Playing It By Ear

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Dick Miller ’60 has improvised a life as rich and roving as a flight of jazz. And the tunes keep rolling along.

Crossing the Seine toward Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris on the pedestrian Pont Saint-Louis, you pass a transient street carnival. A performer creates soap bubbles the size and shape of pillows that glint under streetlights illuminating the dusk. Artists peddle ink drawings of la cathédrale. There are the jugglers and mimes of Parisian cliché. And music. Everywhere, music. Violins and harps and accordions and jazz guitars serenade the tourists who linger a while, listen, drop a couple coins into the hat and stroll on.

Just across the bridge, outside the wrought iron gate of Square Jean XXIII — Notre-Dame’s backyard — a cornet, banjo, upright bass and clarinet blend into the infectious syncopation of classic New Orleans jazz. A small crowd gathers there.

Two or three deep around a half-circle of sidewalk, the audience forms an arc in front of the four musicians and a dancer who appears to have come to life from the dust jacket of a Jazz Age novel. She’s an older woman, enchanting in a fatigue-green dress and matching cloche hat. Dancing alone, she bends her arms as if around an invisible partner, moving her feet in the shadow of his vanished steps.

The music, too, is of another time and place, yet perfectly suited to this warm autumn Saturday night in Paris. With tones by turns swinging and sultry, plain tive and hopeful, the band provides a soundtrack for the home movies everyone seems to be recording.

According to a bright pink poster on the sidewalk, held in place with CDs displayed for sale, these are the Riverboat Shufflers. A stack of business cards identifies the bandleader as Richard Roy Miller, the cornet player with combed-over white hair and tattered Chuck Taylor sneakers. Turns out he’s a 76-year-old former Notre Dame fullback whose journey to the Paris streets was as idiosyn- cratically American as the music he plays there.

All Jazzed Up

“This first happened in 1990,” Miller says. He’s sitting at a café, sipping a glass of the beer-lemonade mixture panaché, describing his arrival in Paris with a cornet and one casual acquaintance as a contact. It was a whim, inspired by a National Geographic article about street performers. Then he flashes back to the beginning. “See, I was raised by wolves in Wisconsin.”

“This first happened in 1990,” Miller says. He’s sitting at a café, sipping a glass of the beer-lemonade mixture panaché, describing his arrival in Paris with a cornet and one casual acquaintance as a contact. It was a whim, inspired by a National Geographic article about street performers. Then he flashes back to the beginning. “See, I was raised by wolves in Wisconsin.”

Those records were Miller’s music lessons. He listened and mimicked what he heard. “Still today I’m a poor reader and especially a very poor sight reader,” he says, “but I’ve got a great ear.”

Miller could even hear the jazz where nobody else could, like in the marching Americana he was talented enough to play with the high school band by the time he was in seventh grade. In high school, though, his athletic talent started to take precedence over music.

Miller and two of his friends formed a backfield that made all of Wisconsin take notice of their little Lumberjack Conference school. They were the heart of a high-scoring offense that led Medford to three consecutive undefeated seasons from 1951 to ’53, attracting rave notices in the Marshfield News-Herald and the attention of one of Frank Leahy’s birddogs.

All three were offered Notre Dame football scholarships, but the other two went to Wisconsin and only Miller accepted. “Me with a picture of Lujack on the ceiling,” he says, “I couldn’t say yes fast enough.”

His freshman year in 1954 was Terry Brennan’s first as head coach, and Miller soon realized that, when it came to college football, he couldn’t do anything fast enough. “I didn’t have the speed you needed at that level,” he says, so he assumed his role as a practice dummy, never dressing for a game. “It’s the one regret,” Miller says, a pause becoming a silence that, along with his pooling eyes, expresses how deep the regret goes. “I never got to run out on the field for a game.”

At the end of his junior football season, Miller told Brennan that the lack of playing time had taken the game out of him. He wanted to leave school and join the Army. His scholarship would still be honored when he returned, the coach said, and Miller withdrew to an en- listed man’s life of leisure at the White House.

On Location

“Good morning, Mr. Nixon.” From his post in the basement of the West Wing, Miller often greeted the vice president.

After going through the Army’s motion-picture and television training, his Washington-based, civilian-dress job involved traveling with the White House press corps, setting up the microphones and editing 16mm film of President Eisenhower’s remarks.

Miller was with the reporters when chief of staff Sherman Adams resigned for accepting gifts, including a vicuña overcoat, from a textile manufacturer facing a federal investigation. He watched America’s Cup yacht races on a destroyer escort near Eisenhower’s summer home in Newport, Rhode Island. He even played a round of golf at Augusta.

A few months shy of completing a three-year enlistment, he received an early discharge to finish school. He returned to Notre Dame a more dedicated student than ever, anxious to get on with his life, completing his degree in 1960.

