Remembering Ron Miles, Denver Jazz Legend
BY PEYTON GARCIA | @CITYCASTDENVER
REMEMBERING RON MILES 🎺
Hey City Cast friends – It’s Bree, jumping in for a sec.
Last week, Denver lost jazz legend and music professor Ron Miles. As tributes to Ron — a musician, composer, bandleader, collaborator, teacher, and friend to many — poured out across my social media channels, one particular set of memories stuck out to me. It was from my friend, local musician and disability advocate Arnie Swenson. Arnie and Ron were friends for decades, bonded by music.
In his homage to Ron, Arnie described a side of my former music history professor that I never knew. Frankly, he paints a very Denver picture of the trumpet and cornet player, a person who made waves across the international music scene, but still stuck to his roots in the Mile High City, where he inspired and mentored hundreds of musicians. Arnie also shared some photos that haven’t been widely published and offer a glimpse of the person Ron was before he was famous to the world, back when he was all ours. I was so moved by Arnie’s words about Ron, I wanted to share them with you.
“Ron passed away just shy of Ornette Coleman’s birthday, something significant to me knowing how important Ornette was to Ron as a creative musician and teacher. In 1986, a distracted driver smacked into my parked car. It still drove okay, so I paid the deductible and State Farm sent a check for damages, which paid for Ron’s first record, ‘Distance for Safety.’ At the time, Ron was deep into creative work with a group of Colorado’s ‘weirdest’ musicians, who Ron would credit constantly as major musical and creative influences for the influential artist he has become to others.
In 1981, the North High School trumpet players were preparing for All City band, and our first chair trumpet player lamented that ‘it’s not worth auditioning if Ron Miles is auditioning.’ Yup, Ron was a legend by the time he graduated from East High School. During the recording of ‘Distance for Safety,’ the studio owner asked me not to put the name of their studio in the credits, since it wasn’t the ‘sound’ they wanted to be known for. Their name showed up on the back of the record cover, and I think they lasted a couple more years before the studio closed (and it certainly wasn’t our fault).
While Ron was working on his Masters at CU Boulder, he worked part-time at Flesher Hinton Music doing, of all things, shipping and receiving. Nothing was more shocking and fun than watching Ron dance hard or playing ‘air’ instruments to different genres of music in the store’s office area. Then, he would shock you even more with presenting music that pushed the comfort zone, like Bad Brains, Public Enemy, Fishbone, and Prince at the time (lots of naughty words back then). He’d finish his shift at Flesher Hinton, jump on the 38 bus, get off at Chubby’s, get a pint of green chili and tortillas, and then hop back on the bus to enjoy his dinner for the rest of the bus ride to his Capitol Hill apartment.
Colorado was not a willing fan of Ron’s music and performance back in the day, and there were staple jazz venues that would not book Ron because he wasn’t playing traditional or fusion jazz. At one basement Wynkoop jazz series show, Ron broke out a bull horn and covered a Public Enemy tune… so, that venue became difficult to book ever again. He started showing up as a clinician at state high school jazz festivals and during one of the clinical sessions (for one of the best high school jazz bands in the state), Ron gently lambasted the band for only playing jazz tunes from artists who were dead; he was less gentle about the fact that they didn’t select music from any dead Black jazz composers.
At a festival we worked together, Ron was troubled by a band director’s lack of ability or focus to keep time, so during the clinic, he put the director on the spot and had him get behind the drum set to run through the tunes. That director actually learned about the importance of keeping time and the students got to see their director getting called out for bad drumming, crappy cues, and losing track of the arrangement during the performance.
I’m so lucky that I got to hang out with Ron over the years in non-musical settings. He dominated in our one-on-one basketball games, we prepared natural casing dogs with Chicago-style fixin’s to watch historic Pay-Per-View boxing matches, we walked a labyrinth together, and we spent hours over a couple years of conversations that revolved around his personal Christian theology and his commitment to walk the life of a radical Jesus. While he was in a process of discernment to become an Episcopalian priest, I got to hear a Ron sermon at a Park Hill Episcopalian church. He was authentic and soft as a preacher, but with a message of radical acceptance and personal awareness and conviction.
