A recent Sunday morning turned a little hectic for drummer Allison Miller when her 2-year-old daughter Josie became fidgety as Miller answered the phone for an interview. It was the day before Miller was to begin a week-long run sitting in with The 8G Band, the house band for NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” The former Kutztown University drumming instructor, who taught there for about a decade, politely asked to delay the interview a few minutes.
Life for Miller, a Maryland native now based in Brooklyn, doesn’t figure to become much more settled over the next few months. She’ll hit the road with Natalie Merchant, former lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, for a 10-date run in March in the U.S. and Europe before launching and leading her own spring tour with her jazz-based sextet Boom-Tic-Boom. Boom-Tic-Boom’s East Coast tour begins at Bloomsburg University’s Carver Hall Wednesday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m. Merchant’s tour sold out no less than four of 10 dates, which includes performances at London’s Royal Albert Hall, New York’s Beacon Theatre and the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles.
“My schedule is crazy. I’m a band leader,” said Miller, 41, who spent a stint last fall playing in the house band for “The Meredith Vieira Show.” Miller spoke gratefully of her partner, vocalist Rachel Friedman, who is Josie’s birth mother and a stay-at-home mom while Miller is on the road. “I just played Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center (in New York City). I’ve got the Seth Meyers show this week. When (regular Seth Meyers show drummer and Saturday Night Live alumnus) Fred Armisen can’t play in the band, they bring in guest drummers. My schedule is all over the place.”
Miller’s Boom-Tic-Boom, which at BU will include Gary Versace on piano, Jenny Sheinman on violin, Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Ben Goldberg on clarinet and Todd Sickafoose on bass, will be touring in support of its new album, “Otis was a Polar Bear,” named after a former dog of Miller’s, which was released April 8. Miller said those attending the show at BU should expect an all-instrumental set heavy on tracks from the new album, most of them original compositions by Miller.
“I would say it’s improvised instrumental music,” said Miller, who teaches her craft these days at The New School, an arts college in Manhattan. “It’s jazz-based. Some chamber music. Cinematic and rocking at certain points. I’m a jazz drummer, but I’ve played so many styles. My writing naturally represents all those styles.”
Miller began performing with Natalie Merchant when Merchant launched a solo career in the 1990s. Miller plays drums on “three or four” of Merchant’s solo studio albums, said Miller, who has also toured with singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco and played on “four or five” of DiFranco’s albums. In recent years, Miller has also recorded and toured with Grammy-nominated Americana artist Brandi Carlile. Miller began playing drums at the age of “8 or 9,” she recalled. Her mother, Ruthanna Miller, was a pianist and church choir director for three decades. Her father, Jon Miller, sang in that choir and was an audio engineer.
“My dad had a recording studio in the house growing up,” Miller fondly recalled of her childhood home in Montgomery County, Md., outside of Washington, D.C. “It became a place where D.C. (jazz musicians) would come to record — Keter Betts, Etta Jones, Houston Person. So many jazz greats played there. I would sit on the staircase and listen. I didn’t realize how lucky I was.”
Miller suggested she knew she would be a musician while still in the womb. Her mother started her out on piano, the instrument Miller still turns to while composing new material. But Miller insisted on playing drums.
“I was one of those babies. I knew what I wanted to do when I came out,” Miller said with a laugh. “Before I could speak, I was beating along to the songs my parents were playing on the record player. I think my parents secretly hoped I would not be into (drums). You know, the drums are very loud. I’m very grateful they never said to me, ‘Are you sure you want to play the drums?’ Because not too many girls play the drums. When I first started, I would play on a practice pad — a piece of rubber. Eventually, my parents said, ‘She’s still playing on that piece of rubber.’ They got me my first drum kit when I was 12.”
Around that time, Miller took up drumming lessons with her first instructor, Walter Salb, an ornery jazz drummer whom Miller still considers her greatest musical mentor and influence.
“He was ‘the guy’ in Montgomery County, Maryland,” Miller said. “Immediately, people would say, ‘Call Walt.’ He was the center of a drumming community. I would go over to his house and listen to records. His place was a respite from the rest of teenage life. He never had the TV on. He only played vinyl.”
After Salb’s death, Miller established a scholarship fund in his name to help young musicians pay for college. “He and I became really close. He was like a grandfather and a best friend. He would call me and say, ‘What are you doing with your career?’ When he passed, he left me all his instruments, including a grand piano. I still have it in my apartment.”