Four years later, Miller was married with two daughters and living in southern California, trying to make it as a filmmaker. There wasn’t much work.

He made an experimental, 10-minute film that aired on a loal program featuring critiques from well-known directors. George Seaton, who directed Miracle on 34th Street, reviewed Miller’s movie and then invited him to lunch at his country club.

Seaton talked about the long odds against young directors in the business. He had something in mind for Miller, though.

“Would you go anyplace?” Seaton asked.

“George,” Miller said, “I would go to East Tibet.”

Seaton put him in touch with George Stevens Jr., the son of the Oscar-winning director of A Place in the Sun, Shane and The Diary of Anne Frank. The younger Stevens worked for the U.S. Information Agency, commissioning documentaries about American government initiatives around the world. In 1966 Stevens sent Miller to Libya.

“It was like being on the moon,” Miller says, but there were films to be made, including a 35mm color documentary about a Moroccan irrigation effort called With Water: Hope. “I shot it very poetically. The story is just about water, preserving it . . . [through] concrete ditches that hold water, dams in the desert, so when it rains it doesn’t disappear. So they grow a little more food and they have a little bit better life.”

Unrest in the region exploded in June 1967 when Israel launched an attack on the Egyptian air force. Families of government employees, including Miller’s wife and daughters, were airlifted out, and President Lyndon Johnson soon recalled nonessential personnel. Miller retained the position of regional filmmaker for North Africa, but he was based in Virginia, where he edited the Moroccan footage that he had finished shooting before returning to the States.

While cutting the film, frustrated with the music available to score it, he visited an assistant’s apartment for a beer. A record play- ing on the turntable reminded Miller of Debussy’s “La Mer.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s the Modern Jazz Quartet.”

“Oh, my God, that would be lovely, it’s what I’m looking for,” Miller said, but he put the idea out of his head as fast as he had it, knowing it would be impossible to arrange the rights.

Half an hour later, paging through the paper, his assistant happened across an ad for a Modern Jazz Quartet performance in Bethesda. The band would be in town for 10 days. Miller caught a performance and then shyly asked the quartet’s leader, John Lewis, about “maybe possibly doing some just — what? — doing some vamping” in the recording studio. “I don’t have the guts to ask you to do anything more than that.”

“Let’s see the film,” Lewis said. Miller arranged for an art theater to open the next morning to screen it for the band, and they agreed to do much more than vamp in the studio. They promised to write an original score. The piece became the title track on the band’s 1968 album, Under the Jasmin Tree, and that experience became the fondest memory of Miller’s filmmaking career.

Upon his return to California, Miller continued making movies in Los Angeles in the 1970s, working with a small film company on contract jobs with the government and other independent productions. Soon his fingers started twitching to play his horn again. Occasional jam sessions in Africa had kept them oiled, but Miller knew he lacked polish.

Clarinetist Rosy McHargue’s band played at a club called Ster- lings on Ocean Boulevard in Santa Monica, and he let Miller sit in once in a while. “It was then that I started really learning my horn,” he says, eventually becoming McHargue’s lead cornet.

Bill Knowles, an ABC News producer in Los Angeles, shared Miller’s love for traditional jazz and got to know him through mutual musician friends. In the 1980s, Miller was divorced and “chased a dream” with Knowles, starting a production company to make films about jazz bands. “And, of course, we lost our shirt,” Knowles says, chalking it up to declining interest in their favorite music. “There’s just no money in it — except on the streets of Paris.”

Street Music

By necessity and choice, Miller has been a wanderer since boyhood. He moved often with his parents for his first nine years until they settled in Medford, then off to college and the military, and on to the filmmaking post overseas. New places and new faces have defined different phases of his life. So in his early 50s, when he read the National Geographic article about Paris street performers, the lure of a new adventure overwhelmed any apprehension. His mother gave him $2,500 and said, “Stay until the money runs out.” It never has.

His only contact in Paris was a singer named Kiki Desplat. Miller had corresponded with her since they met at a Sacramento jazz festival a few years earlier. After stepping off the train at Gare du Nord in 1990, he went straight to Le Petit Journal, a club where Desplat performed. She wouldn’t be there for another two nights, but he introduced himself to the band playing at the time and was invited to sit in right away. Miller played that night and the next, performing twice in Paris before his first rendezvous with Desplat.

That sort of musical bonne chance accompanied him around town. On his second day, wandering the Left Bank alone with his horn, he stumbled upon the spot where street musicians gathered, identifiable by the scattered instrument cases. A red-haired kid named Billy Collins, with sharp Bronx notes in his accent, struck up a conversation. He asked what kind of music Miller played.

“Jazz,” he said. “Traditional jazz.”