My most memorable time with Ron came when we ‘co-ministered’ Linda Gruno’s memorial service, who was one of his closest friends and a Denver-based jazz journalist. It was interesting to watch how Ron mourned the passing of an important person in his life, and it was a major blessing to try our best to keep it together so that we could hopefully help those in attendance with their processes of mourning. The last text I received from Ron in February was asking if I was up for running his Facebook page this year, since I was too busy last year to do it. I said yes, since he was enthusiastic about releasing another record, and it’s really hard to say no to Ron.
Ron’s discernment process for priesthood ended up anchoring him with an acceptance and appreciation for the unique gifts he had as an educator, bandleader, and friend. His artistry will continue to be a blessing to the masses, and I dare say that his music should be classified as a holy sacrament that channels grace, freedom, and bravery.
It will always be about the ‘Ron Miles Sound’ to me. You are loved, Ron. There’s no question about it!”
Arnie also wanted me to share some lesser known recordings from Ron over the years, many of which you can find on Bandcamp. I had no idea how rooted Ron’s musicianship was in the noisier, freewheeling aspects of Denver’s underground music scene. Maybe rooted isn’t the right word — Ron himself was the root.
— Bree Davies
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TODAY ON THE POD 🍽️
“The restaurant industry was my life and those people were my family. I didn’t really have an outside personal life… and I learned through getting sober that the one way to lighten that load and get some help is to start talking about it.” — CHOW founder, John Hinman
When the Pandemic Pushed Restaurant Workers to the Brink, CHOW was There
It’s Denver Restaurant Week, and we’re exploring all aspects of the dining scene. Today, John Hinman is a pastry chef and the owner of Hinman Pie. But he’s also the founder of Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness, or CHOW, a nonprofit offering support groups and mental health courses to restaurant workers that’s grown by leaps and bounds in the last two years. Host Bree Davies sits down with Hinman to talk about how his own mental health struggles led to CHOW, the specific challenges of working in Denver restaurants today, and what kinds of positive changes he’s seeing in the food world.
OTHER ODDS AND ENDS
🍽️ How to do Denver Restaurant Week right: It’s a time of the year meant for celebrating our local culinary scene and uplifting the folks who make it what it is. And after the last two years, they need that support more than ever. 5280 talked with bartenders, chefs, and servers about what WE can do to be the kind of diners they need us to be 👉 
- ☝️ More tips: We at City Cast Denver also chatted with local dining expert and Denver Restaurant Week co-founder John Imergamo on Friday, and he too had some tips for getting the most out of the celebration:
- 💬 “People complain immediately that the hot ticket [restaurants] are all sold out. They probably are sold out for Friday and Saturday. How about try Monday and try Tuesday? And try five o’clock instead of seven?”
🏞️ Keep Colorado Wild: The price for an annual state park pass is now only $29 (down from $84) and will be automatically added to all Colorado vehicle registrations costs, unless drivers opt out. By focusing on quantity instead of cost, the state expects to generate more revenue than ever for parks and wildlife programs and organizations. [CO Sun]
⚖️ Colorado moves closer to affirming abortion rights: The House Bill that would codify Coloradans’ legal right to abortion advanced to its next and final stop in the state House after a historic nearly 24-hour debate. If the bill passes its final vote in the House this week, it will move on to the Senate. The bill is especially time-sensitive, as the U.S. Supreme Court considers overturning “Roe v. Wade.” [CO Newsline]
📚 New Denver library needs a name! Denver Public Library is now accepting community input as it weighs potential names for a new DPL branch serving Five Points, Cole, Globeville, and Elyria-Swansea. Possible namesakes include: Bob Ragland, Lorraine Granado, South Platte, and ArtPark. Voting ends March 31. Learn more about each name nomination 👉 [Denverite]
🚩 Murder charge dropped: Denver prosecutors have announced they will drop the second-degree murder charge filed against security guard Matthew Dolloff for fatally shooting Lee Keltner at a rally in 2020. The District Attorney’s office has said it does not believe it could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Dolloff was not reasonably acting in self-defense. [DenverPost]
- 🔎 A refresher: Dolloff was acting as an unlicensed security guard for a 9News reporter covering two opposing political rallies. (9News says it had no idea Dolloff was carrying a legally concealed weapon.) Keltner was a protester.
- 💬 DA Beth McCann said: “It doesn’t mean that I think Dolloff is a great guy, or that he should’ve done what he did. But legally he’s justified, based on the evidence that we have.”
— Peyton Garcia