Born: April 3, 1903 | Died: May 20, 1932 Primary Instrument: Trumpet
Bubber Miley's hot trumpet was featured - growling and moaning - on the nightly broadcasts of Duke Ellington's Washingtonians from the Kentucky Club, New York City in the twenties. He wrote the bands early theme-tune, “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” and was pivotal in the transition of the Washingtonians from a sweet society band to the hot jungle band which sparked national attention. This period of Ellington's music saw the recording of much fine traditional/classic jazz featuring Miley.
James Bubber Miley was born in Aiken South Carolina on 3 April 1903 and his family moved to New York when he was six. The family was predisposed to encourage his musical development; his father was an amateur guitar player and his sisters performed as a professional vocal group (the South Carolina Trio). Bubber first studied trombone in school then switched to trumpet. In 1918, at age 15, Bubber joined the Navy, where he served 18 months as a band boy. After his discharge, in 1919, he returned to New York and got his first professional job with a band called the Carolina Five. By early 1921, he was playing with Willie Gant's band. The band was heard by Mamie Smith, and she hired Bubber to replace Johnny Dunn. For the next year, Bubber toured and made recordings (Bubber's first) with Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds.
Where did he learn his skill with a mute? On the road in Chicago with Mamie's group, Bubber dropped in to listen to Joe King Oliver's band and came under the influence of this New Orleans cornet legend. Nightly, Bubber returned to absorb Oliver's use of mutes and thrill to Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. In this way his playing took on essential elements of the New Orleans tradition, especially the blues. Miley pioneered the use of the straight and the plunger mute in combination, fusing two of Oliver's techniques.
While sitting in with Willie The Lion Smith's band, at the Capitol Palace (NYC). He was first heard by members of the Washingtonians, including young Duke Ellington. On September 1, 1923, Bubber Miley made his first appearance with the Washingtonians. At that time, the band was still under the leadership of Elmer Snowden. Bubber played regularly with the band, but he did not become a permanent member, until June 1926. During the interim, he made numerous recordings, especially in accompaniment to popular jazz vocalists. In the same period, Bubber also recorded with Clarence Williams, Perry Bradford, the Six Black Diamonds, the Choo Choo Jazzers, the Kansas City Five, Charles Booker's Jazz Band and the Texas Blue Destroyers. Of course, he also recorded with the Washingtonians, which made a couple of Victor tests, under the name of Snowden's Novelty Orchestra (Oct 1923), as well as the band's first recordings under Ellington's leadership (Nov 1924).
During the summer of 1926, Bubber was present in Ellington's band, as they toured New England, and returned with them, in September, to complete their last eight months of residence, at the Kentucky Club. On December 4, 1927, Bubber, Ellington and the band made their landmark debut at the Cotton Club. Except for two sessions on which he accompanied vocalist, Martha Copeland, all of Bubber's recordings, from June 1926 to January 1929, were with Ellington. Alongside Miley were Tricky Sam Nanton (tbn), Otto Hardwick (clt/alto), Sonny Greer (dms), Fred Guy (bnj) and of course Ellington at the piano. On recordings from this period you will hear a tight New Orleans style ensemble playing blues and blues influenced themes with tremendous vitality.
Great tracks from the Ellington band in the twenties are “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” and “Creole Love Call.” Miley had a hand in each of these compositions and is prominently featured throughout - his growling muted tone is virtually a signature of the band at this time. These recordings have been reissued and are available on CDs, for example Columbia Jazz Masterpieces: The Okeh Ellington and the Bluebird reissue: Early Ellington 1927 -1934.
As the story goes, Bubber's drinking habit led to him becoming unreliable and under pressure from Duke, left the band. After he left the Ellington band in 1929, Miley visited Paris with Noble Sissle, and then returned to various gigs in the Big Apple. Beginning in January 1930, Bubber made several recordings with Leo Reisman's band, Carroll Dickerson, Jelly Roll Morton, Hoagy Carmichael, ( a session which, also, included Bix Beiderbecke) and his own Mileage Makers, which did four sessions for Victor. All of this was in the year 1930.
In June 1931, Bubber made his final recordings. Six months later, in January 1932, he and his band were in their opening week, as the feature of Harlem Scandals, when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He entered the hospital April 1932 and died about a month later on 20th May, he was only 29 years old.
Bubber Miley had a profound influence on his successors and his style is emulated to this day. His plunger mute style was passed down in the Ellington orchestra to Cootie Wlilliams, Ray Nance and Rex Stewart. For Duke Ellington and members of his band, Bubber's playing style was a revelation. In fact, without Bubber Miley's trumpet and the compositions he wrote, it is arguable whether the jazz world would have ever regarded Duke Ellington's name with any significance, at all.