“‘You play Fats Waller stuff?” said Collins, who happened to be indulging an interest in the jazz pianist, learning his songs from a book. Few of his friends were versed in them, but Miller was, so the two had an immediate connection. Collins, a guitarist, summoned a bass player he knew from a nearby bar called The Mazet, and formed a trio on the spot that started playing on the corner. “Within a half hour,” Miller says, “we had made some money.”

Nothing like the money he would make on a trip to Switzerland a few days later. A violin player and a singer were coming from London to travel with Collins and his friends for a little working vacation. They invited Miller along. “So three days later I’m on the train to Zurich,” he says. “And we played in Switzerland for about 10 days and did very well.”

Back in Paris, Miller and Collins played as a duet around Sacré-Coeur. Miller soon assembled his first quartet from among the musicians he got to know. Then a chanteuse chose him.

A 16-year-old girl named Maddie asked if she could sing with his band. “She sat on the curb and sang ‘Georgia’ and knocked me out,” Miller says. She’s had that effect on a lot of people since. Maddie grew up to become the modern-day Billie Holiday named Madeleine Peyroux, but as a teenager she sang with Miller’s cornet accompaniment and fast became the band’s best busker.

“Maddie’d sing a number, and she’d pass the hat,” Miller says. “Having a nice 16-year-old girl pass the hat helps a lot. She was good at it.”

When they played near a club that American jazz legends once haunted called Le Bilboquet, the manager would step outside to smoke a cigar, chat with his friends and listen to the band. He was always good for 200 francs. One day he offered a two-week gig at the club to fill a vacant block on his August calendar.

Miller almost said no. The group had recently lost its saxophone player, and he wouldn’t disrespect the place by accepting without a worthy reed player.

A clarinetist and saxophonist named Dan Levinson came to mind. Miller knew Levinson as a high school student who sat in with McHargue’s band in California. He had since graduated from NYU and was working with the jazz pianist Dick Hyman. At Hyman’s urging, Levinson accepted the offer for Le Bilboquet dates. Now a world-touring performer, Levinson still makes an occasional cameo on the Paris streets with the Riverboat Shufflers.

Miller sensed that Levinson would amount to something big when Miller would wake up to use the bathroom at 7 a.m., three or four hours after they got in from the previous night’s show. “He’s up practicing,” Miller says.

Knowles, Miller’s former filmmaking partner, has similar stories about Miller. When Miller lived in the San Fernando Valley in the mid-1980s, his home had a horse barn where he spent every spare moment practicing in the same fashion he did as a kid. A lifelong admirer of the 1920s cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, Miller stockpiled his recordings, listened and imitated. “He would take a tape recorder out there with all of Bix’s tunes on it and play along,” Knowles says, “and just play over and over again. He’s the hardest working guy I’ve ever seen.”

That was the allure of Paris, the opportunity for regular work, to improve and perform at the same time. The Riverboat Shufflers play a handful of times a week at various locations — along the Boulevard Saint-Germain or Rue de Buci, in Abbesses near Montmartre, at Galeries Lafayette and around the bridge by Notre-Dame.

This is Miller’s fourth “trip” to Paris since he first came in 1990, and his longest, beginning in 2008, when he formed the current incarnation of his band. He used to spend two or three years at a time, then return to the States. Once, as a Parisian interlude, he moved to the Bay Area in California, working in a San Jose law office for a couple years so he could play weekly with cornetist Jackie Coon’s band. “Because he wanted to get better,” Knowles says. “He is today a much better player than he ever was when I heard him in the ’80s, because he’s worked at it.”

Paris, in particular, makes the work worthwhile. On a bad night, the five or six performers make the equivalent of 40 to 50 American dollars each. They’re often invited to play weddings or parties, including a few expenses-paid boondoggles to the French countryside. Once in a while they perform at Le Petit Journal, the site of Miller’s introduction to the Paris jazz scene, but he says the money’s better on the street. The second Madeleine, the band’s dancer and charmer, manages the cash, sorting the euros from the suitcase where they collect into equal shares.

She used to be a spectator, dancing to the Riverboat Shufflers with her husband. When he died, the band became part of her extended family. That her name happens to be Madeleine seems especially fitting, putting her in the ethereal place Madeleine Peyroux once occupied, her dance steps as entrancing as the singer’s voice.

Miller handles the vocals himself now — offering a much earthier tone, let’s put it that way — and the instruments harmonize and synchronize to irresistible effect, reflected in all the undulating shoulders in the surrounding crowd.

At the center of it all, Miller serves as a sort of narrator and conductor. He stands with his cornet dangling at his side, introducing each number with an enthusiastic lesson about the history he knows as well as the notes. Counting time to bring the Riverboat Shufflers to life, he belts out lyrics, pausing to thank people who spare change and to spread applause around to the soloists. Then, after a sip of wine from a plastic cup, Miller lifts his cornet to his lips, grateful for the chance to do what he never could as a Notre Dame fullback: play.

Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at