I love deeply like my wife, or for someone I thank God for like Thelonious Monk…just because I love Monk. So that’s where my music is coming from…and I know that there are other musicians like me…James Newton, Sonship Theus, these people write music for Christ and there’s a history of that in jazz music that goes all the way back to the beginning.”

From here we speak so dearly about Duke Ellington’s sacred concerts and Roberto wants to tell me the story of how Duke used to travel with a wooden board…draw himself a hot bath and set his bible on the board and read in the tub until the water got cold! We are both grateful for the wisdom we received from Kenny Burrell about Duke Ellington…I tell Roberto that Kenny always reminded me that Duke never referred to his sacred concerts as his greatest work but he said they were his most “important work.” We touch on the great quote from Duke before composing the first Sacred Concert, “Now I can say openly what I’ve been saying to myself on my knees”…and I ask Roberto how his own knee conversations have affected his compositions. He says right away, “I know that I cannot impress Jesus,” we both laugh. “It helped me to be more honest in my writing…because there’s nothing I’m gonna do and he’s gonna say ‘wooo’. So whatever kind of compositional techniques I may utilize in bringing about a desired sonic affect or melodic affect or rhythmic affect…it’s not about being clever…it’s about a gift that I’m offering which I want to be as pure as I can be at that particular moment in time…I just want to bring him glory.

I feel deeply moved to have my conversation with Roberto Miranda on the week we remember the Rodney King uprising that left such a devastating mark on our city. When I ask Roberto about the way in which music, jazz in particular has aided in the healing of our city, he easily smiles and says one name: Horace Tapscott. Now Roberto’s reflections on the soul wisdom of his mentor and Pan African Peoples Arkestra leader would take many more volumes, but I will end with an idea he shared about both Horace and Duke, who he felt may not have always talked about the depth of their spiritual beliefs but always brought light and love to every community they served and touched. Roberto said that one of his faith elders once said to him, “sometimes the only bible someone might read is YOU. So it’s not so much about preaching the gospel as living it, in some cases never even saying a word…and that may be what Duke Ellington and Horace Tapscott had to do.”
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The post above is from the program notes of our glorious sixth and final “Come Sunday: Jazz on the Sacred Side” concert May 3, 2009 at the Jazz Bakery in its current location at the Helms Bakery Building. I give tremendous gratitude to Roberto Miranda for taking the series out on such a deep deep sacred sound off…ooooh and especially for that last solo bass “Come Sunday” he sent us home with. While Roberto and his extraordinary musicians (James Newton on flute, Kei Akagi on piano, Sonship Theus on drums, Steve Blake, orator, and Lindsey Willams, vocals) moved the audience so richly, the musicians and I were in turn sooo moved by the presence of our dear Buddy Collette in the house! What a way to close out phase one of this journey. The conversation with Roberto was so intense it will probably warrant a second post as I’m still chewing on some of his thoughts…and of course more will be written in these posts over time about the end of an era at Helms…Love to you all and thank you soooooooooo much to everyone who took part in these concerts from the musicians, to the listeners, to all the sound engineers and staff at the Bakery and again to Ruth for 16+ years of creating a home for this music we value beyond words…

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