September 24, 2009

Bronze bust of city jazz icon set to grace Strathcona park

Memorial to Big Miller will be unveiled Saturday

By Roger Levesque, Freelance

For many fans, he was a larger-than-life character, and now Clarence Horatio "Big" Miller will enjoy a larger-than-life presence -- in bronze.

Saturday afternoon, the public is invited to witness the unveiling of a new bronze bust of the late Edmonton blues and jazz singer.

Local artist Danek Mozdzenski was commissioned to sculpt a bust of Miller's image, which was recently cast in bronze. The metre-high bust will sit on a special pedestal in the small park named after Miller, just outside the Yardbird Suite jazz club in Old Strathcona.

"Big Miller was part of a great era in Edmonton, a real member of the community who helped to set the standard musically," explains John Mahon, executive director of the Edmonton Arts Council. "He was an important mentor for many in the music scene and a guy who really exuded confidence."

It's been seven years since a committee, including Sen. Tommy Banks and city parks officer Terry Jossy, began raising funds to create the Miller memorial. Mahon got involved about a year ago to help finish the project. Some 50 individuals or organizations, including the Strathcona Playground Society and Don and Barbara Poole, contributed to the statue's $60,000 cost, most of which went to materials.

Mozdzenski's work is already well-known locally. He created the figures in Ezio Faraone Park and the Fire Fighters Memorial next to the Walterdale Theatre, among other sculptures.

"It's a great gift to the city and to our musical legacy," adds Mahon.

Miller was born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1922, and was rooted in church music and the blues.

He originally came to fame for using his powerful baritone in the Kansas City blues shouter style. During his early career, he performed with some of the greatest bandleaders from the golden age of jazz and blues, including Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, hitting many famous venues across North America.

"The blues is a way of life," he explained in a 1991 interview. "It fits into your life's plan."

Brushes with racism pushed Miller to relocate to Australia and then to Hawaii during the late 1960s. He was stranded in Vancouver when a tour with Jon Hendricks' Revue folded in 1970 and he was gradually working his way back to the United States when chance brought him to Edmonton. A few gigs here with pianist Tommy Banks cemented their friendship and the singer returned to settle in Edmonton, becoming a Canadian citizen in 1973.

Before long he was a fixture of the local music scene. In addition to leading the Big Miller Blues Machine, his association with Banks' Big Band brought him a Juno Award for his part in a live recording at the 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival. He toured Japan and Europe as a musical ambassador for the provincial and federal governments. Miller taught at the Banff Centre, collaborated with Decidedly Jazz Dance, and even enjoyed a short film career with an appearance in the notorious, locally produced feature Big Meat Eater (1982). The National Film Board produced a documentary about his life and music, Big And The Blues, in 1981.

In his later years Miller could be heard singing an eclectic range of jazz and blues material, scatting up a storm and playing occasional trombone. He died in 1992.

The unveiling takes place Saturday at 3 p. m. at Big Miller Park, corner of 102nd Street and 86th Avenue, with a reception to follow.