Mark Miller was a friend, musical genius

Regular readers know this spot in The Weekender is where we all enjoyed Mark J. Miller’s music reviews, from Dylan to Elvis, from Miles Davis to Sinatra. His musical tastes ran the gamut, and he was knowledgeable about everything from the construction of the chords to the engineering that went into the CDs he reviewed.

Sadly, we won’t be enjoying those reviews anymore. Mark died on Christmas morning at the age of 54.

I’ve known him since I walked into the first-grade classroom at the St. Pius X grade school in the fall of 1968. I went into the first-grade classroom and there, among the groups of tables arranged in pods was a seat for me where Mark was part of the group.

For the next few years, two children who would eventually ask too many questions and have a generally ironic sense of life as adults gravitated together as friends.

When, in the fourth grade I went across the street to Stark School and Mark stayed in the parochial school, I saw him a lot less. We’d run into one another once in awhile through high school and we’d always be able to pick up right where we left off, but eventually, as childhood friends do, we went our separate ways.

About 20 years ago, I heard a familiar voice in the Herald-Star building. Mark was working at the loading dock, and his knowledge of music and his intelligence and abilities brought him up to the newsroom, where he became the Toronto reporter and entertainment magazine editor.

Though we led quite different lives from those old school days, we picked right up. Mark was a conversationalist at heart and could make anyone talk about whatever he wanted to talk about. We had different baggage in our lives made by those different lives we had led, but we had grown into two adult guys who ask too many questions and have a generally ironic sense of life, as we were destined to do from those days in the little desk pod at St. Pius in 1968.

Mark could be moody. He could be downright cantankerous at times. We disagreed vehemently on politics. But, as News Editor Fred Rossano pointed out, Mark did not raise his voice even when those around him did. Friends have described him as a gentle soul at heart, a gentleman in dealing with others on a professional basis. Indeed, the laments for Mark on Facebook have seen responses from politicians to musicians to teachers, to folks from all walks of life. Beyond the music, Mark was an advocate to helping those in need and was heading a food pantry effort in Toronto these days in addition to his work here and his music.

For us, when we allowed ourselves to, my old friend and I were just a couple of 10-year-olds again, remembering being the least athletic guys in playground football.

Mark had an innate ability to sense in other people what they were feeling, perhaps in ways that those closest to us cannot. He could look at life and remind others that it’s about just enjoying the ride. In my case that meant that at age 50 or so, he convinced me that I could, indeed, fulfill a longtime desire to learn to play guitar, that the time to learn never passes and that I could learn at least the basics and start strumming out some simple tunes.

The next thing I knew, I was the pupil and he was the teacher, a great teacher, patient and filled with positive commentary even when the lesson went less than well. He had incredible musical ability and the patience to teach anyone from little kids to his middle-aged co-worker what to do with a guitar.

Anyone in the community who has heard his jazzy meanderings at club meetings and public events knows what a great jazzman he was at heart, playing in a variety of groups from rockers to folk pairings during the course of his life, or just plucking out a little quiet solo pre-luncheon meeting music for Rotary or the Kiwanis Club. He could talk at length on any of the endless number of guitars in his collection, what they were made of, who played them in the musical big leagues, what they were best used for.

His ability was such that he was able to get my natural tension, evidenced by choking the neck of the guitar, to relax and for nice music to start to form in lesson after lesson. His method with me was not technical — we didn’t start out with the metric basics of the pentatonic scale but with simple chord patterns and ways to simply move my tense fingers from one pattern to the next until they started naturally to relax. For the first time in my life, I was making sounds with a real guitar that didn’t sound like a chicken being choked in harmony.

He had me strumming simple rhythm to a little Eagles and Bob Dylan and the Beatles and Johnny Cash and we were starting on some more complex stuff with Pink Floyd when I stopped the lessons for several months because life intervened. He asked me when I’d resume, and I kept saying “soon.” He was excited over getting me beyond what he called “the Singing Nun” strumming of chords and into more complex music that he just knew I had the ability to play.

I didn’t know that going back to lessons in January might be too late.

I showed up for that first lesson a few years ago with an ancient and decrepit Austin “learner’s” guitar. Mark loaned me an Ibanez Joe Satriani, a really nice, valuable guitar. And I felt awful, because I wasn’t paying him rent for this great instrument in addition to the lessons. And, though I know he needed the money, he said, “Keep it as long as you need, no rush,” and just kept on teaching. I’ve heard he’s done that for many others.

(He was part of Team Mojo, which offers free music lessons to children in need. They’ve changed the name to the Mark Miller Music Project in his honor now.

Months later, after asking his advice and receiving the “you’ll know the right one” kind of response, I eventually bought a thin-body Ibanez Talman acoustic. He was not so sure about it at first, I could tell, though in his gentle way he’d never insult anyone’s brand new guitar. But, he grabbed it, started making nice sounds right away in that relaxed style of his and pronounced it perfect for me and my way of playing.

Mark was a natural jazzman who could sit and play a perfect tune from his head, just while carrying on a conversation, almost absent-mindedly, just crafting as he talked about something that had nothing to do at all with music.

He could make a warm-up sound like a concert to me. He was that gifted. I was awestruck by the talent and the depth of knowledge and the patience. He constantly reminded me he had a 40-plus year head-start on my slow-paced guitar chords and I was not to be discouraged. Music happens for each of us at its pace if we put in the time and effort. That’s the philosophy I picked up from my friend and teacher. And, at my age, I learned that it applies to life, as well. I think it did for him.

I don’t know how I’ll advance without Mark Miller in learning more than the nine or 10 or so chords he jotted into that black notebook that is on the music rack in my room next to my quiet acoustic guitar. But I know I cannot leave that guitar sit quietly for long.

It would be a disservice to what he started in my life, years after we sat down together in first grade.

My friend and teacher is gone, but his music lives on in countless students and friends and bandmates.

Play on, Jazzbo.

(Giannamore is a copy editor and reporter for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He may be reached at pgiannamore@heraldstaronline.com.)

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