Interview: With Aziza Miller, Harlem Alicia Keys Mentor, Educator And More

By Robert Walker

Aziza Miller is a masterful pianist who has carved out an amazing music career spanning some 40 years now. Her name you may not readily recognize, but for those avid music lovers, Aziza is a legendary music icon in the R&B and Jazz world.

Aziza is a former high school jazz chorus teacher and mentor to Harlem’s Alicia Keys. Recipient of the Presidential Scholar Distinguished teacher award in 1997 in DC at the Kennedy Center from President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Aziza was Natalie Coles’s first female music director early on in their careers, from 1975-1980, and then they both went on to other music ventures, and reunited musically in 2005 where they continued their professional relationship right up until Natalie’s passing in December of 2015.

In fact, Natalie Cole’s last performance was with Aziza on stage at the “Iridium” in New York where the two performed “La Costa”, the beautiful classic jazz piece with music written by her and lyrics by Natalie.

Aziza’s association with Natalie Cole allowed her to travel the world on tour and exposed her to music industry professionals and artists she may never have had the pleasure to meet or work with including Oprah Winfrey’s Big Give, the Plymouth Jazz Festival, and at Sterling Castle in Scotland, to name a few.

Today, Aziza is close to Natalie’s son, Robert “Robby” Yancy, a gifted drummer. They have performed together keeping the legacy of what Aziza and Natalie created, alive in song.

This Journey of Love, is a retrospective work from Aziza who pays homage to the great musician artists like Natalie, and to her music mentor, Horace Silver, who not only impacted her life, but that of people around the world musically.

Aziza says, “The inspiration to write the songs on This Journey of Love came after a dream I had where Natalie appeared to me and said, it’s time to do music again.”

Music Journalist for the Urban Music Scene publication says of Aziza’s CD, “This Journey of Love” is elegant, heartfelt and varied in its grooves, Aziza Miller’s The Journey of Love is a filler-free winner that should be a primer for recording artists today. Six good songs are better than 14 or more bloated with fat. Less is most often more.”

One thing is for sure, Aziza Miller has not just released a great record, but is herself a great musician, songwriter, and artist deserving of all of the accolades to come with the release of This Journey of Love.

Here’s a Q&A with Ms. Miller.

Robert Walker: Aziza, you have been involved professionally in music now for many years. What was your first professional job in music and who did you work with?

AM: My first professional job was playing electric piano with an R&B Club date band led by singer Billy Hamlin.

RW: Many people now know you as Aziza Miller, but in your start with music, what was the name people would remember you by, and what prompted the name change…was it to spark a new chapter in your music career?

AM: Linda Williams was the name at the start of my career in the mid 70’s with Natalie Cole. Linda is my birth name. Williams was the ex-married name. 1990, I searched for a name which meant beloved, blessed and highly favored and that name is AZIZA. Miller is my maiden name. Yes it was a rebirth spiritually for me. I needed it.

RW: Of course, many people are still mourning the passing of Natalie Cole, a dear friend of yours and for whom you were her music director for many years.
How did you meet Natalie and what was that time like when she became the music darling of the industry with the hit song, ‘This Will Be’?

AM: I received a phone call inviting me to audition for Natalie Cole here in NYC. I did and was hired on the spot.It (touring) was hectic, demanding, educational and a very exciting time. She was and is the best singer I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with and I’ve worked with quite a few in my lifetime. Natalie was a genius, a perfectionist from the start who knew what she wanted and exactly how to articulate it, as a result, it was easy for me to fulfill my role as her Music Director/pianist and friend. A perfection union!!

RW: You are close to Natalie’s son, Robert. How is he doing and are you more Auntie and friend, or is it mostly a music relationship that you guys have?

AM: My relationship with Rob, her son is solid! Period!

RW: What is your hope for Natalie’s Legacy ~ what would you like people to remember Natalie for and her contributions to music?

AM: My hope would be for her music legacy, the enormous collections of her recordings and videos to live on for as long as there is life upon this earth. She comes from and is Music Royalty after all and Natalie Cole has rightly earned her place in all the music history books and she did it her way!

RW: Your new record is called, ‘This Journey of Love’, what number is this new release in your discography, and what would you tell your fans, seasoned and young, about this collection of songs?

AM: Yes my new CD is called This Journey Of Love. It is my 5th project thus far. This recent collection of 6 songs were created out of the pain due to loss as well as the deep love in my heart for Natalie Cole, my sister in music and my other life long mentor and friend, jazz pianist/composer Horace Silver. I hope my fans, seasoned and young, as you say will enjoy and add this cd to their music collection!

RW: We were talking recently about how the industry defines what genres of music are in or out, and how that impacts so many wonderful artists. So, if you are in that ‘Smooth Jazz’ classification, you are almost certainly limited industry wide, even though people love the music. What are your thoughts about that and how would you describe you as an artist?

AM: I find it difficult to describe myself as an artist sometimes because I’m still evolving, growing, and creating melodies, harmonies and poetry! However, There is definitely a jazz component to what I do. But jazz has been shifted, twisted, redefined, bottom- lined, fused, confused, grooved, smoothed, urbanized, traditionalized, reinvented and misrepresented so…I don’t know, lol. I just go with my flow and let labels go!

RW: You have a spoken word Jazz piece that I just love called, Diva. Of course, we have a lot of people running with that title today, but you actually wrote this song 20 years ago. What is a Diva to you?

AM: Lol! I didn’t write Diva 20 yrs ago. More like 14 yrs ago! Diva, to me, is a title reserved and deserved being served to those whose skills can support such a claim, thereby earning them the right to wear the name Diva.

RW: You site Aretha, Bette, Patti, Liza, Diana, Leontyne, and others as Divas of note in your song. Who would you site as today’s Diva’s and who do you like musically out there now that maybe reminds you of Natalie or just someone you really admire?

AM: Some of today’s Divas in my humble opinion are Beyonce, Mariah Carey, to name a few.

RW: So, what words of wisdom would you give to that young lady, in particular, who might be a college student with a major in music, either a musician or singer, or both, that empowers them to move forward with their dream?

AM: My words of wisdom goes like this-Learn as much as you can about the BUSINESS of this music business. Learn as much as you can about the language of music, better known as theory, ear training, sight reading, music vocabulary so that you can confidently, respectfully and intelligently communicate what it is you want to experience consistently in terms of music accompaniment from those sharing that stage with you when you perform anytime, anywhere. Be Proactive in your Destiny and make it your Journey of Love! You’ll be happier for it.

RW: It has been a real treat for me Aziza to meet you through our mutual friend and colleague, Jazz Saxophonist, Audley Reid. You are a real inspiration and I wish you abounding success with your new record, ‘This Journey of Love’.

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