Apr 30, 2015 1:54 PM

AP Interview: Marcus Miller on race, slavery and jazz

The Associated Press

PARIS (AP) Jazz musician Marcus Miller's decades-long resume includes multiple Grammy Awards, work with Miles Davis and even an appearance on a Michael Jackson album, but now he's relishing his second calling as a UNESCO Artist For Peace and spokesman for the organization's Slave Route Project.

The AP caught up with the bassist, composer and producer during his trip to Paris to perform at Thursday's International Jazz Day.

His eyes lit up when he recalled being tapped in 2012 by Irina Bokova, the head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization after a concert in which he performed a song about captive Africans.

She thought he would be a unique voice to educate the world through words and music about what African slaves achieved despite the horrors they faced. UNESCO's Slave Route Project aims to contribute to a better understanding of the causes and consequences of slavery while highlighting the global transformations that came from it.

"The idea of beauty coming out of horrible situations is really profound," said Miller, 55, who lives in Los Angeles. "The emphasis isn't suffering, it's that people overcame this horrible era in our history and have found ways to thrive."

The down-to-earth jazzman's journey to the roots of slavery began during a trip to the island of Goree, a tiny strip of land off the Senegalese coast where captive Africans were taken before being shipped off to the Americas.

"I thought I was emotionally and mentally prepared. But when you're standing there, it's a whole different thing," he said.

The experience inspired him to compose a song, "Goree," and recount the story of the island in concerts where, he said, it struck a chord.

His latest album, "Afrodeezia," released in March, combines his interest in music and African history. It's a groove-filled musical odyssey exploring how the rhythms and melodies brought from African Slave route shaped the music of the U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean.

It's already received rave reviews and led to a performance on the Late Show with David Letterman.

It's well documented how much jazz and blues owe to the musical and vocal traditions brought to the U.S. by slaves from Africa.

"I thought it would be cool to collaborate with different musicians along the stops of the Slave Route... With 'Afrodeezia,' it was celebratory not the darkness but the light.

"Taking the negative and turning it into positive is really an important aspect of this music. African-Americans do this all the time," he said, citing soul food created from food that slave masters didn't want as an example.

But 150 years after slavery was officially abolished in the U.S. in 1865, Miller believes there's still much work to do, as evidenced by the violence that recently flared in Baltimore after a black man suffered severe spinal injuries when he was stopped by police. It was the latest high-profile case of a black man in the U.S. dying as the result of a police encounter.

Paradoxically, Miller said he believes the historic election of America's first African-American president has intensified racial tensions in the U.S.

"I feel like when Obama was elected president, people harbored these feelings - you know what I mean, resentful," he says.

But Miller sees Obama as a prominent role model for African-Americans.

"When I was growing up you were going to be a ball player or a musician, this was your way out of the hood," he said. "Now you can be one of the Obama brothers, he gets As."


Thomas Adamson can be followed at http://Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP


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