The apprentice system was once the lifeblood of jazz. Gifted young musicians moved to a major city like New York, signed on with one of dozens of working bands and assimilated the subtleties of the tradition on the bandstand.
But that system has been running on fumes since the 1980s. Economic and cultural changes decimated clubs, reshaped the recording industry and moved jazz further to the margins of contemporary culture. Few opportunities remain for young musicians to crisscross the country with name bands or work steady local gigs with veterans. Meanwhile, former apprentices who paid their dues struggle for their day in the sun.
Pianist Mulgrew Miller, artist-in-residence of the 2010 Detroit International Jazz Festival, just made it under the wire. Miller joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1977 at age 21 and for the next 17 years worked steadily with some of the most imposing leaders in jazz -- drummers Art Blakey and Tony Williams, Detroit-bred singer Betty Carter and trumpeter Woody Shaw. At 55, he's one of the most respected and recorded musicians of his generation, a standard bearer for mainstream values of swing, melodic improvising, harmonic sophistication, polished technique and a tall drink of the blues.
He is, in other words, a flame keeper.
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