No longer The Joker, Steve Miller gets serious talking music with young musicians

Rock musician Steve Miller (with blues musician Jimmie Vaughan, right) gives advice to Miami-Dade jazz band students at Jazz Roots’ Sound Check program on April 7, 2017 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
Rock musician Steve Miller (with blues musician Jimmie Vaughan, right) gives advice to Miami-Dade jazz band students at Jazz Roots’ Sound Check program on April 7, 2017 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

Steve Miller surveys a room of 170 high school jazz band students from the lip of the John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall stage inside the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

Some of the teens gathered here in April from 30 Miami-Dade public schools are eager to hear what the rock star has to offer. These kids have heard many of his group’s ’70s pop hits, which include “The Joker,” “Rock’n Me” and “Take the Money and Run.”

Miller agreed to let them watch his rehearsal with blues musician Jimmie Vaughan; pianist/arranger Shelly Berg, the University of Miami Frost School of Music’s dean; and members of the school’s Henry Mancini Institute Big Band.

More: Read about other Miami music outreach programs

They were all here for last season’s closing Jazz Roots performance and its Sound Check component, in which the featured performers meet with students before the concert to act as mentors with hands-on instruction.

The Jazz Roots Sound Check program is free for the jazz band students, with transportation and tickets provided by the Arsht for each performance. Buses haul more than 150 students from the participating schools to each of the season’s six concerts, which have featured artists including Dave Brubeck, George Benson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sonny Rollins and Chick Corea.

After Jazz Roots founder Larry Rosen’s death in 2015, Berg stepped in as the program’s artistic adviser, a role he’ll continue for the 10th season, which opens Nov. 3 with a centennial tribute to jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. Benson returns on Feb. 16, and Chucho Valdés closes on April 20.

At the Steve Miller Sound Check last April, many of the students are vaguely familiar with the rock star’s name. Maybe mom and dad had one or two of his albums — probably “Fly Like an Eagle” or “Book of Dreams,” since those records seemed to be required listening for anyone growing up in 1977.

Still, many have no clue who this 73-year-old is, but they nod politely. While to them he’s no Bruno Mars, they are all musicians at their schools, so they can recognize that he’s been playing a mean blues guitar.

“How many of you have been publishing? How many of you know how to start publishing?” Miller said.

No one raised their hand. So Miller issued a challenge.

Miller rear point to students
Steve Miller makes a point to a group of music students from Miami-Dade who were invited to meet him during Jazz Roots at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on April 07, 2017. PEDRO PORTAL

“Next time I see you guys, I want you to have gone to your schools and tell them, ‘Teach me how to do business and start a publishing company.’ 

“Don’t not pay attention to what I’m telling you now,” Miller commanded. “Learn how to start publishing and have 400 tunes and know how to copyright your music and own your music, because you’ll make more money than just performing. You get lucky and have a pop tune and a hit, that means something. That music can last for 100 years, and a copyright is extremely valuable.”

If there were any doubters in the hall, few remained. Eyes popped after Miller added, “I made $11 million for licensing ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ to the Postal Service 25 years after I wrote it. Own your music!

Miller counting licensing money
UM Frost School of Music Dean Shelly Berg, left, listens as pop star Steve Miller tells Miami-Dade high school students he made $11 million licensing his 1976 hit, “Fly Like an Eagle,” to the U.S. Postal Service. The musicians were part of Jazz Roots at the Arsht Center on April 07, 2017. PEDRO PORTAL

The statement made an impression on Christian Cuevas, 17, a John A. Ferguson Senior High School senior who is headed to Berklee College of Music in Boston. “The fact he owns his publishing and the fact he made his own business. I play guitar and am a really big fan of Steve Miller,” he said. His mom turned him on to the “Abracadabra” songwriter.

“I do want to follow that career path of performing and touring the U.S. This was teaching me more in 30 minutes than I had in three to four years of performing music,” Christian said.

Laura Osorio, 18, a tenor sax player at Hialeah High School wasn’t hip to Miller before his Sound Check lecture, but she had been to a couple of Jazz Roots concerts. “I really like this program. Every year, I look forward to it. It shows a different side of jazz and I learn a lot,” she said. “This presentation showed me you can do different things. You can do business or education.”

In its first nine seasons, Jazz Roots played before 80,000 guests, according to the Arsht Center. More than 8,000 Miami-Dade Public Schools jazz band students have participated in its hands-on Sound Check educational component, a collaboration between the Arsht and the school system’s Visual & Performing Arts Department.

Gasior demonstrates
James Gasior, professor at New World School of the Arts, demonstrates blues music to a group of students from Miami-Dade at the Jazz Roots series at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on April 07, 2017. PEDRO PORTAL

The session at April’s Steve Miller-themed concert — “From Ma Rainey to Miles Davis: A Blues Journey” — also featured a backstage dinner, a film on blues history that revealed the music’s influence on contemporary rock and rap, and a scholarly lecture and demonstration on piano by James Gasior, a jazz studies professor at the New World School of the Arts.

“It’s a fantastic program,” Gasior said of Jazz Roots after his guest presentation. “I’ve given my life to jazz education, so this is natural and a passion of mine. I hope that they can understand something truly magnificent. I hope it translates into other ways of caring and sharing.”

Students at Gasior blues lecture
Miami-Dade Public School students, from left: Jamall Pinckney, Breanna Michel, Andrea Vargas and Danielle Alcantara, attended a blues class given by James Gasior, a professor at New World School of Arts, at the Arsht Center during Jazz Roots’ Sound Check session on April 07, 2017. PEDRO PORTAL

Berg met Miller 17 years ago, and they have been curating music for Jazz at Lincoln Center and collaborating, on and off, ever since.

“Miami audiences are seeing something no one else is seeing,” Berg said of Jazz Roots, which also gives his UM students — many of whom are just a few years older than the high schoolers at the Sound Check — the opportunity to play on stage with the masters. They “get the real-world experience they need as they learn to fix and adjust on the spot. And 170 schoolkids get to come in for rehearsal and get to work with Steve. That’s pretty cool.”

For Miller, who is on the board at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, where he urges its students to write new music rather than rely solely on the standards — echoing advice he gave in Miami — Jazz Roots benefits novice and seasoned performer, alike.

“All I can tell you is it’s making me practice more and get better as a musician.”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

Jazz Roots 10th anniversary lineup

Jazz Roots’ 10-anniverary seaon begins in November. For general public ticket sales and season subscription information, call 305-949-6722 or visit

Here’s the 2017-18 lineup:

Nov. 3: Ella Fitzgerald 100th Birthday Tribute

Dec.15: An Evening with Jon Batiste and Stay Human

Jan. 12: Generations: Joey Alexander and Ramsey Lewis

Feb. 16: George Benson: A Night of Breezin’ and Greatest Hits

March 2: Gregory Porter: The Voice of Our Time

April 20: Cubismo! Chucho Valdés: Irakere 45

Schools information: Miami-Dade public school music teachers can call 786-468-2299 or email to sign up for the concert they would like to send their students to and Jazz Roots will organize the details.

Also, The Steve Miller Band, with Peter Frampton, perform at 7:30 p.m. July 14 at Hard Rock Live, near Hollywood. Tickets are $55-$130 through Ticketmaster or