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Classic rocker Steve Miller has a jazz thing going. And he’s going to show you

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Steve Miller joins blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan in the final Jazz Roots concert of the 2016-17 season in a program titled, From Ma Rainey to Miles Davis: A Blues Journey.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Steve Miller joins blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan in the final Jazz Roots concert of the 2016-17 season in a program titled, From Ma Rainey to Miles Davis: A Blues Journey.

Classic rock guitarist Steve Miller knows what some of you are thinking. He is aware that a few of you might even be rolling your eyes.

The guy who wrote and performed “Abracadabra” — the infectious (some might say insidious) pop single from 1982 that hooked listeners with the lyric, “Abra, abra, cadabra/I wanna reach out and grab ya” — is the featured star at this season’s closing Jazz Roots concert at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami.

You’ll get no defensiveness from Miller, 73, however.

“Les Paul was my godfather, the first musician that I really saw live, and I was 4 years old,” he says from the road in Ashland, North Carolina. “I grew up in a house full of jazz lovers.”

Miller joins rock/blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, the Frost School of Music’s Henry Mancini Institute Big Band, Jazz Roots leader Shelly Berg, Mike Flanigin and Brianna Thomas to perform the thematic show “From Ma Rainey to Miles Davis: A Blues Journey,” on Friday.

READ MORE: Obituary of Jazz Roots founder Larry Rosen

What the 15 million consumers and every bar band in America who burned through copies of the Steve Miller Band’s “Greatest Hits 1974-1978,” LP ought to know is Miller has serious jazz and blues cred.

Jazz trumpeter-composer Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, collared Miller backstage after his set at the New York venue’s Dizzy’s Club a couple of years ago and asked the rock musician to help him with the blues education program at the center. “I didn’t know he knew anything about me,” Miller said.

Miller is now on the board at Jazz at Lincoln Center where he teaches students, urging the young jazz musicians to compose their own pieces, a lost art in the genre that has relied for decades on standards.

Miller, in this conversation anyway, may well be one of the most amiable and most musically entrenched performer to be installed in the oft-clueless Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His passion for music and desire to grow as a musician are inspiring, especially when you consider the Steve Miller Band formed way back in 1966.

Miller takes you into his childhood in a voice that remains as smooth and welcoming as it was on such songs as “The Joker” and “Fly Like an Eagle.”

He shares stories about the blues, the first genre of music that captured his attention, well before rock and roll. His earlier recordings like “Children of the Future” in the 1960s are firmly rooted in the blues. When Paul McCartney needed a lesson in the blues, he came to Miller for a collaboration called “My Dark Hour” in 1969.

“My mom was a jazz singer, and I had an uncle in the Paul Whiteman orchestra,” Miller said. “I was always listening to jazz and, as a kid, we moved to Texas and there were jazz musicians coming to the house all the time. I knew Red Norvo and Charles Mingus. And, of course, T-Bone Walker was a big influence on my life. I was 9 when I met T-Bone, and he taught me how to play guitar behind my head and, more importantly, taught me how to play lead melody on the guitar. T-Bone was the bridge from blues to jazz.”

Shelly’s always gigging. He’s not an academic sitting in some little tower. He’s always out there working.

Steve Miller on Frost School of Music dean Shelly Berg.

Berg, the classically trained pianist-arranger and dean of the Frost School of Music on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus, met Miller at an event 17 years ago, and they have been curating music for Jazz at Lincoln Center and collaborating, on and off, ever since. Berg tantalizingly reveals the two have enough unreleased recordings for three albums.

“He is the real deal,” Berg says of Miller, “not just someone who plays blues licks. He paid his dues the real way and is so authentic.”

He’s a great blues guitar player. He is the real deal.

Shelly Berg on classic rock star Steve Miller.

Friday’s Jazz Roots concert will feature one Miller classic, re-arranged by Berg. At a concert last year at Jazz at Lincoln Center that earned a good review from Jazz Times, they performed Miller’s hit “Take the Money and Run.”

The Jazz Roots series includes an educational component that, since its founding in 2008 by the late jazz advocate Larry Rosen and Arsht Center, has reached more than 8,000 Miami-Dade high school jazz music students. Students from the Frost School will also gain experience by playing with the caliber of musicians assembled for the Blues Journey concert.

Both men are, well, jazzed.

“Miami audiences are seeing something no one else is seeing,” Berg said. “We’re creating for a one-time performance at the Arsht Center. [The students] get the real world experience they need as they learn to fix and adjust on the spot, and 170 school kids get to come in for rehearsal and get to work with Steve. That’s pretty cool.”

“We’ll have students from the Frost School, and this is great for them,” Miller said. “They are working with pros, and they have to deliver it. I think there is plenty of interest now, and kids are interested in more sophisticated music. ... All I can tell you is it’s making me practice more and get better as a musician.”

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If you go

What: ‘From Ma Rainey to Miles Davis: A Blues Journey,’ the final concert of the 2016-17 Jazz Roots season, featuring Steve Miller and Jimmie Vaughan

Where: John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

When: 8 p.m. April 7

Tickets: $45-$125

Information: 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org/jazz

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